Prague, 14 January 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Early this week (Jan. 11) Latvia's Russian-language newspaper Respublika printed an interview it said was with NATO Secretary General Javier Solana in which he expressed criticism of Latvia's democracy and its laws. The interview was said to have taken place during Solana's visit to the country last June.
Yesterday, the leading Latvian daily Diena reported that the interview might have been a falsification. The paper quoted Latvia's Secretary of State in the Foreign Ministry, Maris Riekstins, as saying that Solana's office had disavowed the remarks attributed to NATO's Secretary General. Riekstins also told the paper that the interview might, in effect, have been a "provocation."
Also yesterday, Latvian Foreign Ministry spokesman Toms Baumanis said at a special press conference in Riga that Solana had sent a letter to Respublika, saying that the interview "has never taken place" and "should be regarded as a complete falsification." Baumanis also said that Solana had demanded that Respublika formally retract the entire story.
Today, Respublika published NATO's letter and admitted that the "interview" was actually made up of a series of apparently unrelated remarks allegedly made by Solana during his visit. But it failed to retract the story.
The incident has rapidly emerged as a major event in Riga, with far-reaching implications for Latvian politics.
The purported interview was conducted by Mikhail Mamilov, a journalist who had worked at the Russian daily Moskovskiie Novosti during the 1980s and then at Latvian television. But more recently, he was appointed spokesman of Latvia's Way, the leading party in the government coalition.
Reacting to the incident, the Secretary General of Latvia's Way, Juris Lorencs, told RFE/RL yesterday that "everybody in the party is shocked by what has happened" and said that the leadership is determined to draw appropriate conclusions.
"On Monday (Jan. 18) the party leadership will meet and ask Mamilov to present the recorded tape of the alleged interview. If he cannot provide that, we will think what to do next, even to fire him."
Today, Andrejs Pantelejevs, head of the party's parliamentary group, formally suspended Mamilov as the party's spokesman.
Also today, leading politicians from several parties expressed outrage at the publication. They included Maris Vitols from the opposition People's Party as well as Juris Sinka, a deputy from the Fatherland and Freedom party and Egils Baldzens, chairman of the Social Democratic parliamentary group.
Mamilov today admitted in a statement published in the Respublika that he was at "fault," but expressed hope that the incident would "be regarded as closed." He added, however, that "none of the ideas expressed in the interview was new and all have been heard in (Latvian) media previously."
But this only fueled rumors and speculation about the reasons behind the publication. Lorensc, head of Latvia's Way, told RFE/RL that "the case is about the ethics of journalism."
Nonetheless, it seems natural to ask whether the purported interview was intended to weaken the Latvian public's resolve to gain membership in NATO. Latvia has been making major efforts to join NATO, regarding membership in the alliance as the ultimate security guarantee.
NATO has held out the hope that Latvia, as well as Lithuania and Estonia, may eventually join, but has stopped short of providing any indication as to when this might take place.
Russia has strongly opposed the Baltic states' efforts to enter the western alliance.
It may be that Respublika's publication reflected the ire of the Russian-speaking part of the Latvian population, which has long been frustrated by government restrictions on its civil rights.
More than 30 percent of Latvia's population are ethnic Russians, most of whom arrived in the country during the decades of Soviet rule. Until recently, most of the Russian speakers were restricted from gaining Latvian citizenship, complicating relations between Latvia and Russia.
Last year, Latvia liberalized its citizenship law, but it still has to make changes to comply with international standards on minority rights.
Speaking yesterday in Riga, OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) Commissioner for Minorities Max van der Stoel said that the parts of the citizenship law dealing with language ought to be changed to conform to standards.