Surprises Possible in Local Council Elections in Latvia

The local government election that will be held in Latvia on Saturday may lead to a few surprises, the main issue having to do with the capital city of Rīga, which has been governed or misgoverned, according to one’s views, for the past eight years by the Harmony Party in tandem with the rather clumsily named Honor to Serve Riga. Polls show that fewer than one-half of voters are prepared to vote for the tandem again, and that leads to the question whether the dozen other parties can accumulate sufficient votes to deny it the majority. Not all of them, of course, will surpass the 5% vote barrier that is needed to win any seats at all, but if the three or four parties that have a chance to do so end up winning 31 or more of the seats on the City Council, then they will have to put together a coalition. They do not see eye to eye on all matters, and there is also the possibility that Harmony/HSR will try to peel off some members to form its own majority. I personally hope that the other parties will take the majority and will be able to form a stable coalition, because Harmony in my eyes is unacceptable for its excessive and entirely incomprehensible friendship with Russia and specifically with the pocket party of the Russian tsar, United Russia. The issue of whether that will happen depends in part on the fact that right now one-quarter of voters say that they have not yet decided for whom to vote. If they break in the direction of Harmony, it will probably continue to run the city for another four years with all that that implies.

Populism has been rife in this campaign. Parties are promising free health care for seniors, free public transportation rides, free health insurance for the elderly, etc., nowhere explaining where exactly the money for such largesse would come from. There have also been entirely peculiar promises. Aknīste is a small town in southeastern Latvia, and one party there is promising that if elected, it will withdraw the Aknīste Administrative District from NATO. Needless to say, that is not a local government issue, though it would certainly be interesting to see a little island of non-NATO territory amidst a sea of alliance territory. Elsewhere a party is promising to organize free tractor driving courses for young people. I truly don’t know for how many people the ability to drive a tractor is important in this day and age.

There are also some interesting candidates in Riga. The Harmony/GKR coalition is led by the incumbent mayor, Nils Ušakovs, who has attracted much opprobrium for his habit of communicating on Internet Websites both in Latvian and in Russian. The New Conservative Party (which is no longer particularly new) is fielding two former employees of Latvia’s anti-corruption agency, Juta Strīķe and Juris Jurašs, who have long claimed, not without reason, that the Rīga City Council is a den of corruption. An alliance between the Latvian Alliance of Regions and the For Latvia’s Development party is fielding Mārtiņš Bondars, a former chief of staff to Latvia’s former president Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga. In other towns, there are council chairs who have been in office since God was a teenager. The people of Ventspils will probably reelect the venal Aivars Lembergs even though he is on trial for serious financial and other crimes. Uldis Sesks will probably win another term in Liepāja after 16 years at the helm, ditto Mayor Andris Rāviņš in Jelgava. All in all, there are 8,945 candidates from 599 different parties, alliances of parties or alliances of voters (this is permitted in local government elections, but not national ones). A bit more than 60% of them are men, and more than 70% are registered as Latvians; 3.7% are Russians, and if one wants to go afield in this regard, there is one Ossetian, one Finn and one Swede on the list somewhere.

One way or another, Latvians will be electing members of councils in 119 administrative districts and nine cities. There is one administrative district where there is only one slate of candidates, while in other places people are spoilt for choice, with ten or more slates. Latvian citizens living abroad, of course, cannot vote in the election, because for the local government vote, you must be a resident of the relevant district. In Latvia, in turn, there is also the issue of voter turnout. If the weather is nice on Saturday, that will probably depress turnout, although precincts have already been open today, Wednesday, and will be open tomorrow and Friday, as well. No excuse not to vote, in other words. It is the duty of every citizen to vote, and I will certainly go to the polls on Saturday. Though I must say that this is the first election in my whole life where I am not yet certain for whom I will vote.

Kārlis Streips was born in Chicago, studied journalism at the University of North Illinois and University of Maryland. He moved to Latvia in 1991 where he has worked as a TV and radio journalist. He also works as a translator and lecturer at the University of Latvia.

Shoot yourself in the foot much?

The first thing that has to be said about the referendum held in Great Britain this past Thursday on whether or not to withdraw from the European Union is that as soon as it became clear that the “leave” side had won, the value of the British pound plummeted to its lowest point in 30 years. That is what the business world thought about the decision.

