With the Saeima election still some five months away, the jockeying for position among Latvia’s political parties is heating up. This comes in the farcical context where several major parties that hate the Valdis Dombrovskis-led minority government and who could throw it out—but who do not want the responsibility of governing themselves—constantly try to weaken it to boost their own electoral chances.
The concern is that the forces that led Latvia into its present plight are resolutely determined that their self-made disaster should not stop their holding on to power. Alliances are forming as previously discredited parties try to grapple with the relative popularity of the present minority government leaders—the Unity (Vienotība) coalition—and Dombrovskis continues to enjoy public trust.
AŠ2 is the new brand for two politicans whose initials coincide.
Andris Šķēle is founder of the People’s Party (Tautas partija) and is an influential businessman who is widely described as an oligarch. He has twice served as prime minister. He returned to politics early this year when his party was hitting rock bottom in the polls, marooned on around 2 percent of the vote. His return to politics has not helped the party in the polls at all, so an alliance has been formed with the other AŠ, Ainārs Šlesers.
Šlesers is leader of the First Party of Latvia (Latvijas Pirmā partija, or LPP) and vice mayor of Rīga, long one of the hardest and most disreputable politicians in Latvia. He is author of the “pedal to the floor” (“gāze grīdā”) ecoonomic policy of growth at all costs, which for several years saw strong gains but came to a catastrophic end with the global financial crisis. As the previous minister for transport, Šlesers left behind a litany of expensive major projects with money missing and charges of corruption. Undeterred, Šlesers continues to promote himself as a “doer,” and his ceaseless political manipulations are aimed clearly at gaining the prime ministership.
Despite Šlesers’ own personal and party success in Rīga, in the national polls LPP is also under the 5 percent barrier, so its coming together with the People’s Party makes sense. As the People’s Party has now formally left the coaltion government, while hypocritically promising to do nothing to undermine it, the two parties are free to develop their strategy and will start in coalition in the elections.
AŠ2, like several other parties, is developing a close relationship with the Moscow-oriented Harmony Centre (Saskaņas centrs, or SC), which currently holds the mayorship of Rīga through the popular Nils Ušakovs. Harmony Centre is vying for leadership in the national polls with around 16 percent of the vote, about the same as Vienotība.
Also keen to be friendly to SC is another party presently in the government coalition, the Union of Greens and Farmers (Zaļo un Zemnieku savienība, or ZZS), one of Latvia’s traditional parties, but largely still the party of previous Soviet nomenklatura. The party is holding its own in the polls through its wide representation at the regional and local government level. A major coup for this party was in successfully opposing the reappointment of Chief Prosecutor Juris Maizītis, who has been long investigating controversial oligarch Aivars Lembergs, mayor of Ventspils, who is the party’s candidate for prime minister.
Meanwhile, on the right, For Fatherland and Freedom (Tevzemei un brīvībai, or LNNK/TB) is also facing annihilation at the elections and has formed an alliance with the radical nationalist All for Latvia (Visu Latvijai). Visu Latvijai has been a very active and aggressive party, but is dogged by controversy and accused in Europe of having Nazi sympathies. This nationalist block has some hope of getting into the Saeima, but relations with Vienotība are cool after Vienotība rejected TB/LNNK’s approach to join it. And Vienotība will not have a bar of Visu Latvijai.
The parties of ZZS, the People’s Party and LPP see themselves as forming an integrated elite, destined to rule in post-Soviet Latvia, with close links to business (hence each having an iconic oligarch) and indeed seeing politics as just one arm of self-aggrandisment. Their aim is to form the next governemt, without the help of Harmony Centre, thus marginalising Vienotība even if, as currently possible, Vienotība will be the largest party in the Saeima.
The coming months will see a massive propaganda effort against the Dombrovskis government, arguing it has done nothing for people, is beholden to Western banks and interests, and capitalising on any inability to deliver policy—an inability precisely as a result of their coalition partners’ or ex-partners’ undermining.
The stakes are very high, not only for this October election but for the future of Latvia. Vienotība will indeed have a fight on its hands.
Latvia wins in European Court of Human Rights
Despite the continuing economic gloom, one recent event has restored something of Latvia’s credibility internationally. The Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights on May 17 supported Latvia and overturned a previous ruling from its sectional court.
The case concerned Vasily Kononov, a Soviet partizan veteran who had been sentenced by Latvian courts to a short period of imprisonment for his part in a World War II action when, dressed in German uniforms, his company in 1944 killed several civilians suspected of collaborating with the Nazis, including burning several men and women alive. Kononov had appealed his case up to the European court, with the question whether Latvia had the powers to try a person for war crimes in these circumstances, particularly in light of the passing of time and the lack of any relevant war crimes legislation at the time the action took place.
In a lengthy judgment, the court in meticulous detail went over the ground of conduct of military personnel in war, and agreed that Latvia did have the right to prosecute in this case, as all miliatary personnel have long been subject to international laws of conduct, and that lack of war crimes legislation is immaterial.
The case settled that even those on the side of the “victors” can be held responsible for war crimes, that military personnel are responsible for their actions, and that there is no time limit to war crime prosecution.
The outcome brought a strong reaction from Moscow, which had been a participating party in the case, and which has been on the losing end of several other high-profile court decisions, particularly in relation to Chechyna. Demonstrations against Latvia were held in Russia. The Latvian government played down the result, seeking not to inflame feelings.
Interestingly, the result was also played down by Harmony Centre. Although some individuals in this pro-Russian party expressed disappointment at the decision, the party as such expressed no strong criticism, a clear attempt to boost its credentials as a responsible party that Latvians need not fear.
How much this party will be feared or not in the coming months will be another crucial factor in the October election.
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