Honourable Madam Speaker,
Members of the Saeima, ladies and gentlemen,
We all want life to return to normal as soon as possible. Finally, we are relieved to see that after a slow start vaccination has begun to gather pace and will likely catch up with the rest of Europe very soon. If we sustain current rate of vaccination, use flexible measures, apply temporary or local restrictions only when necessary, we should be able to avoid the resurgence of virus this autumn.
But we cannot just close doors on this difficult, depressing and awful period for everyone. COVID pandemic has taken lives of our relatives and friends, many have gone through difficult recovery. Our prosperity and national economy has dwindled.
The world fought and still continues to fight the pandemic. Generally speaking, compared to Europe and the rest of the world, Latvia has come out of this crisis relatively unscathed.
European Union’s GDP declined by 6.1% in 2020, whereas Eurozone’s GDP shrunk by whole 6.6%, while Latvia’s economy contracted only by 3.6%.
That, however, does not mean that we can rest on laurels. Our neighbouring economies have suffered even less than we have: Estonia’s GDP dropped roughly by 3% and Lithuania’s only 1%.
Crisis is always a good opportunity for reflection. This crisis has been a stress test for Latvia’s public sector and it revealed several structural problems.
It is not about finding who was responsible for that or the other mistake and wrong decision. This is about the lack of appropriate crisis response at the system level with decision to turn down the vaccines and inability to get the vaccination off the ground.
But the questions remains: was this just an isolated incident? Or maybe there is lack of decisive action when emergency hits, when existing protocols are not enough, when the whole public sector freezes up?
And public sector is currently faced with yet another stress test. I am talking about the Recovery and Resilience Facility funding. Latvia’s national plan turned out somewhat contrived, often driven by institutional and not the common national aspirations. Weak horizontal cooperation capacity of public sector yet again raised many ugly questions.
It is true, however, that after being rightly criticised by the European Commission, we managed to pull ourselves together on the second try. Let us not forget that these emergency funds are intended for smart growth of Latvia in future, not for filling the existing funding gaps. After restructuring European green and digital economy will be driven by industries that build upon new skills and know-how. And we too need to support them.
Such stress tests are not likely going away. That is why we need a government system capable of successfully passing these stress tests.
Therefore, I urge the Saeima and the Cabinet to embark on a comprehensive public administration capacity and efficiency audit to find out which procedures need updating and what governance culture and possible legislative changes are needed.
Judicial system audit initiated by Ministry of Justice and completed by State Audit Office and OECD earlier this year is a good sectoral performance audit benchmark.
I would also like to encourage Saeima and government to continue searching for ways of making their dialogue more productive and structured. This applies equally to introduction of restrictions and their gradual easing; government should base its decision on comprehensive data analysis and expert recommendations.
And Saeima too should listen more to what the government has to say, or at least diverge from government proposed actions only upon careful analysis of all factors to be considered. That should safeguard us against any unwarranted parliamentary mishaps in future.
Dear members of the parliament,
Although public assessment of government’s, coalition’s and parliament’s crisis response was negative, we have to recognise that during this session Saeima has adopted several important pieces of legislation that make our national and democratic foundation stronger and support the development of the Latvian State.
I was pleased to see the parliament adopting the Historical Latvian Lands Law yesterday. This law is designed to give people stronger sense of belonging to the local area such as parish, town or region, and it will also support the cultural and historical diversity of Latvia.
By focusing on identity and affiliation, Historical Latvian Lands Law becomes a pillar of the new Law on Administrative Territories and Populated Areas (Regional reform) adopted by the Saeima in its previous session. The aim of the regional reform was to boost the growth in the regions and provide equal opportunities and same level of local public services to all residents of Latvia, irrespective of where they live.
Now Saeima needs to make another step and adopt the new Law on Local Governments, and important part of this law, I think, is the proposed creation of community councils comprised of representatives elected by local communities.
As I signed the Law on Administrative Territories and Populated Areas into force, I also expressed my criticism about it and indicated that local election turnout will be low if people will lose confidence in democratic participation and opportunity to influence their local community. That is exactly what happened recently.
Let me also remind you that local referendum law has been stuck in Saeima for 10 years already.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Public electronic media law adopted this year is an important element in our democratic system and its development. People need reliable information and an opportunity to listen to various views to be able to contribute to national agenda in a more meaningful way.
Information provided my mass media forms people’s views about the world and determines how they behave. This also applies to elections. There is a strong link between the political integrity and quality of public information.
The new law requires public electronic media to share the responsibility for strengthening Latvia’s democracy, sense of belonging, perception of Latvia as a nation state that upholds the rule of law, high professional and ethical standards in journalism and pluralism. Public electronic media council is a body created to oversee how these standards are implemented.
Last week I sent Saeima and Cabinet of Ministers my opinion paper on necessary steps for strengthening of independence, quality and diversity of commercial media. Many European countries have similar support programmes and Latvia needs one too.
That is why I urge Saeima to work on and adopt a law on public support for commercial media, which would require the government to ensure that there is an adequate range of support schemes and there are clear criteria for media participation in them.