Readers, I am sure, will know that the “leave” side won by a margin of about four points, 52 to 48 on a 72% turnout. Turnout in the last presidential election in the United States was 57% percent, which is dismal for a democracy, but it does show the level of interest that there was in Britain about the issue at hand.

That said, I am equally sure that a great many, if not most of the Britons who went to the polls last week did so without much information at all. The campaign for and against membership in the EU was a series of exaggerated claims, outright lies and lots and lots of yelling and screaming. Oh, if we withdraw, the British economy will collapse right away! Oh, it we don’t withdraw, all of Turkey will move to the UK in the near future!   We send endless amounts of money to faceless bureaucrats in Brussels who do God only knows what with it, and we get hardly anything back in return! Wrong, because the British economy is one of the world’s largest. Wrong because Turkey is not in the EU, and thus its citizens do not have access to the EU’s free-movement-of-people principle. Wrong because the truth is that Britain gets around 10 times more money from the EU than it pays in (for Latvia, it is a ratio of around 4:1). There were people who tried to analyze the situation rationally. A group of lawyers put out an open letter saying that they had studied all of the pros and cons, and on balance they had concluded that it would be better to stay in. No one much listened.

The lawyers, of course, were not the only ones. Withdrawal from the EU was formally and officially opposed by the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the OECD, the G-7, the G-20, presidents and prime ministers from all over the world, groups of scientists, groups of cultural workers, groups of economists. Never mind. Nativism prevailed. Xenophobia prevailed. Racism prevailed. Shortly before the referendum the truly odious Nigel Farage of the truly odious United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) put out a poster reading “Breaking point! The EU has failed us all. We must break free of the EU and take back control of our borders.” Behind him on the poster was a long line of refugees — people of color, women in headscarves, a couple of turbans. The message could not have been more clear — people are invading our country, and they are not like you. They are not like us.

There was a reason why most of the world said in advance that Britain should not leave the European Union. That is the fact that there is no question whatsoever that the decision was a bad one. It was wrong. Above all it was wrong because it casts into utter doubt the world of business in Britain and in countries that do business with it. Certainly the UK can expect foreign investment to plummet. Who is going to invest in a country which may be in a totally different economic, political and trade situation two years down the line? No one. That’s the answer.

According to the EU’s Lisbon Treaty, what happens once a country decides to leave the bloc is that it must formally request the implementation of Article 50 of the treaty or, if it does not, the European Commission can implement it on its behalf. That launches a two-year process of negotiations to figure out just what kind of relationship the departing country will have with the EU once it leaves. If at the end of those two years agreement has not been reached, the negotiations can be extended with the express authorization of all other EU member states (27 not counting Great Britain), and if not, the country is out of the EU, and its economy is governed no longer by Brussels, but instead by the World Trade Organization. In practice, that would mean that each EU member state, and every other country in the world, would be free to negotiate its own trade arrangements with London. Tariffs, customs fees, import restrictions, the lot. Similarly, the UK would no longer have access to the EU’s trade agreements, of which there are a great many. It, too, would have to strike out on its own. No wonder the country’s businesses and banks are aghast.

British Prime Minister David Cameron resigned in the wake of the referendum, but postponed his resignation until October, pending the identification of a new prime minister and a new cabinet. By law, a British prime minister may not resign until such time as his or her successor has been identified. In political terms, the next head of government should probably be former London Mayor (and current MP) Boris Johnson, who was the most visible representative of the “leave” leave campaign. The problem is that Mr. Johnson is something of a loose cannon, sort of like a British version of Donald Trump, only not as vulgar. He, too, is capable of making the most astonishing claims such as, during the referendum campaign, that the EU bans shops from selling bananas in bunches of more than two or three. First of all, “two or three” is not a hard rule and, most importantly, that is simply not true. Asked once why people should vote for his Conservative Party, Johnson replied, “voting Tory will cause your wife to have bigger breasts and increase your chances of owning a BMW M3.” Channeling Bill Clinton and his non-inhalation of marijuana, Johnson declared that “I think I was once given cocaine, but I sneezed, so it didn’t go up my nose. In fact, it may have been icing sugar.”   In short, this man is something of a loose cannon, and he is going to be heading up Britain’s withdrawal negotiations with the EU? What is more, EU leaders have already made it clear that they expect the UK to start the negotiations forthwith, and October is not forthwith.

