It’s asking a lot to expect foreign editors of the media to understand Latvian politics. I’m fairly impressed when I meet a Canadian or American who even has a clue where Latvia is on the map.
No, it’s not a Balkan state, it’s a Baltic state, just south of Estonia, which is just south of Finland. The population is tiny, a little more than 2 million, the highest hill isn’t quite as high as Toronto’s CN Tower, and any rapids exceeding two metres in height are worthy of a detour from the highway to view the “sights.”
But Latvians are a people and a nation. They have their own language, in fact the second oldest living Indo-European language in the world. It is a poetic language. When Latvians send birthday cards or Christmas cards, they almost always write in a poem. If it is not a modern poem, it may be one of the 200,000 folk verses compiled by the perspicacious Krišjānis Barons, who spearheaded an effort to collect the verses in the late 1800s. The verses cover every facet of life, from birth to death, work, love, wisdom and philosophy. Like haiku, each verse is a crystallized thought or observation, and they are impossible to translate.
Besides national Independence Day on Nov. 18 and perhaps Christmas, the major national holiday is the summer solstice or “Jāņi” (John’s Day). During Jāņi, women wear flower wreaths and men oak-leaf wreaths, people get together to eat and drink (specifically home-made cheese with caraway seeds and beer), jump over bonfires, and sing folk songs all night long. Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it! Latvians have a strong tradition of singing, at family gatherings, in choirs, and in national song festivals. It is very much a culture of “participation.”
After centuries of rotating foreign domination by Germans, Russians and Swedes, Latvia finally established an independent state in 1918 and was a member of the League of Nations. But in 1939, foreign ministers Molotov, of Stalin’s Soviet Russia, and Ribbentrop, of Hitler’s Nazi Germany, made a secret pact through which they sliced up Europe, placing Latvia in the Russian sphere. In 1940, Soviet Russia under Stalin occupied Latvia along with Estonia and Lithuania, then from 1941-1944 Nazi Germany occupied the country, and in 1944 the Soviets re-occupied the countries. So began almost 50 years of occupation until the Soviet Union finally crumbled, and Latvia regained its independence in 1991.
Unfortunately, Soviet occupation did not put Latvia in a time capsule, and it did not come out intact. While the independent Latvia of 1918-1941 was racially and religiously tolerant, the Soviets quickly got to work to Russify Latvia. In 1941, 35,000 Latvians were murdered or sent to Siberia, three of my uncles included. During the 1941-1944 Nazi German occupation, 90 percent (60,000) of Latvian Jews and another 10,000 Latvians were murdered. About 200,000 people fled during the war to escape the threat of death or deportation, hoping to soon return to a free Latvia. In 1949, Stalin exiled another 43,000 Latvians to Siberia. This was followed by a Soviet economic program that created new factories in Latvia, even though Latvia didn’t have the raw materials and there weren’t enough Latvian workers to work in them. Oh, wait a second, that wasn’t a problem. The Soviet Union just shipped the raw materials into Latvia and organized the migration of 1.5 million Russians from Russia to Latvia to work in the factories. For the Russian migrants, it wasn’t such a bad proposition—the climate in Latvia is much more pleasant and the beaches are stunning. As a result of the deliberate Russification of the Latvian state, there were five times as many Russians in Latvia in 1989 than there had been in 1939, and thanks to murder, escape, and deportation, there were fewer Latvians than there had been in 1939. The percentage of indigenous Latvians in Latvia had been cut from 80 percent to 52 percent.
On top of that, Soviet-occupied Latvia was not exactly a morally upstanding sort of place. You did not get ahead by working hard. You got ahead by stealing, betraying your neighbour, or working “under the table.” One for you, one for me and one for the kolhoz. Honesty was not the best policy. You had to teach your children to lie to the teacher so that the teacher would not report you and get you blacklisted for such crimes as listening to Radio Free Europe or celebrating Christmas. By 1991 when Latvia finally regained its independence, a whole generation had grown up in a psychologically warped, unhealthy environment, Latvians and Russians included.
The impact of the years between 1941 and 1991 did not evaporate when independence was regained. The first parliament in 1991 proved to be mostly corrupt, as was the next, the next and the one after that… Everyone was so starved for financial gain that they grabbed what they could get. Whether former KGB, Russian, or Latvian, a position in parliament meant an opportunity to put your finger in the pie and share in the spoils of privatization. And taxes? Well, you were an idiot if you were in business and paid all your taxes. A number of positive things did happen: Latvia joined the European Union and became a member of the NATO defense alliance, but self-interest was still the ruling principle for most members of the government.
