The Gloomy Back Rooms of our Political Life

29. augusts, 2001


Nils Muižnieks

A Review of "Latvia. Human Development Report 2000/2001"

The Human Development Report has no serious competition in Latvia. No other publication has the funding that allows the editor to create a crack team of researchers, the authors to commission surveys and other studies during the preparatory stage, the publishers to ensure stylish packaging and a precise translation into English, and all to organise a lavish launch when the Report is ready. No other policy paper is so prestigious that each year a minister, a Prime Minister or a president wants to write the foreword. Therefore, publication of the annual Report is always an important event with broad resonance not only in the research community, but also in the general public.

The publication of this Report was especially anticipated as, contrary to usual practice, it is not the 2000 or 2001 edition, but a two-year Report. The main theme of this Report is the public policy process in Latvia, or, as the editor puts it, “Who implements power, on whose behalf, and how do they do it? How are decisions made that affect my life?” By addressing such issues as the influence “business consortia” and “grey cardinals” exert over politics, the Report is ensured a wide readership among politicians, the media and foreigners.

I must begin by noting that this work is of a very high quality, which is largely the achievement of its editor Tālis Tisenkopfs. I am well aware of the difficulties of preparing such a Report, as I served as editor from 1995 till 1997. With each Report (this is already the third one prepared under his watch), Tālis Tisenkopfs has deepened the analysis, found interesting common themes, and provided an ever sharper diagnosis of unresolved socio-political problems. In this review, I would like to emphasise what I found most interesting in the Report, point out some weaknesses and deal in greater detail with some issues that are mentioned in passing.

For many readers the most interesting part of the Report will undoubtedly be the analysis of “closed policy.” Surveys and studies conducted previously show that people perceive corruption as a widespread phenomenon in Latvia. If the studies prepared by “Delna” and other organisations reveal the opinions of the public, the Report analyses the views of the elite, which are just as critical. The authors of the Report surveyed Saeima deputies, local government officials and civil servants, representatives of NGOs and the media, as well as people from the business community. The quotes that are collected in the “Dictionary of closed policy-making” (p. 28-9) and imagined “Price list of closed policy-making” (p. 30-1) create a rather gloomy picture of shadow policy in this country. It turns out that not only “Delna” and the media, but also the elite admits that much in the country is decided by big business and a few influential, unnamed “key persons” or “grey cardinals”.

This gloomy picture is supplemented by analysis of the functioning of the media, political parties and local authorities. On the one hand, the media focused public attention on the theme of corruption – according to the data collected by the authors of the Report, in the first three months of 2000 almost 400 articles on the theme of corruption were published! (See p. 52). On the other hand, after the 2001 local government elections researchers pointed out that “hidden advertising” had been very widespread. The Report gives information regarding several codes of ethics (P. 85), but the question of enforcement of the codes remains unanswered, as the journalistic community as a whole has been unable to reach a consensus regarding professional ethics and standards.

The authors clearly show how political parties, while settling accounts with each other, are fighting for positions and influence in various boards, but “do not address those questions that are seen as priorities by the public.” (p. 56). The Report also emphasises the lack of accountability to the public of the local governments. State Audit Office data indicate that the majority of local governments are not complying with the law and have not prepared annual reports (p. 64), and that audits have been perfunctory. In 2000 only 30% of local governments had annual audits prepared by certified auditors (p.123). It should not be surprising that documents need lengthy preparation time or disappear altogether – there are still many local governments in country districts and small towns that have no computers at their disposal (p.119).

The situation is not all hopeless and now and then the Report offers a ray of hope. For instance, the authors have performed an interesting analysis of the homepages of ministries and have discovered that some ministries are implementing innovative projects with the help of information technologies in order to “build bridges between policy makers and the public”. The Ministry of Welfare is singled out as a good example, and it has organised “chats” with officials and discussions on topical issues (p. 114-115).

The Report not only offers profound and competent analyses, but is also introducing new terminology, which is an absolute necessity in the social sciences, especially in policy analysis. Aldis Lauzis, long-term language editor of the Report, has always been not only an expert in the details of syntax, but also a creator of new terms and words. The examples found in this Report are new Latvian terms and phrases like “rīcībpolitika”, “jābūtīgā saikne” (p.14), “līderība” (p.70), “tiesvara” (p.74), “pārstāvētība” (p.77), “pārvaldība” (p.100) and “dalībspēja” (101). I think that the Report should be included in the reading list of first year students of political science not only because of its content, but also because of its language.

