Viewpoint: Hopeful moves towards the changing of Latvia's old guard

Take note – story published 5 years and 11 months ago

With so much attention currently focused on parliamentary elections due to take place October 6 - despite the common opinion that that they will result in very little change -  it is possible that some more important, if less obviously significant events are taking place under our noses right now.

The last couple of weeks have seen three new appointments made in high-ranking public positions that will play significant roles in deciding Latvia's destiny over the next decade.

Ilze Znotiņa started work June 1 at the Kontroles dienests (KD, Control department), the main agency dealing with Latvia's anti-money laundering efforts.

The same day, Maris Skujiņš was announced as the chosen candidate to become the new head of the State Revenue Service (VID), the tax collection authority.

June 4, economist Mārtiņš Kazāks was announced as the new board member of the Latvian central bank (LB), a move which puts him in the running as a possible next governor, subject to a pending corruption case against the incumbent, Ilmārs Rimšēvičs (who denies he has done anything wrong). Kazāks has been Chief Economist for Swedbank in Latvia since 2005, and is already a member of the consultative Fiscal Council which advises government on economic policy. 

Rimsēvičs was arrested then released in February by decision of someone else we might add to our list of Young Turks, Jēkabs Straume, head of the Corruption Prevention and Combating Bureau (KNAB), who was appointed less than a year ago.

In these four officials, we can see an encouraging pattern emerging.

All are relatively young, being in their forties, all have impressive and credible educational qualifications, none are clearly beholden to any particular political force and from looking at their CVs it seems clear that they could, and in some cases have already, commanded more money for their skills in the private sector than they will be able to earn in the public sector.

This suggests their motivations are not just financial: that they do actually want to make contributions to their country at a difficult time, to make a long-term difference. A slight exception might be made for jobs at the central bank, which are famously well paid.

They are all multilingual and presentable, looking and sounding like the sorts of people you would not be embarrassed to represent your country to the rest of the international community.

All four institutions in question have recently found themselves in dire straits: KNAB has suffered a decade of chaos championed by two fantastically incapable chiefs; the Control Department was all but invisible while Latvia was steadily gaining a reputation as a global money-laundering hub; VID was widely despised and assumed to be corrupt and inconsistent; the central bank perceived as an elitist world unto itself utterly divorced from the realities of household budgets.

For reasons varying from the arrest of the central bank governor to forceful demands from the United States to destroy the non-resident banks' ravenous appetite for money-laundering and sanctions' busting schemes, it has become impossible for any of these institutions to rely any longer upon the inertia that so often is the main force among public institutions.

It is of course likely that some or all of these new appointees will disappoint in some ways. The task facing each of them is formidable. But they seem to be equipped with more of the necessary skills to do their jobs effectively than could have been dreamed of until now.

I have never met Znotiņa or Straume, but both have so far exhibited a coolness under pressure that is extremely encouraging. In Znotina's case, it was pressure from the Prosecutor General to keep her ineffectual predecessor as her deputy. She responded by demanding - and winning - a promise from the Prime Minister of complete independence from the prosecutor's office for her department.

During the Rimšēvičs affair, Straume has been notable for remaining accessible while giving very little away so as not to prejudice any future case - surely qualities to be valued in a law enforcement official. He also seems to have kept a lid on KNAB's notorious tendency in recent years to leak like a rusty strainer. The proof will come as and when the Rimšēvičs case reaches court, but it seems inconceivable that a KNAB chief would haul in a central bank governor unless he felt he had a rock-solid case to present.

Skujiņš and Kazāks I have met: the former briefly a couple of times at the annual Riga Conference which he helped to organize for many years, and Kazāks for the first time perhaps 17 years ago in the Latvian bar in London where he told me about the PhD in Economics he was working on University of London. As I recall it was about exchange rate fluctuations of the lats currency and, being completely out of my depth, I concentrated on drinking my Lačplēsis beer and nodding every now and again as he explained. To my surprise, I actually started to understand what he was going on about and ever since then he has exhibited the same ability to communicate complex macroeconomic information in a way that seems relevant and useful as part of his job at Swedbank.

Both Skujiņš and Kazāks seemed like genuine, intelligent and personable individuals - something that rarely rates a mention in official appointment lists but which I think is actually quite important if part of your job is getting people to listen to you and place trust in you. Straume and Znotiņa likewise.

So while the political landscape may not change dramatically at the next election, some of the key officials responsible for implementing the rule of law in what President Raimonds Vējonis constantly stresses in current speeches is a state founded on and reliant upon rule of law, will be overseen by new faces with the abilities to make a difference.

It is to be hoped that a similar trend may not be too long in emerging in politics, so that politicians who also rely upon inertia to keep them in place might be knocked off their unimaginative little perches.

Vējonis himself was something of a youthful face when elected, and while his presidency may have had a little of its shine tarnished by dithering on some issues, it would be a nice by-product of the recent recruits' arrivals if he and others within the state administration could gain renewed impetus and confidence from the new arrivals they will now be encountering on a daily basis.

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