When Estonia’s Prime Minister Kaja Kallas was listed as one of the “Doers” in Politico’s ranking of Europe’s Class of Leaders 2023, her profile described her as “an excellent communicator, she frames European geopolitics in stark, moral terms, applying a pathos more ostensibly powerful leaders like Germany’s Olaf Scholz have struggled to imitate.”
Now the moral pathos is being applied by her critics, who are unhappy that a company part-owned by her husband continued trading with Russia after the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Kallas has not stepped down and is unlikely to do so, but at the end of August, as many as 69% of Estonians said she should.
The tension between claims to the moral high ground and the ability of politicians to cling to power isn’t confined to Estonia. It was thrust into the spotlight again this week when a new coalition government in Latvia, its southern neighbor, was hit by a credibility crisis.
Two of the three parties making up Latvia’s new government, New Unity and the Progressives, had previously expressed reservations about cooperating with the Union of Farmers and Greens, their coalition partner, because of its links to Aivars Lembergs, a US-sanctioned former oligarch.
While New Unity has cooperated with Farmers and Greens before, at the peak of Lembergs’s power, and before he was sanctioned, the Progressives are new to the political stage, having been first elected to parliament in 2022. Since their founding, they have been vehement in their commitment to a “new politics,” free of unsavory influences.
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Just days before it came to electing a new Speaker of the Parliament, Gunārs Kūtris, the nominated coalition candidate from Farmers and Greens, said on national radio that if it came to discussing the economy, all millionaires, “even ones who have been charged or found guilty,” should be at the table.
A day of embarrassment then unfolded as coalition partners distanced themselves from Kūtris, who has been active since the days when politicians were accused of paying too much attention to the opinions of oligarchs.
The new Prime Minister, Evika Siliņa (New Unity), suggested Kūtris should “apologize,” sparking a storm on social media from angry citizens and corruption watchdogs, who complained this was not about giving offense and apologizing, but whether someone with such views was fit for office in a democratic society.
Daiga Mieriņa, another MP from Kūtris’ party, was elected as Speaker, even though her own campaign in 2022 included a statement calling for the US to lift sanctions on Lembergs.
The episode, however, should be read not so much as a harbinger of weak government (that remains to be seen), but as another blow to trust in public authorities, which was already low in Latvia.
At a time when rallying around the flag is an important response to war on the European continent, the resilience of Baltic societies is essential and is not served by a decline in lawmakers’ public credibility.
Marija Golubeva is a Distinguished Fellow with the Democratic Resilience Program at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA). She was a Member of the Latvian Parliament (2018-2022) and was Minister of the Interior from 2021-2022. A public policy expert, she has worked for ICF, a consultancy company in Brussels, and as an independent consultant for European institutions in the Western Balkans and Central Asia.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.
CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America.