Ex-Soviet dissident favourite for Latvian president

Riga (AFP) –


The Latvian parliament will on Wednesday choose the Baltic state's next president, with long-time European Court of Justice judge and former Soviet dissident Egils Levits the frontrunner.

The German-educated 63-year-old, is the candidate of the governing coalition parties for the largely ceremonial role and has the backing of at least 55 members in the 100-seat parliament.

Two other candidates are in the running to replace outgoing president Raimonds Vejonis, who is not seeking a second term as head of the NATO and eurozone member nation, which has a large Russian minority.

The Latvian president is commander in chief of the armed forces and appoints the prime minister and ambassadors.

The head of state also has the right to propose and return legislation to parliament, as well as to dissolve parliament.

Levits and his parents, Latvian patriots of Jewish origin, were expelled from the Soviet Union in 1972 because the KGB viewed them as a threat to the Communist regime.

The family settled in Germany, where Levits obtained law and political science degrees before returning to Latvia a decade later and entering politics.

Levits wrote the country's 1990 declaration of independence following the end of the Soviet occupation.

He later served as a member of parliament, justice minister and ambassador to Switzerland, Hungary, Germany and Austria.

In 1995, he was appointed to the European Court of Human Rights before taking on his current position as a judge at the European Court of Justice in 2004.

Addressing criticism he has been abroad most of his life, Levits said: "I spend all my free time in Latvia with my family, away from the European Court in Luxembourg."

"I love to go on walking tours through the countryside, meeting regular people. That way I'm sure to know Latvia deeper and more personally than most of the Riga-dwelling politicians," he told Latvijas Radio1.

A group of opposition parliamentarians have nominated 43-year-old Juris Jansons, a lifelong public servant and Latvia's current human rights ombudsman, as their candidate for president.

Anti-establishment populist lawmakers are backing Didzis Smits, 44, an economist and former head of the fisheries association who has been a lawmaker since last year.

All three candidates have dismissed political cooperation with Russia, whose annexation of Crimea and the subsequent conflict in eastern Ukraine have spooked the Baltic region.

Latvia has been governed since January by a coalition of the centre-right parties New Unity and National Alliance, the liberal Development/FOR!, the New Conservatives and some members of the populist KPV LV party.