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Latvia: Coalition Problems Pour Cold Water On EU 'Yes' Vote

By Ieva Raubisko

A convincing majority of Latvians voted in favor of Latvia's entry into the European Union. But the joy turned sour when one of the coalition parties instigated a government crisis by refusing to work together with current Prime Minister Einars Repse.

Riga, 22 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Latvians over the weekend said an unexpectedly strong 'yes' to joining the European Union, with 67 percent backing Latvia's entry in the bloc and only 32.3 percent against it.

The results of the 20 September vote exceeded pre-referendum forecasts that 56 percent to 63 percent would vote in favor of the EU membership. The total turnout was 72.5 percent.

Officials didn't hide their relief and satisfaction when early results indicated the outcome would be positive. Prime Minister Einars Repse told a cheering crowd of young people in Riga that joining the EU was one of the three major decisions in Latvian history.

"Latvian people have had three major decisions: one on establishing the state of Latvia (in 1918), another on restoring the independent Latvian state (in 1990), and today's decision on joining the family of developed and democratic European countries. I congratulate you on a likely victory in the referendum!" Repse said.

Latvia's population had remained somewhat skeptical about the EU until last week when undecided voters appeared to be swayed into supporting the government's top priority.

Sociologists say public opinion was influenced by the positive outcome in Estonia on joining the EU just a week before the Latvian vote. Part of the Latvian population began to fear isolation if Latvia rejected the EU.

Aigars Freimanis, head of sociological research company Latvijas Fakti, says economic issues that dominated the EU debate a couple of months ago gave way to political matters.

"Political factors were a good topic for the last two weeks of the pre-referendum campaign. The main issue was that the European Union is an additional guarantee, together with NATO, of our independence and of our future," Freimanis said.

Political analyst Janis Ikstens said an advertising campaign was one of several factors that helped to sway those who were undecided.

"Firstly, there was an intense advertising campaign advocating a 'yes' vote; secondly, there were calls by different politicians, including the president and prime minister, to vote in favor of the EU; and thirdly, an atmosphere was created where all potential 'no-voters' were perceived as masochists and...kinds of half-wits [as shown in TV ads]," Ikstens says.

Preliminary results indicate voters in the Latvian capital Riga and in Latgale, the country's eastern region bordering Russia and Belarus, were the most negative. Both Riga and Latgale have large populations of non-Latvians, 49 percent and 47 percent respectively, the considerable part of them Russian speakers.

But Nils Muiznieks, minister for special assignments and society integration affairs, said although sociological surveys suggest support for the EU had been weaker among Russian speakers, the vote shouldn't be interpreted exclusively along ethnic lines.

He said that in traditionally backward Latgale, socio-economic factors influenced the vote.

"I think in Latgale the primary factor was socio-economic. There both Latvians and Russian-speakers were more skeptical than the norm. The second important factor was the Russian-language media -- there was much less information about the EU in the Russian-language media in the last several months. Moreover, the government campaign paid too little attention to Russian-speaking voters," Muiznieks said. "And third, some minority activists tried to link their stand on education reform [switch to Latvian as the main language of instruction at the country's minority high schools in Sept 2004] to support for the EU. Some activists hoped that they could blackmail the government into changing the education reform by saying: 'If you don't change it, we'll vote against the EU.'"

The polling stations had hardly closed, however, when Eriks Jekabsons, the head of the Latvian First Party (LPP), a member of the government coalition, issued a statement saying Latvia is on the brink of dictatorship. Jekabsons suggested Latvian Prime Minister Repse, whose leadership has been seen as too authoritarian, should be replaced by someone else.

The announcement caused an upheaval in political circles revealing cracks in the four-party government coalition -- visible for several weeks, but suppressed till the vote on the EU.

With the internal political row threatening to overshadow the vote on the EU, the prime minister and the head of the LPP agreed in a live television debate on the referendum night they could still work together.

But today three coalition parties -- the LPP, the right-of-center For Fatherland and Freedom, and the Union of Greens and Farmers -- announced their loss of confidence in Repse.

The prime minister said he wouldn't step down.

Prospects for a new cabinet remain unclear. Sociologist Aigars Freimanis says it would be impossible to establish a stable government without Repse's New Era party, whose 26 seats make it the biggest party in the 100-strong parliament:

"From my point of view, it's impossible to establish any stable government without the participation of Einars Repse party [New Era]. Now this problem is in the hands of Einars Repse. [It] depends on what's happening in his party," Freimanis said.

Meanwhile, there are concerns that political instability on the domestic front might get in the way of the tasks Latvia still has to complete before joining the European Union.