President Egils Levits: My popularity is not important, state interests come first for me

"People are nervous and tired of Covid. I think the frustration is greater now than it was three years ago. However, it is not possible to develop a coherent policy based on dissatisfaction alone,” says President Egils Levits. Today - an interview with Egils Levits.
07.10.2021. Elita Veidemane
 
©Dmitrijs SUĻŽICS, F64 Photo Agency

The public sees that there is a complete mess in the fight against Covid, which the government is trying to "paint over" with wrong decisions, with the threat of a lockdown, with attempts to save the coalition and the like. Among other things, there is no decent crisis communication with the public, and the Covid numbers just keep rising. How do you assess this situation?

Currently, half of the population is vaccinated, the other half is not. Those who have been vaccinated can also become infected and infect others. But the important difference is that vaccinated people get sick much less often and also are sent to the hospital much less often. The other half has not been vaccinated. The Delta variant is much more contagious than the previous one, it spreads much faster and threatens the unvaccinated the most. The only thing that can prevent this is vaccination and contact restrictions. Therefore, government policy is aimed at promoting vaccination as well as reducing the transmission of infection.

The government's actions so far have not been without mistakes, there have also been confusing decisions, for example, at the beginning of the year - with bans on buying various goods. The government itself acknowledged that this was a wrong decision. But the direction is right - to promote vaccination and reduce the chances of infection.

The question is: how to achieve this? Do we need ad campaigns? For example, I am one of the many people who themselves - without any campaigns - understood that they needed to be vaccinated. This is in the interests of both ourselves and society. It is our responsibility, not only for ourselves but for society as a whole. How these campaigns affect people who doubt the vaccination, I do not know, but I think they're not detrimental.

Unfortunately, there are some concerns that Covid will reach such a level that new restrictions will be needed in the near future. For example, Melbourne, a city of five million, has been in lockdown for eight months.

In general, the government has promoted vaccination, and sometimes the results compared to Europe have been not just mediocre, but even good. I hope that those who doubt will still get the vaccine. The example of Valdis Zatlers shows that vaccination does not protect 100%, but it protects better than if a person has not been vaccinated. The government acts on a precautionary basis. This means that it is better to count on the worst-case scenario. If that doesn't happen - good.

It will soon be two years of living in the shadow of this Covid, and the government has unfortunately made so many mistakes, wasted money, made dumb decisions, spread half-truths, so people do not believe in the rulers. They could claim that the sun was rising in the east, and people would not believe them anyway.

I partially agree with you. But people should understand that vaccination is in their own interest. The position of the media is also very important, and the media has an impact. The government is not the only player in this matter. Together, a positive attitude towards vaccination should be promoted.

The next important issue is the construction of the Latvian-Belarusian border. It is obvious that Minister Marija Golubeva (Development/For, Attīstībai/Par) is delaying the construction of the border. She has enough time for everything - both for opening and closing Pride and for vacationing in warm countries, but there is no time to meet with the Saeima factions (the meeting with the NA has been postponed once again due to “changes in the Minister's calendar”) or to work on border strengthening.

The Minister's participation in Pride is in line with her and her party's political position, and I have nothing to comment on there. But the issue of border construction is serious. The Minister should explain what has happened so far and what she intends to do next. This is the task of the whole government, but the Minister of the Interior has a specific responsibility.

It is good that the Ministry of Defense is helping. I would like to congratulate our border guards, who work in difficult conditions but do their work excellently. I have called for the development of our home affairs system to be made a priority. We have had various other priorities for a long time, but the home affairs system has long been neglected. And now we see the consequences. If there is an emergency situation like right now, and if the regulatory enactments for some reason do not allow the implementation of rapid fence construction, then these obstacles must be identified in the regulatory enactments and they must be amended urgently.

But there is the Saeima for such a reason.

Both the Saeima and the government.

It is really a miracle that no Member of the Saeima has thought of that.

I would add that I have spoken to both the President of Poland and the President of Lithuania about this situation on the border. We all have the same position: the border must be protected. We have the full support of the EU here. But in Lithuania and Poland, the construction of the border is happening much faster than here. We must hurry so that we do not become the weak point in this border issue.

