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Latvian PM quits over supermarket disaster

Latvia's Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis speaks during a news conference in Riga November 27, 2013. REUTERS/Ints Kalnins
Latvia's Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis speaks during a news conference in Riga November 27, 2013. REUTERS/Ints Kalnins

By Aija Braslina

RIGA (Reuters) - Latvian Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis resigned on Wednesday, taking political responsibility for a supermarket collapse that killed 54 people last week and plunging the Baltic state into turmoil, just weeks before it joins the euro.

The departure of Latvia's longest-serving premier brought down its center-right government, a measure of the scale of the political uproar triggered by the tragedy in Riga.

President Andris Berzins said in a statement he planned to appoint a new government this year. Political analysts said that would stave off the chance of a snap vote earlier than the national elections that were already scheduled for October 2014.

Economy Minister Daniels Pavluts this week partly blamed the store collapse on a lack of government oversight of construction projects. The government abolished a national building inspectorate as part of austerity measures that helped pave Latvia's way into the single currency.

"I announce I am resigning from the post of prime minister, taking political responsibility for ... the tragedy," Dombrovskis told reporters.

He called for a continuation of center-right government under a new leader as Latvia, which was bailed out by the European Union and International Monetary Fund in 2008 but fought its way back to competitiveness with stringent austerity measures, prepares to adopt the euro on January 1.

"Political parties should forget about their mutual grievances ... and should agree on working together," he said.

POLITICAL CONTINUITY?

There is no clear successor to Dombrovskis, who had been in office since 2009 and led the country through sweeping spending cuts and out of the its worst economic downturn since independence.

"It is absolutely unclear who could succeed Dombrovskis, because he has dominated the political stage to such an extent that there is no number two," said Daunis Auers, professor of political science at the University of Latvia.

He said the new government would be composed of ethnic Latvian parties which have a majority in parliament. The center-left, pro-Russian Harmony party, which represents much of Latvia's large Russian-speaking minority, is unlikely to be part of any new coalition.

"Basically they will continue the policies of the past couple of years. They will be pro-market, pro-European and be for a balanced budget," Auers said.

The cause of the collapse of the Maxima supermarket remains unknown, though police have opened a criminal investigation focusing on the construction of the building.

Local media said workers had been building a roof garden on the supermarket, a single-storey building about a 30-minute drive from the center of the capital.

The prime minister had said the disaster shattered Latvia, a former Soviet republic which joined the European Union nearly a decade ago. President Berzins called the disaster "murder".

Analysts said they did not expect Dombrovskis' exit would disrupt Latvia's euro entry, though polls suggest most voters oppose joining the single currency.

The Baltic state has the highest economic growth rate in the EU after a deep recession during the 2008 financial crisis, when it kept its currency pegged to the euro.

Latvia pursued a policy of spending cuts coupled with redundancies and wage cuts that initially wiped out a fifth of its GDP. Its public debt is now around 41 percent of GDP, far below the European Union average.

(Reporting by Aija Krutaine; Writing by Alistair Scrutton; Editing by Niklas Pollard and Mark Trevelyan)

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