Al Capone Would Feel At Home In Latvia

A few years ago I wrote a feature with the title above. It wasn’t a very good feature but it got a lot of attention, and a lot of criticism, largely I suspect because of its provocative headline.

But now the time seems right to dust it off and give it another chance, given a series of recent events that are more suggestive of speakeasies and violin cases than the “Nordic” qualities politicians somewhat tentatively try to promote.

Here’s a quick resume of what’s happening, so you can judge for yourself if the title is justified this time around.

On January 25 police fought a gun battle with armed robbers in Jekabpils only to discover the thieves were in fact other police officers, including two who had been reinstated (thanks to union pressure) after attempts to sack them for corruption. Two more of the robbers were members of the “elite” Alfa riot control squad.  One of the “good” cops was killed.

In the wake of this incident it emerged that the sum stolen (from a small regional gaming hall) involved literally hundreds of thousands of lats. It is a common assumption that Latvia’s large number of gaming halls are a front for money laundering.

Poorly-paid cops often have unofficial second jobs as security guards at such places. In fact a police van pulls up at the gaming hall around the corner from me every day, presumably to take the cash to the bank.

It also emerged in the wake of the Jekabpils robbery that members of Alfa squad had dozens of pending court actions against them, mainly for thuggery of various sorts.

Last week footage was shown on national TV of police officers apparently stealing from parked cars in Riga.

Shortly afterwards an officer of the state protection service was arrested on charges of drug dealing while on duty at a government building.

Meanwhile, judges – who are assumed to be on the take by most members of the public – are threatening to strike rather than accept pay freezes much milder than those applied to other state employees.

Interior Minister Linda Murniece handed in her resignation while she was on holiday, then agreed to stay on until mid-summer. Quite what reforms she hopes to achieve as a lame duck minister are unclear.

In other news we have Normunds Vilnitis, the uninspiring head of the anti-corruption force KNAB taking disciplinary action against his two deputies Juta Strike and Alvis Vilks, both of whom are clearly highly professional and courageous individuals. Their misdemeanour was to go public in pointing out how Vilnitis’ supposed “reforms” would reduce rather than increase KNAB’s effectiveness.

A glance at the three of them on a TV debate recently told you everything you needed to know. Strike and Vilks are smart, sit up straight and talk in a direct and sometimes passionate manner. They look like FBI agents. Vilnitis slouches around in his crumpled suit, bags under his eyes, giggling in a patronising way any time he hears something he doesn’t like.

In a telling little detail, both Strike and Vilks wore their KNAB lapel badges. Vilnitis seemed to have forgotten or lost his.

Juta Strike, has been forced to seek additional protection after death threats were made against her. Coincidentally, Strike has been leading the investigation into one Vladimir Vaskevics, a notorious figure for years.

In the past Vaskevics has been wrapped up in all manner of incidents involving car bombs, gangland hits and the like yet remarkably had found himself a nice little job in the finance ministry in charge of – wait for it – customs and excise. The case is still ongoing so I will refrain from commenting on whether or not such a sinecure would be a happy hunting ground for anyone keen on creaming a bit off the top.

But perhaps Vaskevics is a good money manager after all, because he somehow manages to enjoy a luxurious and well-publicised lifestyle on modest civil service wages.

Strike, not Vilnitis, also led the raid that KNAB-bed Karlis Mikelsons, the chairman of the state power utility and other top executives in another ongoing case.

And then we have the horrible climax.

At a film screening in the largest cinema in Riga on Saturday, a lawyer and police academy graduate shot and killed another man for daring to ask him to be quiet. According to eyewitnesses, Nikolaj Zikov acted in a boorish manner throughout the screening, ignoring the requests of other cinemagoers to button it. Instead, he waited until the end of the film and shot Aigars Egle, a 42-year-old banker, in front of his teenage daughter.

Zikov was arrested and now faces trial so again I will be careful about what I say. But whether guilty or innocent he is clearly a ****. For a start, what sort of person takes a gun to the cinema, let alone takes it out, let alone aims, let alone fires – four times? Zikov’s lawyer says he acted in self defence. Did he think he was going to be drowned in a carton of Coke?

Tellingly his doctoral thesis was an enthusiastic treatise about how gun controls should be loosened to allow everyone to carry weapons. He owns three guns himself. As someone told me yesterday, “If there was ever a good argument against his belief that civilians should be allowed to carry even automatic weapons, he’s it.”

Zikov comes across as the sort of anal, gun-obsessed, sub-Travis Bickle fantasy f***wit who spends his evenings whacking off over copies of Guns & Ammo and thinks Chuck Norris is the greatest actor ever.

As has been noted by blogger Juris Kaza, the reaction to this disgusting and cowardly crime has also been disturbing. Message boards discussing it have concentrated on how eating popcorn at the cinema is a nasty American affectation and even how the victim, as a banker “deserved” to be murdered in cold blood. Such sentiments beggar belief.

This also finally shows the ridiculousness of what has become an unpleasant tradition in recent years: outgoing government ministers being given a parting gift of a handgun. Even Prime Minister Dombrovskis – of whom I would have expected better – gave a .44Magnum to former finance minister Einars Repse as a parting gift.

Time to grow up, boys.

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