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Latvia: Government Forms New Coalition, But Will It Bring Changes?

Latvia's New Era party has reached a coalition deal with three other center-right parties to form a cabinet. By joining together, the coalition controls 55 seats in the country's 100-member parliament. The Latvian parliament is meeting today for its first session since last month's general election.

Prague, 5 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- This morning, as the first parliamentary session got under way, Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga asked the leader of the New Era party, Einras Repse, to accept the post of prime minister and to form a new government.

New Era, which emerged as the strongest force after elections on 5 October, responded by forming a coalition with the First Party of Christian Democrats, the centrist union of Greens and Farmers, and the right-wing For Fatherland and Freedom Party.

The new ruling coalition controls 55 of the 100 seats in the Latvian parliament. Two other large parties, the left-wing For Human Rights in a United Latvia bloc led by Janis Jurkans and the conservative People's Party, hold 25 and 20 parliamentary seats, respectively, but have been left outside the government.

Analysts say the new government is not likely to alter Latvia's standing policy of integration into NATO and the European Union. Its changes in domestic reforms are likewise expected to be minor.

Nils Muiznieks is the director of the Latvian Center for Human Rights and Ethnic Studies. He told RFE/RL that Latvians are frustrated with politics-as-usual and will be looking to Repse to fulfill his campaign promise to fight government corruption. "Certain ministries had become almost the property of certain political parties. They have been under the leadership of certain parties for a long time, and this had kind of a very corruptive influence," Muiznieks said.

Aigars Freimanis, the director of the Latvias Fakti polling agency, agrees. But he said he doubts any serious reforms will take place. "I think nothing special will happen. There is no basis for it. The only thing that will happen, almost for sure -- and I think they will start it almost immediately -- is that [the cabinet] will take serious steps to shake up the bureaucracy in the higher echelons of power," Freimanis said.

Freimanis said many Latvians see the authorities as abusing their power and hope to see punishment doled out to at least some government officials. But Freimanis said the new ruling coalition has no program for economic or social reforms and is facing what may be a long start-up period of parliamentary debate. Freimanis said it is possible the coalition will collapse before the four parties decide on any firm program for reform.

Muiznieks said he hopes the government will address the question of Latvia's national minorities, particularly Russian speakers, who make up some 40 percent of Latvia's population. He approved of the coalition's plan to appoint a special government minister for social integration. "It seems as if you could institutionalize the social-integration policy with a ministerial post, which would probably be good for the process in terms of being able to get more budgetary money for this because it would have a minister to fight for the budget," Muiznieks said.

Latvia's current national integration program is led by a state agency and has an integration fund that receives money from the state budget and from the EU. The program encourages Russian speakers to naturalize and learn the Latvian language. Until now, it has functioned as an extension of the Justice Ministry, but, as Muiznieks said: "It has been a child without parents. Nobody really wanted to claim ownership of it."

Muiznieks said the future of the agency will depend on the person chosen as social-integration minister. Muiznieks said there is a "wide diversity" of opinions within the four-party coalition, from the nationalist Fatherland and Freedom Party to the minority-friendly First Party of Christian Democrats.

Raita Karnite is the director of the Latvian Institute of Economics. She told RFE/RL the economy should be the new government's primary concern, but that Repse is unlikely to introduce serious reforms.

Instead, she said he will continue to follow the recommendations of the International Monetary Fund and other Western financial institutions. He is not likely to do anything substantial to bolster Latvian businesses and the local economy, Karnite said. "We have very good macroeconomic indicators, but we have nothing to export. The biggest sector in the Latvian economy is trade [in other countries' goods]," Karnite said.

Karnite said to rely only on the buying and selling of foreign goods is a sign of a weak economy. She said some of the recommendations by Western financial institutions should not be followed as blindly as in the past and more support should be given to local businessmen and industries. However, she does not believe Repse is likely to demonstrate much independence as a politician.

Freimanis said there are serious dangers looming for the coalition government. The fact that the For Human Rights in a United Latvia bloc, which is strongly supported by Russian speakers, and the conservative People's Party have both been left outside the government might cause instability. "The two biggest parties, which together make 45 percent with 45 seats have been left outside the government. It is clear that these two parties are two powerful magnets that may attract the parliamentary deputies who now belong to the ruling coalition," Freimanis said.

Freimanis said that these two parties may pose a serious risk for the governing coalition in the future.