BNN ANALYSES | Flashback to Latvian politics as notorious ex-minister Šlesers wants to return

In the Latvian political arena, former minister Ainārs Šlesers was not seen for seven years. In two decades, the politician and businessman had been involved in the notorious oligarch talks and national-level corruption scandals to leave frontpage politics after being unable to reach the Saeima in parliamentary elections. This summer, however, Šlesers announced plans to «put the country in order», perhaps, hoping for the «short memory» of voters. This could allow him to return to politics, as many are disillusioned with the work of the current Latvian government.
The son of a personal driver appointed to a senior position with thousands in salary, the appointment of Nils Ušakovs to mayoral office in Riga, court proceedings with Ryanair – for which the state continues to pay a large fine – and, of course, the infamous oligarch talks – all this and more has been in the life of Ainārs Šlesers thus far.
The man has said himself that he does not know, who is Ainārs Šesers, therefore the BNN news portal will give an insight into why he received only 1.18% of votes in his last parliamentary election and into, who is he – for the young and other people to know.
Oligarch talks
One of the most popular events in the life of Ainārs Šlesers are the notorious oligarch talks. State capture, media control, influencing public opinion, using power for selfish interests – all this can be read and hear in the conversations, published by the weekly Ir. Nobody received punishment as in the parliamentary investigative commission, there happened to be a number of people linked to the same Latvian «threesome of oligarchs» – Aivars Lembergs, Andris Šķēle and Ainārs Šlesers. It has to be reminded, however, that the focus of the talks was also about placing their own people in decision-making position for things to go in the necessary direction.
The conversations were published by the journalists of the Ir weekly and more than 20 people were mentioned in them, including «the threesome of oligarchs» and a number of government ministers of the time.
Latvian ex-President Valdis Zatlers has said that they are authentic – the conversations wiretapped in the Riga hotel Rīdzene as part of the oligarch case investigation. Šlesers, being a politician back then, claimed event having an informant in the Latvian Corruption Prevention and Investigation Bureau.
The former editor-in-chief of the major Latvian daily Diena, Guntis Bojārs, has unveiled, how Aivars Lembergs, Ainārs Šlesers and Andris Šķēle sought to manipulate the public opinion. Bojārs, now a journalist with the LTV public broadcaster, has said: «Viesturs Koziols, who owned the shares of the Diena daily, called me to his office and said: «What are you writing down there? Lembergs calls me, swearing wildly, and asks, what are you doing there?»»
«Right» people in right positions
Transparency International Latvia explains that Šlesers, while being the Latvian Minister of Transport, sought to put «his» people in managing positions in structures and companies subordinate to the ministry. Journalists have likened this to an octopus with its eight arms slowly sucking onto the management of companies and sucking out money. Šlesers himself has publicly acknowledged that it was important for him that in the jobs, there are people, whom he can trust. To land the lucrative post, no corresponding education or experience in the field was required.
An event that stood out from this practice was that the son of Šlesers’ driver, Kaspars Upenieks, was appointed to work in the marketing sector of the state passenger train operator AS Pasažieru vilciens., This was despite possessing neither corresponding experience or education for the job in the monopoly company. Salary for working in its council was 4,000 Latvian lats (5,690 euros) per month. This event became a hot topic in public debate not only because of the salary, but also for the reason that people from the team of Šlesers had spread false information that Upenieks had education and experience in marketing. Another fact become public that the father of K. Upenieks, E. Upenieks, had acquired the position of a council member in the state road maintenance company Latvijas autoceļu uzturētājs with 900-lats (1 280-euro) in salary. E. Upenieks left the position after criticism in the media. K. Upenieks lost his job as the ministers of transport changed, says Transparency International Latvia.
