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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Surgeon Is Elected as Latvia's President

ReutersValdis Zatlers shaking hands with supporters outside the parliament building in Riga on Thursday after the vote.
RIGA, Latvia -- Latvia's parliament elected a leading surgeon with no political background as the country's next president Thursday, despite widespread misgivings about cash payments he accepted from patients.

Valdis Zatlers, whose candidacy had been proposed by the ruling center-right coalition, received 58 votes in the 100-member parliament, while 40 lawmakers voted against him.

The other candidate, former Judge Aivars Endzins, received 39 votes of support and 59 votes against his nomination. Two lawmakers did not vote.

Zatlers will replace outgoing President Vaira Vike-Freiberga in July when her second and final term as head of state ends.

Zatlers left the parliament to the cheers of a large crowd of supporters, including a group of medical workers dressed in hospital uniforms.

Utterly unknown two weeks ago, Zatlers, 52, was propelled to the political limelight after the four-party government proposed the doctor, who is not a member of any political party, as a compromise candidate.

Zatlers, who heads Riga's leading emergency trauma hospital, was criticized for a lack of political experience and for accepting unreported payments from patients, a practice that is common in countries of the former Soviet Union. He later admitted that he did not pay taxes on the income.

At a televised news conference immediately after the vote, several journalists pursued the issue of "envelope payments." Visibly flustered, Zatlers refused to answer. "I will discuss my taxes with the state revenue service, but not with society." He pledged to meet the tax service Monday.

Pressed by reporters on what he would do if a current investigation reveals that lawmakers have accepted bribes, the president-elect was circumspect, saying he would answer journalists' questions in private. Latvia is in the throes of a major crackdown on corruption. The mayor of Ventspils and leader of the parliament's second-largest party, Aivars Lembergs, is in jail on corruption charges. Several well-known businessmen have also been detained in recent months for questioning.

When asked two questions in Russian, Zatlers, to the surprise of many, answered in Russian. The current president, Vike-Freiberga, does not speak Russian, which is the native language of about one-third of the country's 2.3 million residents.

As in neighboring Estonia, many of Latvia's ethnic Russians are legally considered noncitizens -- meaning they do not have the right to vote and cannot hold government positions -- and as a result feel marginalized.

Zatlers was born in March 1955 in Latvia. He graduated from the Riga Institute of Medicine and then began working as an orthopedist and surgeon. In 1990 and 1991 he practiced medicine at Yale University and Syracuse University in the United States.

In 1994 he was appointed director of Latvian Orthopedic and Traumatology Hospital. He is married and has three children.