May 27, 2012
Latvian voters’ overwhelming rejection of making Russian a second official language at the Feb. 18 referendum has led to an uncharacteristic quiet, and seeming lack of political tension in subsequent politics, as if all sides to all arguments are too fatigued. Or perhaps just regathering their strength for further campaigns.
The move for a threatened “second referendum”—on granting automatic citizenship to all residents of Latvia, the “zero option”—has been gathering signatures in a far more desultory fashion than the language referendum, despite its promotion particularly by the Soviet-oriented For Human Rights in a United Latvia party (PCTVL).
Currently, the 10,000 initial signatures are slowly being gathered, which would then lead to the Central Election Commission running a second signature campaign to see if one-tenth of the electorate supports such a move, but there are doubts enough signatures would be gathered in a month in that second round to force a referendum.
Clearly rattled by the language referendum, the Saiema (Parliament) has moved to make tougher conditions for future initiating of referenda, but in other ways it has slipped back into the politics of the past: another attempt to remove the current immunity of Saeima deputies to criminal investigation and prosecution was again defeated at the end of March. This, of course, was the instigation last year for President Zatlers’ dramatic move to initiate the dismissal of the Saeima, but this time the same Saeima’s stubbornness received little more than a shrug of the shoulders from politicians and population alike. Yet this immunity question is a critical one in Latvian politics, and until immunity can be overturned this unsatisfactory situation is just one more factor in politicians’ low standing in voters’ estimation and trust.
March to April has seen the characteristic “calendar wars” – on March 16, old members of the Latvian Legion - the SS military divisions that fought on the German side in World War II - celebrated their day in Rīga by the Freedom Monument (Brīvības piemineklis), supported by large numbers of nationalist Latvians, while the inmate-garb clad “anti-fascist” protestors once more staged their own anti-celebration, but this year the event passed with little attention or fallout.
On May 9, it was time for the “other” side - the day that the Soviet Union marked as the end of World War II (May 8 in 1945 was the day the war ended for the western powers, marked now as “Europe Day”). On this occasion, in lovely Spring weather, a crowd variously estimated as 100,000-150,000 participated in these celebrations at the Victory Monument (Uzvaras piemineklis) across the Daugava River, another massive demonstration of the more visible Russian and pro-Russian presence in Latvia. The “Europe Day/End of Western World War II Day” on May 8 was marked with a tiny celebration of a few hundred people.
But, as often is the case, events beyond Latvia’s borders may have more immediate political impact. The continuing Euro crisis after the inconclusive elections in Greece is bringing new uncertainties at a time when Latvia’s economy is making a fragile recovery. Like a badly-timed comedy act, Latvia’s desire to become part of the Eurozone—which has become the most compelling reason for the continued austerity policy—seems in doubt not only because of the uncertainty whether Latvia can meet the strict budgetary deficit criteria for accession to the Euro, but more fundamentally whether the Euro will still be there to join…
And in the other external direction, Putin’s re-accession to the Russian presidency has actually had more impact than expected for this much predicted and totally expected outcome. Almost before placing his now more ample bottom in the President’s chair once more, Putin has begun a more aggressive sabre-rattling exercise in the continual campaign to neutralise NATO and drive the USA out of Europe, threatening to make retaliatory strikes if NATO missiles are further deployed in Eastern Europe, and snubbing a NATO and G8 gathering in the USA. Russia is very intent on regaining all the control it can over Eastern Europe and its “near abroad.”
This apparent period of calm in Latvian politics may turn out to be, we hope not, the calm before the storms.
Uldis Ozoliņš is immersed in politics both as a hobby and a profession. He lectures and researches in politics in Australia and on frequent trips to Latvia, and considers that the more closely you study politics, the less likely you are to become a politician.