A similar «jump in career» was characteristic to other people linked to Šlesers. For example, his advisor, press secretary Lauris Dripe became over time the head of the Latvian State Radio and Television Centre, the council chairman at the state joint stock company Elektronisko sakaru direkcija and the state information networks operator Valsts informācijas tīklu aģentūra. People close to Šlesers have reached even numerous state company councils at the same time. One of the leaders in this aspect was Dainis Liepiņš, who in 2008, earned close to 110,000 lats (156,515 euros) in companies subordinate to the Ministry of Transport and the Freeport of Riga.
One must mention that there have been cosy positions also in the Riga Airport, which alongside the people from the Šlesers’ team, the former employees of the state television LTV, have been reached also by the daughter of former prime minister, fellow party member of Šlesers, Ivars Godmanis, She is the head of external communications of the airport. The daily Diena mentions among close persons, who work or have worked in politically-appointed posts in companies linked to the Ministry of Transport, the names of Krišjānis Peters, Lauris Dripe, Ingu Pelša, Reinholds Pelšs, Jānis Maršāns, Natālija Džeina Maršāne, Arnis Pļaviņš, Guntis Mačus, Uģis Magonis etc.
To continue the topic of «trustworthy people» in important posts, one must point out that in the Latvian digital television case, no criminal proceedings were launched against Šķēle and Šlesers, although their names were mentioned in the case. However, with the change of the Latvian Prosecutor-General, a case was opened. On the same day, Šlesers announced his wish to return to politics «put in order the mess» he saw happening in the Republic of Latvia.
In the criminal proceedings on possible wrongdoing in the long, shady and cumbersome national transition to digital television, prosecutors have accused the former Minister of Transport of large-scale fraud. As part of the criminal proceedings, stocks of the companies of Šlesers have been arrested.
The adjudication of the digital television case started in 2007 and 12 long years went by until the verdict. Many defendants were involved, who were convicted of fraud in 2019, but the Latvian Supreme Court lifted the verdict for a number of defendants.
Ryanair saga – hefty damages to state
Another «legacy of Šlesers» is the trial Latvia lost against the Irish airline Ryanair. The company won the case against the Riga Airport in a court of arbitration, and the airport has had to compensate more than 1.5 million euros.
The airport contract of July 23, 2004, guaranteed low service costs to Ryanair. The airline paid the airport 4.5 euros per passenger, but for the land services of each Ryanair plane the airport was allowed to charge one euro instead of 500 euros.
This exclusive contract was also in effect in 2012, when the airport introduced a new safety fee on passengers. Ryanair refused to pay the new fee and saw it as a violation of the earlier contract; therefore, the airline took the airport to the court of arbitration in London and won the dispute.
The earlier deal with Ryanair was made at the order of the then Minister of Transport, Ainārs Šlesers. In the materials of the trial, it is noted that the administration of the airport had objected to a number of conditions in the contract, but Šlesers had politically interfered. He had promised personally to the representatives of Ryanair that the state would pay for a part of the services, given the number of transported passengers would grow manyfold.
Construction of Šlesers’ home: covered by taxpayers?
In 2014, the LTV programme De facto reported that the Finance Police of the State Revenue Service investigated criminal proceedings into alleged value-added tax fraud during the construction of the house of Šlesers. The case was separated from the so-called oligarch case of the Latvian Corruption Prevention and Combatting Bureau on the basis of suspicion that in the process of the construction of his house, the state has been defrauded of at least 200,000 euros, according to De facto.
Two politicians in prison, Šlesers only stood near them – Jūrmalgate
Another turn in the life of Šlesers is the Jūrmalgate scandal, which might not be familiar to our current readers. It was linked to offering a 20,000-euro bribe to Ilmārs Ančāns, a councillor of the Jūrmala City Council, so that he would support the candidacy of Juris Hlevickis in the election of the mayor of the Baltic Sea resort city in a municipal council sitting of 2005. Ančāns reported the offer to the corruption watchdog, which arrested a number of persons.
The sandal caught a wider attention of the society a year after, when the journalists of De facto published the phone conversations between persons involved in the matter, including the then Minister of Transport, Šlesers, and former prime minister, Andris Šķēle, revealing their participation in the event. In 2007, the Zemgale Regional Court sentenced two people involved in the case, Juris Hlevickis and Germans Milušs, to five years in prison.
