US worried about future of democracy in Latvia

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RIGA, Oct 16 (Reuters) The US ambassador to Latvia expressed worries about the future of democracy in the Baltic state today after a series of recent scandals and warned of the danger of a slide into corruption if nothing was done.

Using unusually strong terms for a NATO ally, Ambassador Catherine Todd Bailey said it was up to Latvians themselves to stand up for their own freedoms.

''We have seen a pattern of events that appear to be inconsistent with our shared values,'' Bailey, head of the U.S.

mission in Riga since February 2005, said in a speech at the University of Latvia.

While she was not specific, her words were a clear reference to several recent controversies.

These included an attempt by Prime Minister Aigars Kalvitis to give the government more power to oversee the security services, which caused a standoff with a former president.

Another recent scandal involved allegedly secretly taped phone calls between a leading lawyer and judges, dating from 1998 to 2000, which seemed to show corruption among the judiciary and close links between political and business elites.

Kalvitis has also sparked criticism for recently removing the head of the country's anti-corruption bureau, KNAB, from office. The government confirmed his decision today.

Bailey said Latvia, a European Union and NATO member since 2004, was at an important juncture and asked whether it would continue to hold to shared values and the path of reform.

''Or will Latvia, safe in the European Union and NATO, decide it has done the hard work and let the state become the playground of a few individuals where they go to line their own pockets and those of their friends?'' She asked whether it would continue the necessary institutions and judicial system.

''... or will Latvia slide back and begin to resemble those countries that have not undertaken extensive reforms?'' She said potential investors also wanted a strict rule of law.

Latvian Foreign Minister Artis Pabriks said he took Bailey's criticisms on board. ''The Americans have been our major strategic allies and they will continue to be,'' he told Reuters.

''We take it seriously enough, we understand these things, we are not perfect, but we are going in the right direction.'' REUTERS RSA RAI2201

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