Weekly News Update: November 5th - 11th, 2018

Good morning everyone, and I hope that you have had a nice start to Latvia's 100th birthday week! That started with Lāčplēša diena on Sunday (which we mention below) and ends with the official centennial on the 18th of November. It's going to be pretty rainy and grey throughout most of the week, but it seems that the 18th itself might be a bit clearer. Let's start with that aforementioned important celebration...

Latvia celebrates Lāčplēša diena

As most of the rest of Europe celebrated the 100th anniversary of the armistice that would end World War I, Latvia celebrated Lāčplēša diena on Sunday. The day commemorates a major 1919 military victory in the country's War of Independence, but also celebrates all soldiers who have given their lives to protect Latvia throughout the years. This was celebrated with torchlight processions throughout the country and a major military parade in Rīga. Earlier this year Latvia For more about the day and what it means, you can check out the link to Latvian Public Media below.
Source: LSM

Jānis Bordāns chosen to lead next government

Jānis Bordāns, leader of Jaunā konservatīvā partija, was invited by President Raimonds Vējonis to form the next government and become Latvia's 23rd prime minister. The president has given Bordāns until November 22nd to form a coalition that will likely consist of Jaunā konservatīvā partija, KPV LV, Attīstībai/Par!, Nacionālā apvienība, and Jaunā Vienotība. Bordāns previously announced that he refuses to work with the traditionally Kremlin-friendly Saskaņa party or with outgoing Prime Minister Maris Kučinskis' Zaļo un Zemieku savienība. If Bordāns is unable to form a government, the president will nominate another candidate instead.

The choice of Bordans comes as a bit of a surprise, as his brash personal style in recent weeks has been widely criticized by other parties and political analysts had believed Attīstībai/Par! candidate Artis Pabriks to be the most likely choice for the president to nominate. The preisdent's decision was made reluctantly in order to end a weeks-long gridlock in negotiation between the seven successful parties following the election.

For more about the current political situation, you can read our guide to the first week of Seaima (Latvian parliament) here.

Latvia's central bank president accused of more bribery, lying to US financial regulators

Beleaguered Latvian Central Bank president Ilmārs Rimšēvičs was accused this weekend of a fresh set of bribery charges, this time related to the ABLV bank which began self-liquidation process late last winter following threat of sanctions by the United States government for providing money laundering services to businesses connected with the North Korean military. According to the Latvian news agency LETA and the state's anti-corruption agency (KNAB), the United States Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) report that led to the bank's collapse relied on false information provided by Rimšēvičs which purportedly was "revenge" in a dispute with bank owner Ernests Bernis. Rimšēvičs has continued to refuse to step down as the country's central banker, and denies all charges.

Generally positive news for Latvia's economy

According to the country's central statistics bureau, foreign trade has continued to grow throughout the year, although imports still outweigh exports. The bureau also announced that consumer prices have risen 3.2%, with the cost of goods having risen 3.3% and services having increased by 3% compared with October of last year. The largest price increases have been fresh vegetables with prices going up by 16.1%, fresh fish increasing by 14.9%, diesel fuel rising by 20.3%, and petrol by 15.3%. Analysts from Swedbank also raised Latvia's 2018 GDP forecast to 4.5%, and the state unemployment agency also announced that more than 10,000 long-term unemployed people have found jobs in the first nine months of the year, almost 6,500 of them after participating in programs sponsored by the agency. For more detailed analysis, you can follow the links below.

€259 million for new trains

Photo Credit: Егор Журавлёв, via Wikimedia Commons
On Monday, the government allocated €259 million for new passenger trains and maintenance facilities to Pasažieru vilciens, the country's passenger rail authority. The contract to build the new rolling stock will go to the most economical of four proposals submitted by the Talgo, Stadler, Caf and Škoda firms. The rail authority's chairman Rodžers Jānis Grigulis would not confirm or deny possible ticket price increases as a results of the procurement and maintenance of the new trains, but noted that costs naturally rise. If plans go through to electrify more of the country's railways, the new trains could be used as far as the eastern cities Rēzekne and Daugavpils in the region of Latgale.
Source: LSM

KNAB calls for charges against Jūrmala's mayor

On Wednesday, the country's anti-corruption agency (KNAB) has recommended state prosecutors start criminal proceedings against Mayor of Jūrmala (Latvia's fifth biggest city) Gatis Truksnis (Zaļo un Zemnieku savienība) and businessman Jūlijs Krūmiņš for an illegal political financing scheme. Truksnis had already been under fire after police found illegal drugs in a raid on his private residence more than a month ago, but his coalition has continued to support him throughout these and other recent controversies. Audits have so far determined that his illegal activities have cost the state almost €500,000. 
Sources: LSM, TVNET

Rīga in "state of emergency" due to medics' resignations

Photo Credit: Edgars Košovojs, via Wikimedia Commons
The Latvian Emergency Medical Service declared a medical emergency in Riga due to the shortage of medical staff. This means that the Emergency Medical Service might not respond to some calls in situations where it is deemed there is no loss of life threat. Director Liene Cipule said the service was experiencing the mass outflow because medics are largely dissatisfied with excessive workload and low wages. 15 employees have already resigned with other resignation letters currently pending. Health Minister Andra Čakša told the press today that the ministry is working urgently to change regulations in order to raise salaries and improve working conditions as soon as possible.
Source: LSM

Norvik Banka renamed PNB Banka

Latvia’s transforming bank sector announces more changes this week stating that the Norvik Banka group will change its name to PNB Banka. The bank will continue to provide all existing services including upholding previous contracts and agreements. However, with the new name, the bank hopes to extend availability and offer more financial activities that anyone (no matter age or socio-economic status) will be able to partake in. They will also strive to improve the customer servicing process and introduce new quality standards in differing areas of the bank operation, including employee trainings. This focus on customers seems to be the reason the name change is occurring. Chairman of the Board, Oliver Bramwell, stated that the “P” in the new name stands for “people” and they want to emphasize this value within the bank. The change will be implemented gradually across the Latvia bank’s 40 branches. After the bank faced several years of controversy including substantial loss, being fined in 2017 for connections to North Korea funds, and facing previous rebranding issues, PNB sees the name change as the opportunity to positively place itself within the banking sector. 
Source: LSM

Painted Aircraft presented by airBaltic

The Latvian national airline, airBaltic, revealed they had painted an aircraft with a large stripe of the Latvian flag to celebrate the country’s upcoming centenary. The reveal occurred at Rīga International Airport last week. The idea had been discussed for a whole year by the airlines executives, chief executive Martin Gauss stated. However, only one plane will be painted for the celebration, not the whole fleet.
Source: LSM

Rīga Brasa Prison to close in 2019

Rīga’s Brasa prison will be closed starting April 1, 2019. The Brasa prison is located next to a residential neighborhood and is a male prison that holds about 340 inmates. The closing is part of Latvia’s ongoing prison reform and will reportedly help relocate funds and improve public safety. The Latvian Prison Administration states about Euro 3.5 million will be saved by closing the prison and the money can be used elsewhere on improving infrastructure and increasing wages. This is essential as Brasa is a 1905-built prison that is in a very poor state and adequate living conditions cannot be ensured. Inmates will be relocated to other detention facilities while personnel will be offered similar jobs in the surrounding area. 

Source: LSM

That's all for now. Make sure that you check out the calendar of events if you will find yourself in Rīga on the 18th (or any other Latvian city), as there will be some unforgettable and special events taking place. Make sure also to press "subscribe" at the top of this page, and to like us on Facebook for "stories of the day" each evening. Take care!