We already have... The Saeima has just supported the start of the 40 million deal in the first reading - a bill that is going to pay 40 million euros for property lost due to the Holocaust to one Jewish organization, although it is known that all property was taken away by Soviet occupiers before that. Neither the Latvian state nor we, as taxpayers, owe anything to this Soviet Jewish organization, and to give money to those who have absolutely nothing to do with the Jewish people who died during the Soviet and German occupation is simply immoral. How will you comment on this situation?

I have not read this bill, I have not gone into it. We have to see what will happen there in the end. So at the moment, I can't comment on it without knowing the end result.

But you know very well what the story is about. There have been many interviews in the media on this topic, and Latvian society is outraged by ethnic segregation and the waste of money - at a time when it is necessary for existential solutions and not for the whims of one organization.

All this must be explained by the law proposers. If the Saeima wants to pass this law, then an explanation is needed. There must be openness and a clear explanation.

So you won't comment on this scandal?

At this stage, I will not.

Then I want a promise from you. When there is a final decision of the Saeima on whether to donate 40 million euros to this Soviet Jewish organization, will you be able to comment on this deal? Then you will have managed to get acquainted with the bill, opinions, etc.

Yes, then I will be able to comment.

Ok, good. Party financing. You once strongly supported the financing of parties from the state budget. Have your thoughts changed?

Generally, they have not changed. It is very important that parties are no longer dependent on selfish rich people. No one, including parties, likes to walk around with an outstretched hand and ask for money. That money is usually given with some requests in return. There are basically no altruistic big donors. The dependence of parties on selfish donors costs the nation more than state funding for parties.

However, we see that some corrections are needed. By the way, I was talking about them already in 2019. Corrections in case a Saeima faction collapses. If a faction collapses but the party continues to receive funding, then there is no longer any justification. The remnants of such a party can no longer fulfill the promises made to the people in the elections. This situation needs to change. But we can't change the rules of the game in the middle of the game. This must be done with the next elections. If this Saeima wants to do something lastingly good, it must incorporate the corrections I have suggested into the law.

I have not met anyone other than a Saeima Member or a party member who would say: it is so nice that parties are funded from my money!

I might agree with you because there is not enough public awareness of party funding. But this must be explained by the parties themselves. Let's ask a person: would it be better if a dubious oligarch funded a party that would pass laws that you would have to live by? Or it is better if it is transparent, public funding?

Somehow you can't feel that the parties in the Saeima now, having received funding from my and other people's taxes, are rushing to pass laws that will make our lives easier in the future. Everything is just the opposite. In addition, the parties do not explain anything about the money spent.

Party communication with the public is not good enough. Unfortunately, we have a very high level of rumors. This is a matter of our weak political culture…

The strange thing is that rumors usually come true.

Might come true and might not come true. But for us, this educational communication is at a relatively low level. The parties have yet to mature to a good political culture…

The government's communication with the public is also very weak, even though the government and ministries are filled with communication specialists. But there is basically no communication...

There is, but it is not of high quality. Yes, this is one of the main problems of the government.

Also, the unfounded arrogance. The best illustration of the government's arrogant and contemptuous attitude towards the public was the erection of a fence around the Cabinet building when one of the protests took place.

I do not think that is deliberate arrogance. This coalition, which originally consisted of five but now four parties, is controversial and preoccupied with its own internal problems and mutual jabs, which occupy a large part of their capacity. I am saddened by this situation. But we don't really have a better option of the coalition at the moment... But the parties should strive for a higher level to see the country as a whole - from both central, liberal and conservative positions.

You are already asking too much.

It is the task of the President to constantly remind of this.

You are talking about the (in)ability of the government to communicate. But you yourself - do you think that your ability to communicate with the public is sufficient?

Everyone can always improve themselves. I first look at the country as a whole. And it must be said that my view does not always coincide with that of the majority of the public. For example, on the issue of party funding, which we just talked about. I know it's not popular in society, and that reflects on me. But being popular is not in the first place for me. In the first place, I have the common interests of the state, the sustainability of the state. In this respect, I am not dependent on internal coalition disagreements. I see the common interests of the state as my goal, I also try to communicate about it. But I agree that it does not always reach the people. But I am trying to improve it.

The public is not only concerned about the lack of communication. It is much more concerned about the insane rise in prices for gas, electricity and, therefore, everything else. It will be a financial collapse for many families, and those who receive the tiny old-age pensions might just starve. Somehow you can't feel the care and participation of the government... So how can you talk about any kind of communication?

