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Latvia: Prospective Prime Minister Will Need Survival Skills

By Peter Zvagulis and Breffni O'Rourke

Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga has nominated the mayor of the capital Riga to be the country's next prime minister. Andris Berzins is an astute politician with a good reputation, but he will need all his skill if he is to survive for long on Latvia's national political stage, where the average life-span of a government is only about a year. The head of RFE/RL's Latvian Service, Peter Zvagulis, talks about the potential premier's prospects and pitfalls with correspondent Breffni O'Rourke.

Prague, 28 April 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Andris Berzins, the man nominated this week to be the next prime minister of Latvia, is a force to be reckoned with.

As mayor of Riga, he has understood how to use the influential post to build his political profile. And he has done much to revive that once-elegant city. As RFE/RL's Peter Zvagulis puts it:

"He's a very charismatic person, he is liked very much at any rate by voters, inhabitants of Riga. He is well respected, he is considered to be clever and perhaps a good manager."

During his term as mayor, Berzins has managed to attract high-quality foreign investment to Riga, including a major office building project by the Swedish company Skanska. That project has been accepted even by the Green Party because of its environmentally friendly character.

And he successfully organized a campaign to reconstruct the historic Hanseatic League building known as the Melngalvju, which has risen from the ashes of its ruin in World War II.

Of course, the picture is not all rosy. Much of Riga's infrastructure, including its heating system, is still crumbling, and by stepping out of next year's mayoral elections, Berzins avoids a possible voter backlash.

There are also questions about the even-handedness of his commercial dealings, with media allegations surfacing as far away as Sweden that he has favored some companies at the expense of others.

But on the whole, Berzins comes to national office with strong credibility as a good manager. And he has been careful to construct the web of contacts he will need to help sustain him as prime minister. As Zvagulis says:

"He is a political insider, he has very good working relationships with practically every politician in Latvia. He comes from Latvia's Way [party], and he has very good relationships not just with politicians but with businessmen as well, so he really knows what to do and what the rules of the game are."

Latvia's Way was part of the three-party center-right coalition headed by the outgoing premier Andris Skele, who resigned earlier this month amid a sharp disagreement within the coalition over privatization. Berzins is hoping for the support of those parties and possibly of others.

If he is approved by parliament, he will head the eighth government in Latvia in the last eight years. The frequent changes of government are the result of the unstable coalitions which characterize the Latvian political scene.

Berzins will have to walk that same tightrope. He is now busy trying to build a government, and the first friction among prospective coalition partners is evident. Berzins says he does not want any former prime minister as a member of his government. That would exclude a host of prominent politicians, including his predecessor Skele of the People's Party. The People's Party is far from happy about that.

There's speculation that if Berzins cannot form a strong government, then he will give up the attempt altogether and withdraw his nomination. It is said he is not interested in heading a merely transitional administration.

If he does eventually succeed, his astute political sense may help him survive in power longer than most.

Berzins is not expected to make any major changes to Latvia's foreign policy priorities of early membership of the European Union and the NATO alliance.