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Latvia's new president takes oath of office

AP News
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Posted: Jul 08, 2011 4:57 AM
Latvia's new president takes oath of office

Latvia's new president was sworn in Friday at a time of political turmoil in the small Baltic country where voters could soon decide to dissolve Parliament.

Andris Berzins, 66, defeated outgoing President Valdis Zatlers in a parliamentary ballot last month. The vote came just days after Zatlers called a referendum on dissolving the legislature, which he said was controlled by wealthy oligarchs. It was the first time in Latvia's 20-year, post-Soviet history that a president had used that power.

Berzins is a multimillionaire who made his fortune in banking and real estate. Like his predecessor, who was a trauma surgeon without any political background when elected in 2007, Berzins faces an uphill battle to win voters' trust.

Before becoming president he was a member of Parliament in the populist Greens and Farmers Union, which is largely controlled by Aivars Lembergs, the mayor of the port city Ventspils and one of Latvia's notorious oligarchs.

For this reason many Latvians appear to be skeptical about Berzins' integrity and feel he could kowtow to murky insider interests.

In his speech before lawmakers Friday, Berzins vowed to help improve Latvia's economy, which shed nearly one-fourth of its output in 2008-09 but is expected to return to mild growth this year.

The referendum on dissolving Parliament will take place on July 23. If a majority of voters support the move, fresh elections would be held in September.