The reason why prices have risen is a question of the world market.

Of course. But that doesn't make it easier for people.

The government and municipalities are already thinking about compensations for the people most affected, namely the disadvantaged. I hope that the government will focus even more on this compensation mechanism.

Your adviser Irēna Kucina is being nominated to the position of the Constitutional Court. However, this is happening with a scandal: you seem to have personally supported her by calling two Development/For Saeima Members - Voika and Tērauda. What really happened?

This whole mess is absolute nonsense. This is a misunderstanding. There were some objections to the procedure. But the procedure fully complies with the Constitutional Court Law. Both judges of the Constitutional Court and judges of the European Court of Justice are recommended in a similar procedure. I am the author of the Constitutional Court Law and I know well what is the meaning of this law. I called these Members, whom I have great respect for, to explain the meaning of this law and the procedure for nominating judges. Perhaps I was said something that could be misinterpreted, saying that it would be as foolish to stick to a wrong interpretation of the law as it would be for me to unjustly criticize the government. It could have been misunderstood, and so that is my fault. However, politics should not be based on misunderstandings.

But why did you call Voika and Tērauda? Did you have any doubts about the interpretation of the law?

Not to me, of course, but I realized that the legal procedure was being misinterpreted. As a constitutional lawyer, I just wanted to explain it.

But it was presented as coercion and as a threat to start criticizing the government.

The President constantly talks to citizens, members of the public, journalists, politicians and expresses his views. That is the function of the President. The President has no decision-making power, but I can say my opinion. Unfortunately, in this case, it might have been misunderstood. I also apologize for that. I do not think it is worth discussing this issue further.

Currently, three new parties have been formed, which are preparing for their debut in the next Saeima elections. How do you assess the chances of these parties?

These parties are trying to determine people's dissatisfaction. They are serious competition for both coalition and opposition parties. If the coalition parties want to keep their majority, they will have to work hard.

They also need to radically improve their internal coalition discipline and communication. All four parties are responsible for government policy. Mutual sneering and irrational disputes are detrimental to all parties.

Even before the 13th Saeima elections, the parties saw people's dissatisfaction, just look at the success of the populist windbag party - KPV. How is today's dissatisfaction different from the three-year-old dissatisfaction?

People are nervous and tired of Covid. I think the frustration is greater now than it was three years ago. However, it is not possible to develop a coherent policy based on dissatisfaction alone. That is why today's coalition must pull themselves together. It is still a full year before the elections.

In my opinion, there are two national tasks that this coalition must carry out. The first task: fighting Covid. I also call on the media and opinion leaders to stand up for vaccination. Because it is in the interests of us all, no matter what we each think of the government.

The second task: we have dealt with the economic downturn relatively easily, so the new dynamics of economic growth must be used wisely. My horizon is 2030. So where do we want to be in 2030? The fact that we have additional resources is a unique opportunity.

Yes, this is an interesting question: for whom these additional funds have been a success... Three billion euros have been wasted in some lousy advertising campaigns, "research", who knows where else. Many cunning people have got their hands on these "extra funds", while the health care system is in danger of collapsing.

If the current coalition wants to be the next coalition, then it has to work harder on explaining these things. And more: education and science must be funded. There can't be a developed country with such low funding for education and science.

I'm sorry, but it's been talked about for decades. Nothing has changed.

But right now there is an opportunity to start funding. In addition, we have a very backward home affair system. Not only in terms of equipment or pay, the issue of education is also important. Leaving an empty spot after the liquidation of the Police Academy was a huge mistake at the time. The current minister must now think seriously about this. I'll talk to her about it.

You have called for the creation of state ministers. In previous elections, there were calls to reduce the number of ministries, now - let's increase the number of ministers?

With regard to public administration, we are still at the level of 1922 on some issues. It was relatively simple back then: foreign policy, domestic policy, welfare policy and the like. In a modern country, a number of new policies are emerging, such as digital policy, demographic policy. Who is politically responsible for these important areas?

There must be state ministers responsible for these areas, but the number of officials must remain the same. The state minister would work in one of the existing ministries, he would not have his own ministry. It would be good if the media also explained that we need modern public administration because the tasks of the state have become much broader and more diverse than in 1922.

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