Latvian government outlines need for quick port takeover plan

In the wake of the sanctioning by the United States of prominent businessman-cum-politician - or in the U.S. Treasury's words, "oligarch" - Aivars Lembergs and businesses with which he is linked, the Latvian government on December 11 outlined a new plan to take over control of the freeports of Rīga and Ventspils.

LSM's Latvian language service reported that the government agreed in a letter to the Saeima [parliament[ to encourage the takeover of the Freeports of Riga and Ventspils by the state. The respective amendments will be included in a Law on Ports, for approval by deputies as quickly as possible.

After receiving the government letter, the Saeima will have to initiate the relevant amendments to the law, review and approve them, Prime Minister Krišjānis Kariņš (New Unity party) explained at the conclusion of an extraordinary government meeting Wednesday. The government urged the Saeima to consider the changes as a matter of urgency, and the matter may even be included in parliamentary business for Thursday, 12 December.

It is planned to change the current procedure whereby in both ports the board members are appointed by both the state and the municipality. In future, the Cabinet would appoint and dismiss representatives nominated by the Ministers of Economics, Finance, Transport and Environment and Regional Development.

Minister of Transport Talis Lininkaits (New Conservative Party) is spearheading the quickfire drive to reform the ports, which have long been renowned in public opinion as lucrative cash cows for private interests, the control of which is high on oligarchic agendas. Annotations of the government's proposed law changes promise to substantially change the port management model,

A management company or companies will be formed to oversee day-to-day operations at the ports, which will be 100% state-owned.

The amendments intend to limit any possible link between the US-sanctioned Aivars Lembergs and the ports, which play a crucial role in the Latvian economy. With both Lembergs and Ventspils free port frozen out by the U.S. financial system, the knock-on effects could be serious, unless the Latvian side can demonstrate to the U.S. authorities that there is no longer any link to the sanctioned individual Lembergs.

The government seems to have taken the pressing necessity to reform the Ventspils freeport as a good reason to do the same for the signifcantly bigger port of Rīga.

Even before the government's decision, President Egils Levits welcomed to the media the government's plan to take over the big ports and stressed that it was the right move for good governance, regardless of the Lembergs situation. He spoke to the press after a scheduled meeting with Kariņš.

The Freeport of Ventspils Authority employs about 250 people and last year had a turnover of 21 million euros. It is currently unable to access its bank accounts as a result of the U.S. sanctions.

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