There is also the fact that the EU is not likely to be particularly charitably inclined toward Britain’s wishes in this process. The UK has always been a problem child as a member state, whether it was Margaret Thatcher banging her purse on the table and yelling about Britain’s rebate, Britain’s refusal to accept the EU’s social charter and the euro, Britain’s refusal to join the Schengen border-free zone, or the UK’s withdrawal from the European Exchange Mechanism on what has ever since been known as “Black Wednesday.” It is also true that the to-do list for the EU is already overflowing — Greek profligacy, sanctions against Russia and whether to extend them, the European Central Bank and its negative interest rates, the whole migration issue, the TTIP agreement with America. Who needs another bit of business that will probably prove to be one, big hassle?

On the other hand, there is also reason to believe that the European Commission, at least, will choose to be pragmatic about this. The EU did not want the UK to withdraw, because with all of its fussing, it has been a major partner therein. Options are not unlimited, and there will probably be no way for London to say “well, we didn’t really mean it, let’s just leave things as they are.” One possibility will be an arrangement of the type that Norway and Switzerland have with the EU — being part of the free trade bloc while not being part of the organization as such. The problem with that is that being part of the free trade bloc means accepting all of the EU’s trade regulations, of which there are a great many. A decade or so ago I visited Norway and interviewed people who wanted their country to join the EU and those who did not. Both of them told me the same thing — that most of Norway’s laws are written in Brussels, and Norway has to accept them even though it has had no part in drafting them. Is that what Britain really wants?

There is also the fact that there were parts of the UK in which people voted very much in favor of remaining in the EU. London, where the country’s economic processes are concentrated, was one, but the others were Northern Ireland and Scotland. Readers will know that Scotland held a referendum of its own a few years back on leaving the UK, with a narrow majority preferring to stay in. The leader of the governing Scottish National Party has already said that a second referendum is on the table. As for Northern Ireland, it shares an island with Ireland proper. Would one group of Irishmen have to put up border controls against another group of Irishmen?

As for Latvian interests, from the national perspective the withdrawal is no good thing, because in most cases Britain has been a staunch ally for our country’s interests. From the perspective of the almost countless Latvians who are making a living for themselves in the UK, there will now be a time of uncertainty. Until such time as the aforementioned negotiations are complete, Great Britain will remain a full member of the EU, and so the rules under which Latvians moved there and found jobs will remain in place. What will happen after that, however, is very much up in the air, and it is also true that the ugly nativism that underpinned much of the “leave” campaign may mean increased hostility among “natives” toward the “migrants.” Psychological pressure and even violence are very much not out of the question.

The bottom line here is this: a majority of voters in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland made a mistake last Thursday. It is going to take a long, long time to clean up the mess that they have created.

Kārlis Streips was born in Chicago, studied journalism at the University of North Illinois and University of Maryland. He moved to Latvia in 1991 where he has worked as a TV and radio journalist. He also works as a translator and lecturer at the University of Latvia.

War Room

In the part of the world where Latvia is located, there is reason to speak of two different worlds that exist in parallel. One of them is the European world in which, for all of its faults and foibles, the European Union has proved to be an excellent way of joining countries together in pursuit of economic development, the observance of human rights, the elimination of corruption, etc. Needless to say, Latvia has not done all that well in any of these areas, the economy being what it is, discrimination against various groups in society being evident, corruption still being rather rampant, etc. Still, Latvia has been a fairly dutiful member of the EU, and of NATO, and of the Council of Europe, and of the United Nations, and of the OSCE. Latvia is certainly part of the global community, at least as defined by what we can call for our purposes “the West.”

The other parallel world is the one that exists next door to our country in the behemoth that is the Russian Federation. Particularly since the ascent of Vladimir Putin, that often bare-breasted little dictator and autocrat, there has been no lie that Russia has been unwilling to tell in pursuit of its aims, no international law or rules that Russia has been ready to ignore, no process of aggression in which it has not been at the ready to engage in. Georgia was to blame for the war that led to Russia’s annexation of Georgian territory. There are no Russian soldiers in or anywhere near the so-called “people’s republics” in southeastern Ukraine. The government of Ukraine is made up of fascists and Nazis. Russia is only bombarding Daesh in the Middle East, and its bombs have never, ever killed a single civilian individual. Fascism is on the rise in the Baltic States, too. The world knows the mendacious nature of all of this. The Kremlin pretends that it is all true.