Corruption within parliament continued, to the point where this spring, it voted against allowing the Corruption Prevention and Combating Bureau (Korupcijas novēršanas un apkarošanas birojs) to search the home of one of the most notoriously corrupt members of parliament, Ainārs Šlesers. This was a tipping point in Latvian politics, prompting the president of Latvia, Valdis Zatlers, to use his power to recommend the dissolution of parliament, to be confirmed by a national referendum. The objective was to rid parliament of the influence of oligarchs, namely Šlesers along with Aivars Lembergs and Andris Šķēle. On July 30, 94 percent of Latvian citizens voted overwhelmingly in favour of dissolving parliament, which led to new elections.
All of which is a lengthy lead-in to say that I am upset at the way some of the international press has reported on the Sept. 17 elections in Latvia. A number of headlines that I’ve seen say something along the lines of “Pro-Russia Party wins most votes in Latvia election” (that’s from the BBC), demonstrating a total lack of understanding of what really transpired.
The real story stemming from the election is that Latvia is a step closer to having a government that cares about governing. The oligarchs have been ousted from parliament: Šlesers and Šķēle no longer have seats, so they no longer have parliamentary immunity. The party that supported Lembergs, the Union of Greens and Farmers (Zaļo un Zemnieku savienība), dropped from 22 to 8 seats, losing its influence in parliament. This is a victory for morality, righteousness and fair play, qualities that desperately need to be restored in post-Soviet Eastern Europe. Latvian or Russian, the citizens and residents of Latvia are winners.
As for media headlines such as “Pro-Russia Party wins most votes in Latvia election,” a more illuminating statement would be “Pro-Western parties win most votes in Latvia election.” In the previous parliament, the Kremlin-associated Harmony Centre (Saskaņas Centrs) together with the oligarch-controlled First Party of Latvia (Latvijas Pirmā partija) and the Greens and Farmers had 59 of 100 seats in total (29, 8 and 22 seats, respectively). After this recent election, Harmony Centre gained two seats for a total of 31, but the First Party dropped to zero and the Greens and Farmers lost eight seats, for a total Kremlin- and oligarch-influenced total of 44, or a drop of 15 seats. Lest anyone protest that Harmony Centre is being lumped in with the oligarchs, it is because those are the three parties that voted to protect the aforementioned oligarchs from investigation.
Conversely, in the previous parliament, the pro-Western parties had 41 seats, and now they have a majority of 56. In the previous parliament, the 41 seats were split between 33 for Unity (Vienotība) and 8 for the National Alliance (Nacionālā apvienība “Visu Latvijai!”-“Tēvzemei un Brīvībai/LNNK”). After the election was called, former president Zatlers (who predictably was not re-elected by the corrupt parliament to serve a second term as president) formed his own party, the Zatlers’ Reform Party. With these elections, the pro-Western Latvian parties gained 14 seats, but because of the new Zatlers party, the pro-Western vote was split among three parties. Zatlers took an impressive 22 seats, Unity dropped from 33 to 20 seats, and the National Alliance increased from 8 to 14 seats. The final result of this election is that the pro-Western parties are up to 56 seats compared to 44 for the pro-Kremlin parties.
It is worth noting as well that the political parties do not run along strict ethnic lines. There are Russian members of parliament elected in the pro-Western parties, just as there are Latvians in Harmony Centre.
The question now is which parties will form a coalition, with the balance of power in former President Zatlers’ hands. Zatlers campaigned to rid the government of oligarchs. If he lives up to his promises, that means a coalition of pro-Western parties and exclusion of the parties that protected the oligarchs. To do otherwise would be demoralizing, and dishonest to those who voted for him.
We are not yet at a place where the indigenous Latvians can be confident that their nation, their language and their culture are secure. Most of the Russians (both citizens and non-citizens) in Latvia today are the descendents of yesterday’s imported workers, KGB, or of the Soviet armed forces . They are personally not to blame for the Soviet Russification of Latvia between 1941 and 1991. Although their parents and grandparents were brought to Latvia by the Soviets, now that they are in Latvia, no one is forcing them to leave or asking them to give up being Russian. But it is not unreasonable to ask that Russians and other non-Latvians respect that they are living in Latvia, and for them to teach their children the official language of the state, which is Latvian. It is not asking a lot for them to not undermine Latvia, and to support Latvia’s efforts to safeguard its state, its language, culture and identity. This is the norm for any country in the world.
And it would be great to see the less-informed members of the press educate themselves on the history of the area before coming up with catchy, but misleading headlines. If your nation were to be decimated by murder and deportation, and your ethnic group diluted by the forced influx of a foreign group, what spin would you put on that?
So back to where we started: Latvians are the indigenous people of their country, with their very own ancient language, and a unique ethnic identity. It’s time for Latvia to climb out of the devastating Soviet era and out of the demoralizing and corrupt post-Soviet era of the last 20 years. The elected parties are about to show their true stripes. Let’s hope it’s for the good of the Latvian state this time, so that Latvian citizens can survive and thrive and prosper in their country.