Rīga mayor Ušakovs removed from office by minister

In a dramatic move April 5, Environmental Protection and Regional Development Minister Juris Pūce (Development/For!) has announced the suspension of longtime Rīga mayor Nils Ušakovs (Harmony).

The decision was been made regarding non-fulfillment of statutory obligations and violations of regulatory enactments, according to a statement in the official gazette "Latvijas Vēstnesis". The lengthy document lists various accountancy and investment errors in support of its case, holding Ušakovs responsible for signing off on a series of dubious decisions.

The rarely-used ministerial power to suspend heads of local municipalities is controversial and inevitably raises questions of cross-party rivalries, whatever the circumstances in which it is used.

Speaking to Latvian Radio Friday morning, Pūce claimed that Ušakovs had been targeted because he had violated the law as the mayor of the city and as shareholder of "Rīgas satiksme" and "has not ensured that the interests of the residents of Riga are protected", decisions were taken that violate the law, and also errors of omission, which has led to serious consequences and a loss of around 28 million euros in municipal finances.

"Suspension is necessary to ensure that the City Council continues to take legal actions in decision-making and to prevent further violations of laws and regulations by the competent authorities," Pūce told LTV in another early-morning interview.

Later in the day Pūce issued an English-language statement too,

"As of today Minister for Environmental Protection and Regional Development of Latvia Juris Pūce has suspended Mayor of Riga Nils Ušakovs from his duties. The decision has followed as systematic violation of law by the Mayor was found out in the Ministry’s inspection," it said.

“The first phase of carrying out inspection of Riga’s City council legality of the action has been finished. Serious cases, where law has been violated, were discovered and the Mayor’s answers are hardly convincing of the opposite. Therefore, officials of the Ministry have prepared and I have signed the notice for suspending Riga City council Mayor from his duties. I want to stress - this is not a political dispute. This is decision for good governance. This decision has been made to protect inhabitants of Latvia’s capital city from poorly managed public resources and possible illegal actions with public money," Pūce said.

Hpwever, he also warned that "With this signed notice oversight of Riga City council by the Ministry is far from over. The discovered facts and publicly available information shows that the violations could be systematic. In the meantime I want to highlight that all Latvia’s municipalities are monitored and overseen by the Ministry. The times are over, when law could be interpreted in self-interest or decisions by the Constitutional court of the Republic of Latvia ignored. I will make sure that elected heads of municipalities comply with the law regardless of political affiliation.”

In its inspection the ministry concluded that Ušakovs has violated at least eight legal and regulatory act norms.

"One example of the above-mentioned can be traced back to 2017. In the annual Riga Municipality budget 18 432 000 euros were expected to be invested in “Rīgas Satiksme”. These public financial resources could only be used to increase the company’s capital assets, but it was not done so. “Rīgas Satiksme” did not use the financial resources for the aim mentioned, but in the annual report reflected the money as revenue form economic activity. Nils Ušakovs oversees the operation of this and other municipally-owned companies and according to law is responsible for effective, legitimate and economically sane use of financial resources. The Mayor was clearly aware of the consequences for inappropriate spending of the money. Therefore he misled the elected members of Riga City Council, who considered to be voting for the long-term investment, but actually had voted for “giving a gift” to the company," the ministry statement said, adding that "all of the information and discovered facts about the actions of Mayor of Riga will be sent to the Prosecution Office of the Republic of Latvia and the Corruption Prevention and Combating Bureau (KNAB) for further investigation."

In response, Ušakovs suggested the move from Pūce was politically motivated and "absolutely unlawful, the arguments used in the order seem unprofessional and absolutely all [will be] overturned in court" and said he was confident the courts would find Pūce's reasoning to be defective.

At a ministerial press conference at 10:00, Pūce insisted the move was not politically motivated but Ušakovs said the opposite at his own press conference at 12:00, insisting it was "absolutely politically motivated."

"We are witnesses to a unique political show," Ušakovs said, and gave a withering assessment of what he claimed was a ministerial declaration that would not stand up to serious legal scrutiny.

He also said that while he had made mistakes during his time in office, he was proud of his record.

"Of course I have made mistakes... only someone who hadn't actually done anything during ten years in office could claim not to have made any mistakes," a confident-sounding Ušakovs said, insisting that "nothing will change" at the Rīga city council despite Pūce's ruling.

The move is not unprecedented. In 2012 then minister Edmunds Sprūdžs issued an order for the dismissal of Ventspils mayor Aivars Lembergs. It proved ineffective for the simple reason that Lembergs ignored it and no-one else enforced it, and Lembergs continues as de facto mayor to this day. 

Ušakovs is under intense pressure as investigations continue into massive fraud at municial transport company Rīgas satiksme. He has not been charged with any crime, though his office and home were searched by police in connection with the cases.

He was elected Rīga mayor in July 2009 and has held the position ever since. With Rīga's large population and economic influence, it is one of the most powerful positions in the country.

On 21, the Ministry of Environmental Protection and Regional Development announced that the Ministry had identified  a number of possible violations of laws under the supervision of the local government "Rīgas satiksme" and in the work of the Riga City Council. Ušakovs had to provide explanations for the ministry's findings, and it was given a week - until Thursday 28 March.

Ušakovs announced on Friday, March 29, that he had sent a response. In a surprise move he recently announced that he would stand in the European elections instead of continuing as mayor.

Later in the day Riga City Council said Ušakovs had signed an order stating that during his absence, the deputy chairman of the Riga City Council Oļegs Burovs will perform his duties .

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