It is in this context that one can view the recent BBC film “World War III: Inside the War Room.” It was broadcast by the “Beeb” on February 3, ostensibly for a domestic audience, but very quickly it became a matter of international discussion. The film presented a group of retired British diplomats and military experts sitting around in a room to discuss an imagined crisis during which Russia starts to harass the Baltic States, and Latvia in particular. Those who understand Latvian can view it here. That is Latvian Television, which purchased the rights to the film and broadcast it on February 19. Those who do not understand Latvian can find the film in English here.

The film is a rather curious hybrid. The specialists in the room really are British military and diplomatic experts, among them Ian Bond, who was London’s ambassador to Latvia from 2005 until 2007. The center of what I suppose can best be described as a docudrama, however, is made up of scenes showing growing unrest in the eastern Latvian city of Daugavpils, and this is where we get into pure fiction. For one thing, the producers of the film have conflated a comparatively long-ago event – the rioting that erupted in Tallinn, Estonia, in 2007 after the Estonian government decided to move a Soviet-era military monument from a central location to a more peripheral one – with events in eastern Latvia in 2016. There is some “creative” license in that approach. Second, the mayor of Daugavpils is presented as one Dmitry Voslov – a Russian who is perfectly happy to accept the “little green men” and to use them to call for a referendum about the greater sovereignty of the broader Latgale region. In fact, the mayor of Daugavpils is called Jānis Lāčplēsis, and his reaction to the film was harsh: “We need political decisions and serious economic projects that ensure that investments in the region are advantageous. We are not, however, afraid of horror stories, no matter who makes them up. People who live here have seen wars, revolutions, deportations and genocide – not in the cinema, but in reality. That is precisely why people in Latgale very much appreciate peace and friendship.”

I can agree that the BBC film was rather offensive to people in Daugavpils and Latgale. To suggest that large numbers of them, including the mayor, would happily join in what is essentially a Russian invasion is not particularly positive, and that is putting it mildly. It is also a bit disturbing that one of the experts in the film demonstrated truly old-fashioned thinking by referring to the Russian city of St Petersburg by its Soviet-era name of Leningrad.

In a broader sense, however, “Inside the War Room” bears some consideration. Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics tweeted after watching the film that “Inside the War Room, while scenario of separatists in Latgale is rubbish, overall many lessons to learn for all.” Indeed. The experts in the film are asked to consider a situation in which the aforementioned unrest erupts, Britain, the United States, Poland and the other two Baltic States send ground troops to quell it, and then Russia and America exchange “tactical” nuclear attacks — Moscow on ships at sea, Washington on an unidentified military facility inside Russia itself. The film ends with the experts discussing whether, if Russia unleashes a wholesale nuclear attack against the West, the West, and Britain in particular, should respond in kind. Cue dramatic music, show a man in Daugavpils walking off into the distance, cut to the credits.

Now, I would imagine that most readers of this portal would find the idea of an all-out nuclear war to be unimaginable. I’m sure that I’m not the only one who, in childhood, cowered under my desk in the elementary school classroom to “protect” myself against a nuclear bomb falling on suburban Chicago (and wondered why the desk was adequate protection in the case of a nuclear attack if, during a tornado drill, we all had to go out in the hallway). Not the only one who recalls seeing the horrific film “The Day After,” in which a nuclear attack is waged against the United States. Not the only one who knows that for a few desperate days in October 1962 (when I was two years old), the world was on the brink of a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union. Not the only one who knows that in the end, Khrushchev blinked, because he apparently understood that the concept of “assured mutual destruction” would mean the destruction of his own country and all of its people, too.

But today we live in a world in which Russia’s military doctrine openly states that “tactical” nuclear weapons are on the table once again. We live with a Russia that can clearly be described with the word “paranoid.” It sees enemies everywhere. Air defense systems in Eastern Europe are an offensive threat against the Russian Motherland. The West is hell-bent on pushing mighty Russia to its knees and humiliating it. It was specifically in this regard that Tsar Vladimir once, in a momentary flash of honesty, said that if Russia hadn’t intervened in Ukraine, the West would have found some other reason to implement sanctions against it. This is a Russia that occupies parts of Georgia and Moldova just as specifically as the Soviet Union once occupied Latvia. It is a Russia that simply annexed a part of Ukraine while all the while pretending that it had done nothing of the sort (the ludicrousness of this claim was seen when some of the “little green men” in Crimea first invaded the local opera house, thinking it was the local administration building – yeah, those were “dissatisfied” locals). It is a Russia that is doing its worst in support of the dictator in Syria, and the hell with any broader considerations. It is a Russia that is always happy to fly its planes in the immediate environs of NATO’s borders (usually with all signaling systems switched off, which is a gross violation of international rules). In short, it is an entirely unpredictable Russia.

