The Latvian Minister for Transport, Uldis Augulis, spoke to The Global Herald ahead of a snap election announced for September in the Baltic nation.
Mr Augulis has been in politics since 1996, a member of the Union of Greens and Farmers (Zaļo un Zemnieku Savienība or ZZS) since it began in 2002, and a member of the Latvian parliament since 2000. The seasoned politician faces the polls once more in September 2011, just eleven months after the previous general election.
The early election follows an unusual invocation of the power to hold a referendum by the outgoing President Valdis Zatlers. In the referendum, the Latvian people voted for a new election. However, Zatlers subsequently lost his bid for re-election as President in July 2011, giving way to Andris Berzins.
In the mean time, Mr Augulis is managing the transport infrastructure of a nation undergoing unprecedented changes with a multi-billion Euro rail project negotiated across three countries and the prospect of a high-speed link to Moscow in the offing. Here, he explains the status of the projects and the current prospects for Latvian politics.
What are you current priorities as transport minister?
“First, it is road reconstruction. My aim is to plan road reconstruction for the long term, and it is possible with the budget which is assigned directly to road construction. Also, investors have stated that due to bad road quality, they lack interest in Latvia. This year already, we have undertaken considerable road construction projects with financing from the European Union’s Cohesion and Regional Development Fund.
“Next, develop a good public transportation network in Latvia where trains and buses are connected and introduce unified ticketing.
“Last but not least, developing Latvia as a transit hub in the region. We have set a priority to become a logistics center in the region and offer 24 hour distribution. From the distribution and logistics warehouses of Latvia in 24 hours we can deliver goods to shops in Helsinki, Stockholm, Minsk, Warszawa or Moscow.”
How is the Rail Baltica project progressing?
“First, I would like to stress that in Latvia we have two separate activities with the same name to develop the Rail Baltica corridor. First, one project concerns the upgrading of the existing (1520 mm) gauge line in order to ensure 120 km/h speed along the line between Tallinn – Tartu – Valmiera – Riga – Sauliai – Kaunas. Second, the project of construction of a new European standard (1435 mm) gauge railway line.
“Reconstruction of the Latvian section of Rail Baltica’s existing railway infrastructure has been planned with a considerable amount of national co-financing – 77%. Following the positive decision by the government of Latvia on April 26th to grant the national financing, we continue to upgrade the existing 1520 mm gauge railway line trough Latvia from the Lithuanian border to Estonia. These works will be finished by 2014 at the latest. It is generally perceived to be the first stage of Rail Baltica project, and this improved line will serve as a regional connection to the new European gauge line.
“Concerning the new Rail Baltica line, the feasibility study has just been completed. Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania will have to make a common decision on whether it is justified to move to the next stage of detailed technical studies. Now it is an issue of the political will, which in a large extent depends on the availability of EU co-funding. The study indicated that the relevant participation of the EU, in amount of 56% of the total project investment or more than 2 billion Euros, is needed in order to justify the national investment. It is obvious that the EU decision regarding its financing shall play a significant role in this project. Using the words of the draft revised TEN-T guidelines this is an obvious “missing link” of the European transport network, therefore we believe the project should constitute a community policy priority and due to its size and importance deserves special treatment from the EU side.”
Are there any plans to construct a Riga – Moscow high speed rail link?
“Regarding the Riga – Moscow line preliminary assessments have been made. The idea of a new high speed passenger line that would cut travel time down to 4 hours, at the moment, seems not economically viable. The distance between Riga and Moscow exceeds 900 km – that implies high investment and operational costs. We have started to upgrade the passenger service on the existing railway line to the maximum speed of 140 km/h. Due to infrastructure development and custom procedures, the traveling time would be cut to 11 hours.
“The Rail Baltica project and passenger traffic development plans for the corridor of Riga to Moscow should not be viewed as excluding each other, but rather as complementary for building a well planned, comprehensive transport network.”
What transport plans are included in the election campaign of ZZS?
“ZZS have always been for regional development, at the moment almost one third of all inhabitants are living and working in the capital city of Latvia, Riga, I think it is not good. Therefore, a large amount of road reconstruction in Latvia for regional development is in ZZS plans.”
What is your opinion of the early election in September – is it an unnecessary disruption?
“Instability does not help country and in my opinion the early election was not necessary. A new government started to work last November; it is not a long enough period to evaluate the work of the parliament. After the last elections, 60% were new deputies starting their parliamentary careers, and it is too short a period to tell whether they worked good or bad. Hopefully, this will not discourage young enthusiasts from starting their political careers.”
Would ZZS consider forming a coalition with Saskaņas Centrs if one was offered?
“Saskaņas Centrs have strong support in Latvia and the electorate should be considered. ZZS have long parliamentary experience and we have worked together finding compromises with many parties, therefore, I do not see problems in working together if we reach common understanding on plans for Latvian development.”
What do you say to accusations from the former President that ZZS is “run by oligarchs”?
“The theme – fight against oligarchs- in Latvia political discussions has always been a topic, especially before elections. The so-called oligarch is a leader of a regional party and a person very interested in the regional development of Latvia. Also, he has been an elected mayor for a city for more than 20 years.”
What do you think of Andris Bērziņš as President?
“The president started his work in very challenging times. The former president dissolved the parliament just a week before new president elections. He is an experienced person with his own view on Latvia’s future.”
What is your attitude to debt reduction efforts in Latvia – should the EU reduce interest rates and accept delayed payment as it has for Greece?
“Latvia should look for opportunities to gain more support, long term, on good financing conditions, in its financing from the European Union. Latvia has good interest rates now, and we probably would not reach any better conditions for interest rates. According to delayed payment, we could keep up the discussions at the same time presenting that Latvia is “standing on is own feet” and ready to fulfil all obligations. Even though Latvia is on track for stabilization, for many inhabitants of Latvia it is still very hard times and an expensive place to live.”
Are you out campaigning for the September poll – do you have any rallies or appearances planned?
“I have a lot of work to do; therefore, some specific political campaigns will not be organized by me. I am open for political discussions in the media and in person.”
What are your own hopes for Latvia as a nation?
“Latvia as a transit hub for the Northern region with very good infrastructure, new companies developing their activities in Latvia, developed regions, employment increases and people who left Latvia arriving back home.”