Prime Minister blasts Norvik 'provocation', Defense Ministry warns of disinformation

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The smoke-and-mirrors world of Latvia's financial sector at the moment took another unexpected turn February 20 with Prime Minister Māris Kučinskis and Finance Minister Dana Reizniece-Ozola sharply criticizing the leadership of Norvik bank.

Their words came after a cabinet meeting Tuesday not long after central bank governor Ilmārs Rimšēvičs also launched a full-scale assault on Norvik and its owner, Russian-born British citizen Grigory Guselnikov following a long-bubbling animosity.    

On February 19 the Associated Press published a sensational story in which Guselnikov and Norvik chairman Oliver Bramwell accused Rimšēvičs of attempted extortion - a claim denied by Rimšēvičs himself. The story, meanwhile, has gone global, splashing Latvia's name in connection with mafia-like activities and links to Russia around the internet and newspapers. It was this fact that provoked the ire of the government.

"What Norvik is doing at the moment is a provocation," Kučinskis told reporters.

Reizniece-Ozola went even further, saying: "What occurred yesterday in the international sphere can be seen as an active smear campaign against Latvia. If there are suspicions of illegal activity they should be directed towards law enforcement institutions, not turned into a publicity campaign."   

Kučinskis also said that despite calling for Rimšēvičs to step down just 24 hours earlier (as did Reizniece-Ozola), the fact that he had decided not to do so did not change anything.

In fact, it is impossible to dismiss the governor of the central bank before his term is up if he does not choose to go voluntarily, the Prime Minister said.  

"The law does not provide for this. I think that it will not interfere with the investigation, and once again I want to emphasize that this detention of Mr Rimšēvičs confirmed by the Corruption Prevention and Combating Bureau (KNAB) is not related to either ABLV Bank or Norvik Bank," said the prime minister.

Yesterday KNAB chief Jekabs Straume did indeed say that Rimšēcičs' detention on suspicion of soliciting a bribe was not linked to any bank currently doing business in Latvia - which prompted suspicions that it might be linked to now-defunct Trasta Komercbanka.

As previously reported by LSM, Norvik has lodged an arbitration request alleging "unfair, arbitrary, improperly motivated and unreasonable regulatory treatment." Until Monday it had not named the official it accused of the unfair treatment - but broke its silence in the international press in spectacular fashion.

In an even more unexpected intervention, the Defense Ministry waded into the controversy saying there was a "high probability" that a "large-scale information operation" was underway against Latvia which it likened to pre-election campaigns in the USA, France and Germany.

"An analysis by the Ministry of Defense shows that the source of the operation is the Twitter account of the Associated Press journalist Carlo Piovano (posted on Twitter on February 19, 19:05) with a link to AP News and a photo showing the President of the Bank of Latvia I. Rimšēvičs together with several other persons. Checking the photo in the database of the international photo agency "Scanpix", it is concluded that the particular photo was placed on it yesterday, on February 19, 2018, not already in 2010, and has been posted by a third party," said the Defense Ministry.

The Ministry of Defense also drew attention to the fact that the news and photograph had been reported by many newspapers and outlets that did not normally report on Latvia or financial news citing India Everyday, Idaho Press, The North Platte Telegraph, Conservative Angle, The Fresno Bee and Last Minute Christmas as examples.

"All this suggests that this is probably a very large-scale information operation to defame the image of Latvia in the Western countries and to undermine the public's trust in the state. It is fairly likely that this is not the end of the information operation, and the sequel will follow," it warned, and suggested this was a prequel to October parliamentary elections.

However, despite the Defense Ministry's warning it should also be considered that many outlets may have featured news of the Latvian central bank governor and ECB governing board member's arrest for the simple fact that such an event is unprecedented and that AP is the largest newswire in the world.

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