The Report has also some flaws, but it is not easy for me to point them out, because I know the difficulties of creating a united text out of contributions written by various authors, the reluctance of researchers to provide recommendations, and the difficulty in striking a balance between critical analysis and positive, constructive ideas. I think that the criticism that appeared in the press that the Report “places this country lower than a banana republic” (Ansis Pūpols, “UN funds used to create suspicious studies” Diena, July 9, 2001) is unfair and is a sign of an unwillingness to face the truth. The gloomy political picture was created by the deputies and officials interviewed, not the authors of the Report.

I do agree with the criticism that the authors sometimes permit themselves “lyrical,” unscientific comments innappropriate for this Report, but that happens very seldom. The above mentioned reviewer pointed to the sentence “As they slip off the public platform, politicians or civil servants by extension become either bunglers, corruptible officials, marionettes or usurpers… “(p.129). I found also the following example: “the wish by some parliamentarians to overcome their incompetence and narrow-mindedness is understandable” (p.70). Even though I did not find many instances like these, it is a pity that the authors have given ammunition to thoser eager to accuse them of bias and to dismiss the whole work out of hand.

To my mind a more serious drawback is the fact that ethnic issues are almost completely ignored in this Report. Of course, I could be reprimanded for getting on my “hobby-horse” again, but how is it possible to discuss political participation and fail to mention the fact that almost one fourth of the population are not citizens and therefore cannot participate in parliamentary and local elections or become civil servants, etc.? When writing about the Ventspils Integration Program, the authors mention that the “inability to speak the Latvian language and non-citizen status limit participation” (p. 91), but offer no analysis of the consequences of non-citizen status and lack of language skills. The authors point to Ventspils as a successful example of public participation, but do not mention the unused potential of the “large” Integration of Society program and the fact that its implementation has been hindered by a lack of consensus among politicians at the highest level.

Another neglected theme is the influence of language policy upon political life, and the fact that for more than 38% of the population the Latvian language is not their mother tongue. For example, in what way does the requirement that election candidates have the highest level language skills affect the possibilities for public participation? The highly fascinating media analysis fails to mention that Latvian language and Russian language media are two almost completely separate worlds, with different sources of information, tone, arguments used and level of professionalism (almost all Russian language newspapers still do not differentiate between news and commentary, many Russian journalists have poor Latvian language skills). Another aspect would also deserve analysis – the fact that part of the population is still living in Russia’s information space, because it watches Russian TV. In what way do Russia and Russian media influence the civic awareness of the Latvian population and the political agenda in Latvia?

Even though the authors admit that “the international community also has an important role to play in setting Latvia’s policy agenda” (p. 51), it seems that international influences on ethnic policy is enormous. One obvious example is the whole set of events connected to the Law on the State Language and related Cabinet Regulations. It is not difficult to document the recommendations coming from a number of international organisations (EU, OSCE, the Council of Europe) and their decisive influence upon legislation. On this occasion the officials were ready for “dialogue” with foreign experts, but completely ignored local experts, not to mention minority representatives. Another example is the guidelines for closing the OSCE Mission, of which the general public is not aware, but that have had great influence upon the way many issues have been resolved (reduction of naturalisation fee, joining of school and naturalisation exams).

Several times (pp. 40, 42, 98, 130 and 132) the authors mention in passing the necessity of establishing the institution of an ombudsman in Latvia. Recently international and local experts carried out a detailed analysis of this issue (See Latvijas Vēstnesis, June 19, 2001), therefore I will offer more detailed comments regarding this proposal. We came to the conclusion that first of all the National Human Rights Office should be strengthened, as it is already performing some ombudsmen functions. The main recommendations for strengthening the National Human Rights Office were the following: a strategic plan for the NHRO should be drafted and offered for public debate; the issue of overlapping functions with other similar public institutions should be resolved (for example, the Centre for the Protection of Children’s Rights), specialised units within the NHRO should be established dealing with children’s rights and equality issues, the NHRO should be exempted from dealing with housing issues, co-operation with law faculties, international organisations and regional NGOs should be improved. We also noted that implementation of the Civil Service Law and Law on Administrative Procedure would play a crucial role in strengthening the accountability of civil servants. After strengthening the NHRO and implementing these laws, we suggested not creating another institution dealing with violations committed by officials that are not directly related to human rights, but adding new functions to the NHRO. Introduction of a professional civil service would resolve another problem mentioned by the authors of the Report – politically biased civil servants and the fact that particular ministries are “owned” by political parties (105).

To sum up, I recommend the Report to all who are interested in policy in Latvia and would like to read profound analysis written in superb Latvian. I also advise the potential reader to be ready for strong negative emotions that arise on seeing the back rooms of our political life in such harsh contours.

Latvia. Human Development Report 2000/2001

UN in Latvia

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