The BBC cannot be blamed for having produced this film. It was part of a series called “Time Line,” and on other occasions the television company has presented an imaginary situation in which public transport in London shuts entirely down, with all of the attendant chaos, for instance. With the aforementioned caveat about “Inside the War Room” taking rather great liberties with the actual situation in Latvia, the fact is that the scenario which was discussed therein is not, sad to say, totally unimaginable. The BBC has said that the experts in the “war room” were not given any scripted lines to say, they really were asked to imagine the situation at hand and Britain’s reaction to same. And that is something that is worth thinking about.

Of course, the difference between Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia on the one hand and Latvia on the other hand is that Latvia is in NATO. We have already seen what happens when there is a military conflict between Russia and the alliance. That was the day last November when Turkey shot down a Russian military plane which, with all identification shut off, entered Turkish and thus NATO airspace. In the event, Russia’s response was simply to declare Turkey an enemy and to implement sanctions against Turkish carpets and what not. There was no military response.

But that does not mean that the Kremlin is not thinking about the possibility of looking for other targets once it finishes what it is doing in Ukraine and Syria. Readers will remember the “military exercises” in which Russia engaged back in 2009 – those that included a nuclear attack against Poland as an “aggressor.” The basic fact is that Vladimir Putin has pretty much painted himself into a corner. His vast popularity in Russia is largely based on the idea that Putin is a great hero who is ensuring that poor, besieged Russia remains viable on the international scene and that this viability must necessarily involve military force in Georgia, in Ukraine and elsewhere. That means that the man must regularly do things that demonstrate this strength and vigor. Wrestling tigers will only get him so far. Vladimir Putin has also gone on to a great extent about the idea of the “Russian world” – the one in which only Russians can save the whole planet from destruction. Make no mistake – this is an idea that has not been without willing ears here in Latvia. Perhaps half a dozen people from this country have gone to fight with the “separatists” in Ukraine. Over the next weeks and months, look for a resurgence of protests against the government’s stated intention of increasing the percentage of educational content in state schools that is taught in Latvian, not Russian. Don’t forget that the largest party in Latvia’s Parliament, “Harmony,” has a contractual partnership with Vladimir Putin’s dictator party, “United Russia.”

Also instructive in this regard is Russia’s response to the BBC film. A spokesman for the government described it as a “cheap product,” and the Russian ambassador to Latvia dubbed it “a dangerous provocation.” The government spokesman compared the film to another BBC product, “Putin’s Secret Riches,” which went into rather breathtaking detail about Vladimir Putin’s hidden caches of treasure, declaring quite openly that this is one corrupt man. The truth is that the BBC is a serious news organization. I am sure that “Putin’s Secret Riches” was shown to the lawyers before anyone else saw it. In the case of “Inside the War Room,” too, surely the BBC would not have gone to the lengths to which it went if there were no reason whatsoever to imagine that Russia’s military harassment of the Baltic States could really happen. Readers will be excused for believing that Russia’s denial of Putin’s lucre and of Moscow’s true military intentions is a whole lot of tosh and must be treated as same.

And yet there is an aspect of “Inside the War Room” that is entirely positive, and that is that it forces the question of how exactly the West should view what is happening in this part of the world at this time. Readers will know that in recent months NATO has been boosting its forces here. Military exercises are being held. Baltic airspace is being guarded (and not by Baltic airplanes, because the Baltic States have no military airplanes to speak of). The BBC film represents another round in the removal of rose-colored glasses in the West, and although as a mostly fictional docudrama it cannot be said to be military strategy, it does show that that which it showed is not entirely out of the realm of possibility. If that is another small step in boosting NATO’s ground presence in the Baltic States, another small push toward realizing that permanent military bases here would be appropriate, then that is only a good thing. Because Vladimir Putin only understands the language of force. He can allow the Russian people to sink into penury just as long as he is seen as the strongman. It is as a strongman that he must be treated.

Kārlis Streips was born in Chicago, studied journalism at the University of North Illinois and University of Maryland. He moved to Latvia in 1991 where he has worked as a TV and radio journalist. He also works as a translator and lecturer at the University of Latvia.