Giving Riga City Council top position to Ušakovs
It is worthwhile to remind the contribution of Šlesers to the Riga City Council. After the 2009 local elections, when the party Harmony Centre received the largest number of votes, the then party of Šlesers, LPP/LC, joined its forces with it. For a long time since then, the era of Ušakovs continued in Riga, which a period was marked by scandals with the Rīgas satiksme municipal transport company, corruption and, finally, the ousting of Nils Ušakovs from the duties of the mayor of the Latvian capital.
Shift of jobs in Freeport of Riga
In 2010, according to an assumption by an investigator, the then politician, Ainārs Šlesers, being interested in having fellow politician Andris Ameriks appointed to the position of the chairman of the board of the Freeport of Riga, offered to the then mayor of Ventspils, Aivars Lembergs, that Šlesers would ensure the signing of a contract of between the administration of the Freeport of Riga and media company SIA Mediju nams. It was assumed that the contract would be of interest to SIA Mediju nams.
In return, Šlesers was assumed to have asked Lembergs to use his official position to unlawfully influence the duties of a state civil servant, namely, the deputy chairman of the board of the Freeport of Riga, Viesturs Silenieks, so that the latter would in a 2010 sitting vote in favour of appointing Ameriks to the post of the board chairman. Lembergs, in turn, was assumed to have accepted this and to have unlawfully influenced Viesturs Silenieks, according to the initial assumption of the Latvian Corruption Prevention and Combatting Bureau.
Current plans on building national concert hall
Šlesers and Šķēle are currently equal owners of the Andrejosta port in central Riga. A company closely related to the Šķēle family is willing to give land for the construction of the national concert hall in Andrejsala as a gift. This, however, is not charity – the family badly needs the building to start its development of real estate, where at least 25 million euros have been invested. As the Latvian Ministry of Culture has been looking for years for the best location for the concert hall, it was the then Riga mayor Nils Ušakovs, who was the first one to suggest to pick the choice of Andrejsala, according to a reports by the weekly Ir and Re:Baltica investigative journalist group.
If the state and the municipality would build the promised infrastructure in Andrejsala, adjacent properties would also benefit from it, according to the weekly. It is worth giving to the state the piece of land, which they themselves had bought from Riga, if they receive in return newly refurbished capital city surroundings and easy access to Daugava, a straightened street and, in the most optimistic scenario, tram access to the area.
That would cost millions to be invested by tax payers, but the Šķēle family would finally start the development of real estate in Andrejsala. Its value would be 500 million euros in the near future, according to how Šlesers bragged about it 10 years ago in the oligarch talks. Right now, he is an official business partner of the Šķēle family and they jointly do business in Andrejsala.
Loud slogans and low ratings
Since the summer of 2021, Šlesers is back calling out slogans that are appealing to people opposed to vaccination against Covid-19. He also attracts people, who seem themselves as defending heterosexual families, using Christian rhetoric and has had some success in this. Just like the founders of other parties emerging as quickly as mushrooms in autumn, Šlesers seems determined to use the fact that people tired of the current administration of the country, which does not give certainty about what lies ahead in this stage of the pandemic. New political parties are quick to assure that they would «change everything», but specific plans and ideas are missing.
How and why Šlesers left politics (at least officially)?
He was simply not voted to the Latvian parliament. In the 10th Saeima, his party received only four seats. When the then Latvian President, Valdis Zatlers, dismissed that set of 100 MPs, in the snap election of the 11th Saeima, the Šlesers Reform Party/LPP/LC did not get over the 5% election threshold. In the next, 13th Saeima election, he received only 1.18% of voter support.
Latvia is a democratic country; therefore, every citizen has his or her right to choose, what to support and what to vote for. Yet everybody with a right to vote should evaluate carefully, which are the rakes better not stepped onto twice.