'Oligarch case' transcripts scandalize Latvia

Conversations recorded by anti-graft authorities in 2009-2011 reveal the influence of so-called oligarchs within the Riga Commercial Port, airBaltic and other prominent companies, painting a picture of political power subverted to serve the business interests of the few, reported the Ir news weekly that released transcripts of the conversations on June 15.

The transcripts are based on conversations recorded by the Corruption Prevention and Combating Bureau at the Rīdzene hotel as part of the so-called 'oligarch case' (recently closed, citing lack of evidence). The case was started in 2011 after the Saeima voted against allowing law enforcement officers to carry out a search at the residence of former MP and Transport Minister Ainārs Šlesers, one of those recorded on tape.

Following this, Valdis Zatlers, then president, made the shock decision of dissolving the Latvian parliament after hearing the original recordings and reacting with shock and disgust as a cadre of wealthy businessmen discussed how they planned to divide both political power and national economic assets among themselves.

The case revolved around suspicions that oligarchs Ainārs Šlesers, Andris Šķēle and Aivars Lembergs were the true owners of the Riga Commercial Port and that deals had been struck between Lembergs and Šlesers to bribe an official at the Riga Freeport.

Such rumours had long been rife, but the recordings provide substantial corroboration and perhaps even more clearly show breathtaking levels of cynicism and self-interest among people who often like to portray themselves working for the good of the country. 

Both Šķēle and Šlesers were indeed revealed to be among the owners of the Riga Commercial Port last summer.

Jaunajā IR - Ko Rīdzenē runāja oligarhi, visdāsnāk atalgoto amatpersonu TOP, Arstarulsmirus sapratis dzīves jēgu. https://t.co/ZFkF6m9fgd pic.twitter.com/N9rlva4vCZ

— ir (@irLV) June 14, 2017

Based on the transcripts it has obtained from an anonymous source, the Ir weekly claims that Šlesers, who was Transport Minister from 2004 to 2009, arranged a job for his sister at the airBaltic national airline in talks with then-airBaltic chairman and chief executive Bertolt Flick.

Šlesers also discussed which companies should move their accounts to the Krājbanka bank (which subsequently went bust in 2011, necessitating a state-backed payout to depositors) and discussed undermining then-Prosecutor General Jānis Maizītis and managing to procure a permit to build a house in Jūrmala in a restricted zone, the news weekly claims.

Ir concludes that the discussions show hidden business deals on the part of the oligarchs and question why the authorities were unable or willing to lead the case to a conviction given the content of the transcripts.

A transcript from 2011 shows Šlesers debating with his business partner Viesturs Koziols about coming out in the open about his ownership of parts of the Riga Commercial Port.

Koziols advises him against this, saying "They'll scream and shout that, while being [Transport] minister, you had planned on becoming an owner and made decisions favorable to yourself. [...] The rest of your sides are all strong but your weak point is just this, that you made money off of politics." 

The Ir weekly further claims that many of the conversations touch upon a planned joint port company between Šlesers, Lembergs, Šķēle and Russian billionaire Dmitry Mazepin. Šlesers pulled strings at the Riga City Council by ordering Ralfs Kļaviņš, the head of the Riga Commercial Port, to meet councilman Vjačeslavs Stepaņenko so that the joint company could get the necessary permits.

"Say that this is the project that Putin said is very important," Šlesers reportedly told Kļaviņš.

Šlesers is also alleged to have organized meetings with current vice-mayor Andris Ameriks (a former party colleague - his Honor to Serve Riga party is in effect the successor to Šlesers' defunct For The Good of Latvia party) to move the project forward. At one point Ameriks suggests paying Askolds Kļaviņš, the head of the Environment Department at the Riga City Council, to do some errands.

The company (Riga Fertilizer Terminal) received the necessary permits in 2011 and was unveiled 2013. It now posts profits of about €6m a year, the Ir weekly reports.

The weekly then goes on to report on scheming between Flick, Šlesers, Lembergs and owner of Krājbanka Vladimir Antonov to take control of the airBaltic airline. 

Again, rumours of involvement of the oligarchs and Antonov (currently fighting extradition from the UK to Lithuania over the collapse of his Krajbanka parent company Snoras) have been widely discussed for years, and the transcripts provide more evidence that they were much more than gossip.

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