MPs elect ex-Soviet dissident with Jewish roots as Latvian president

European Court of Justice judge Egil Levits and his Latvian patriot parents were expelled from former Soviet Union in 1972 because KGB viewed them as threat

Newly elected Latvian president, former European Court of Justice judge Egils Levits gives a press conference in Riga, Latvia, on May 29, 2019. ( Ilmars ZNOTINS / AFP)
Newly elected Latvian president, former European Court of Justice judge Egils Levits gives a press conference in Riga, Latvia, on May 29, 2019. ( Ilmars ZNOTINS / AFP)

RIGA, Latvia — The Latvian parliament on Wednesday elected European Court of Justice judge and former Soviet dissident Egils Levits as the new president of the Baltic state.

Sixty-one of the 100 members of parliament voted for the German-educated candidate of the governing coalition parties.

“I will be president for the whole of Latvia — for those who live in the country and those who live abroad, for the poor and the better-off,” Levits, 63, said.

The Latvian president holds a largely ceremonial post but he 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.

Outgoing Latvian President Raimonds Vejonis arrives for the second day of a summit of heads of state and government at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, July 12, 2018. (Tatyana Zenkovich/pool photo via AP)

Outgoing president Raimonds Vejonis did not seek a second term as head of the NATO and eurozone member nation, which has a large Russian minority.

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.

His father, Jonas, was Jewish but his mother was not, he said in an interview last month for the Delfi news channel.

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

Levits helped write 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 that he has been abroad most of his life, Levits said before the vote, “I spend all my free time in Latvia with my family, away from the European Court in Luxembourg.”

He told Latvijas Radio1, “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.”

Two other candidates stood for president.

Anti-establishment populist lawmakers backed Didzis Smits, 44, an economist and former head of the fisheries association, who has been a lawmaker since last year. He garnered 24 votes in parliament.

Several opposition parliamentarians nominated 43-year-old Juris Jansons, a lifelong public servant and Latvia’s current human rights ombudsman, as their candidate. He won just eight votes.

All three candidates 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 center-right parties New Unity and National Alliance, the liberal Development/FOR!, the New Conservatives and some members of the populist KPV LV party.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky sings the national anthem during his inauguration ceremony at the parliament in Kiev on May 20, 2019. (GENYA SAVILOV/AFP)

Last month, Ukraine elected a Jew, Volodymyr Zelensky, to serve as Ukraine’s president.

Earlier this month, that country’s prime minister Volodymyr Groysman, also Jewish, announced his resignation in protest against the new president’s decision to dissolve parliament.

JTA contributed to this report.

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