Cablegate: Public and Press Reaction to Zatlers' Election

DE RUEHRA #0463/01 1691458
P 181458Z JUN 07




E.O. 12958: N/A
SUBJECT: Public and press reaction to Zatlers' election

1. (U) Summary: The reaction of the media and general public to
Valdis Zatlers' election as president has been predominantly
negative and rather emotional, though some commentators have
remained neutral and called on others to give the new president time
to prove his independence and skills. The ruling coalition, the
National Association of Doctors and the Chernobyl Association have
been the main supporters of the new president, who previously headed
of the National Orthopedic and Trauma Hospital. The biggest Latvian
daily newspaper Diena, representing Latvia's liberal circles, and
the NGO "Delna", Latvia's branch of Transparency International, have
been among the sharpest critics. A lack of transparency in the
selection procedure and the perceived inability of the ruling
coalition to provide sound arguments on why Zatlers was the best
candidate have been the prime targets of criticism. Zatlers'
confession that he had accepted "gratitude" money from patients, and
failed to pay taxes on that income, has contributed to the general
negative reaction towards his election. End summary.

2. (U) Since Valdis Zatlers' election by the Saeima (parliament) on
May 31, the general public reaction can be characterized by
indifference at best to outright hostility at worst. The mass
media, in particular the daily Diena and the prominent news program
"Panorama", have been the main critics of Zatlers since the
election, just as they were in the run up. In Zatlers' press
conference immediately following his election, Diena journalists
kept asking about the morality of a president who "does not pay
taxes", prompting a testy exchange in which Zatlers responded that
"freedom of the press is not impunity". A regular refrain in these
media sources has been that "Zatlers is a good doctor; however, he
does not have any competence in political affairs and thus could be
dependant on those who nominated him".

3. (U) News outlets more favorable to the government such as
Latvijas Avize (a rural paper) and Neatkariga (a paper affiliated
with the business interests of jailed Venspils mayor Aivars
Lembergs) have been more supportive. Neatkariga mainly echoed views
of the coalition party and avoided publishing any critical
statements on Zatlers. The newspaper stressed that Zatlers has not
been involved in any political party (outgoing President Vaira
Vike-Freiberga previously noted that in Latvia's situation it would
be better if the next president is not a member of any party) and
focused on records of his high-level professional and administrative
skills, as well as character traits needed for a doctor,
particularly a surgeon: decisiveness, responsibility for his actions
and humanity. The newspaper highly doubted the results of the
opinion poll carried out just before the presidential elections
which indicated very strong support for the second candidate, Aivars
Endzins. Latvijas Avize did not openly side with either candidate,
however, the majority of the published letters from its readers, as
well as a phone survey or readers, were in support of Endzins.

4. (U) Local Russian language media seems to be more supportive of
Zatlers and has even reproached elements of the Latvian media for
running a "slander campaign" against him. The tolerant attitude of
the Russian press is interesting in that public statements made by
Zatlers indicate that he is quite conservative on
ethnically-sensitive issues in Latvia; most notably that he believes
that Latvian non-citizens should not be granted voting rights in
municipal elections and believes that no minority faces
discrimination in Latvia. Those positions, usually antithetical to
the Russian press, seem to be overshadowed by Zatlers' willingness
to speak Russian in public (Vike-Freiberga does not speak Russian)
and the fact that he was one of the first doctors who went to
Chernobyl to deal with the consequences of that catastrophe.

5. (U) Opinion makers have been mixed in their reviews of Zatlers.
Elite commentators have generally taken the view that Zatlers'
election has deepened the gap between the majority of public and the
government, since he seemed to have very little public support
before the election. Some commentators, however, have tried to
present a balanced analysis of the situation and called on the
public to give Zatlers time to prove his independence. Journalist
Juris Rozenvalds noted that "the community has to accept and respect
the new President ... as he was elected democratically - criticism
and protests will only damage the political system in Latvia".
European Court of Justice Judge Egils Levits, who was among those
rumored to be a potential presidential candidate, voiced his hope
that the new president will carry out his duties with dignity and
noted that the people should give him "some trust credit" in his new

6. (U) Comments by representatives in other fields do not contain
much in-depth analysis, though some show concern. Andris Strazds,
lecturer at the Stockholm School of Economics in Riga, noted that
Zatlers has failed to demonstrate a good understanding of key
economic issues, but that he hopes the President will manage to
formulate responses to the main issues affecting the economy.
Philosopher Artis Svece stated "I am concerned that Zatlers is
having to learn fast, though not just about foreign and domestic
policies, but also the style and argumentation used by our
politicians. He has become similar to (Prime Minsiter) Kalvitis and
(Interior Minister) Godmanis [key members of the ruling coalition]
too quickly". Aivis Ronis, Chair of the Latvia-American Financial

RIGA 00000463 002 OF 002

Forum and former Ambassador to Washington, added that the truth is
that Zatlers agreed when he was called "a compromise of parties'
ambitions". Guntis Ulmanis, Latvia's first president after the
country regained independence in 1991, congratulated Zatlers just
after his election, though days later remarked publicly that
Zatlers' election marked the highest peak of the government's
cynical attitude towards Latvia's people and their will.

7. (U) After the election, a majority of opposition lawmakers
demonstrated their respect for the choice of the Saeima
(parliament). Leader of the political party Harmony Center (SC),
Nils Usakovs, which nominated Aivars Endznis to run against Zatlers,
stated that he respects the Saeima's decision and hopes that Zatlers
will be a good head of the country. However, the former leader of
New Era (JL), Einars Repse, did not stand up to congratulate the new
president. He later said "I did not feel any joy to get on my feet"
when the Saeima announced the election results.

8. (U) The biggest opponents outside of government have been Latvian
NGOs, particularly "Delna", the Latvian branch of the Transparency
International, and "Providus". Providus expert Valts Kalnins voiced
concern about what he termed Zatlers' "political incompetence."
"Mr. Zatlers is searching in the dark [in the discussion about
various legal issues]. He simply does not know many things".
"Delna", for it's part, staged a protest meeting against Zatlers on
election day at the Saeima. It must be noted, though, that two
non-governmental organizations - the Chernobyl Association (a group
providing assistance to survivors and family members of that
accident) and the Association of Doctors - did support Zatlers.

9. (U) Comment: Various polls before the election showed that the
majority of people supported Aivars Endzins, presidential candidate
of the opposition party SC. There have been no public polls
post-election on support for Zatlers, but apart from the coalition
parties, few seem enthusiastic about the new president. It is clear
that the early period of his presidency will be carefully
scrutinized and that he will have to make great efforts to gain
acceptance among Latvia's liberal circles. End comment.


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