I have also urged parliament to reduce the rate of value-added tax to 5 %. That is a common way in which countries reinforce their media and publishing sector.
I want to congratulate all of you on adoption of the new Law on Higher Education Institutions last week. It is the foundation for comprehensive multiannual higher education reform that our society needs.
Reform offers a strategic vision of higher education excellence and scientific progress. Law introduces university typology and new governance model which is expected to bring higher education to a new level, boost its international competitiveness and good governance.
Universities must become science hubs. We must be more involved in and visible on global innovation and idea generation scene. Knowledge and science should drive the modernisation of our country. There are to few of us to afford an undertrained or uneducated society.
University reform should not remain on paper only. And that means that national budget must provide adequate, gradually increasing and sustainably growing funding for higher education and science.
Quality costs money.
According to Preamble of Satversme, state must guarantee the existence and development Latvian language and culture throughout the centuries. That is the very foundation of our state. It is not just a ‘grand gesture’. It is an actual task that we have to strive for every day through laws and social behaviour.
I recently asked the Cabinet of Ministers to postpone the adoption of official language policy. I did so because policy put official language into a multilingual context. And that shows that there is still lack of awareness about the constitutional significance of our official language for our country.
We are still struggling with soviet legacy in terms of Latvians being discriminated on the job market for not knowing Russian. We need to get rid of such soviet rudiments or otherwise Latvians returning from abroad and young people who do not speak Russian will be crowded out of the labour market. You should require Russian in Latvia only if the position you are looking to fill involves working with Russian speaking countries.
We should encourage learning of English, which is nowadays used as lingua franca globally. We should also make sure children are learning one of the European Union official languages as their second choice. If you know the language, you can understand the information circulated in the specific language domain. We belong to the European Union and our people should therefore be primarily tapped into European thinking, discussion and knowledge space.
Moreover, in addition to language and education policy, we must also address another emerging and highly complex problem of English and Latvian being indiscriminately mixed together when people, especially young generation, speak. We must find new ways to fix that.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Official language should permanently remain high on legislature’s agenda. That is why I have suggested to the Cabinet of Ministers to create a position of a special rapporteur who would oversee the drafting of annual official language law for the parliament. It would be something similar to annual debate with premier, foreign policy debate with foreign minister and ombudsman’s report. It would give MPs an additional, much substantial official language policy platform.
This parliamentary debate could take place on the 15 October when we will celebrate the Official Language Day according to the law adopted by the Saeima yesterday. We must create and nurture traditions that contribute to Latvianness, promote the constitutional significance of Latvian language and its role in promoting more integrated society.
Dear members of the Saeima,
I am delighted that Saeima supported my proposal to designate the 17 March as the National Resistance Day.
I cannot stress enough that we need to ingrain the national resistance movement that opposed the occupation deeply into our collective memory. By commemorating its members, we remind ourselves that we need to protect our state, independence and democracy every day.
I am also very positive about the national defence education and cadet force law adopted by Saeima. It will teach students how to respond to emergencies, develop their critical thinking, contribute to their patriotic upbringing and loyalty to Latvia.
We can be pleased about the comprehensive national defence system that we have put in place. Russian aggression in Ukraine in 2014 fast-forwarded the solutions that ensure it has adequate funding and meets the applicable NATO rules.
On the other hand, we have been neglecting our interior system for far too many years. Modern hybrid threats have cross-border characteristics and target our national systems, our democratic values and sovereignty. We need better protection against digital threats at the national level. We must upgrade our digital security. Our border force needs additional training to be able to respond to various attacks that are currently reported by Lithuania. Organised crime is still here and it has acquired cross-border characteristics as well.
Our interior system employees are on the frontline of ‘war’ against all these challenges.
Their employment conditions, however, remain poor: there is lack of adequate pay, infrastructure is often outdated and qualifications often lad behind modern-day standards.
I call upon our government to create a special 5-7 year programme, which would allow us to gradually create an adequate interior system ready to fully engage in guaranteeing our national security.
Ladies and gentlemen,
In conclusion, I would like to briefly touch upon the recent threats of emerging constitutional crisis. Let me reiterate: Saeima cannot adopt laws that contradict Constitutional Court rulings. I as the President of Latvia, and guardian of our constitution, cannot let that happen.
Bu I also want to mention that constitutional institutions, such as Constitutional Court and Saeima, also have constitutional dialogue at their disposal.
Constitutional Court may rule that a law adopted by the Saeima is void because it violates constitution. We should not forget that Constitutional Court reviews the constitutionality of law from the point of view of both the letter and the spirit of Satversme.
But there is a great flexibility in how Saeima can enforce such ruling and how problem at hand can be corrected by making a new law or changing the existing rules.
Let me stress once more: respectful constitutional dialogue is the way countries adhering to the principles of the rule of law solve such issues.
Dear MPs, ladies and gentlemen,
Let me conclude by wishing everyone a good rest during the recess and enjoy the beautiful Latvian summer!
I hope that, upon your return to work this autumn, you will have plenty of energy to work on the best decisions for the whole Latvia and there will be a lot more openness towards one another as you debate these solutions. Thank you!