More Surprises Than Anticipated in Latvia’s Election Results

Latvia’s 12th Saeima (Parliament) elections on October 4 brought some unexpected results, while maintaining the dominance of present coalition parties. Although the election was fought in dramatic circumstances with Russia’s invasions of Ukraine and growing threats to the Baltic countries, many parties in the campaign made little mention of Ukraine, concentrating on domestic matters, and rather than an atmosphere of tension a curious lethargy was evident, reflected in the low (59%) turnout of voters.

The ‘winner’ of the elections – just – was also the previous largest party, the Moscow-leaning Social-democratic party Harmony (Sociāldemokrātiskā partija Saskaņa), but this time with 24 deputies in the 100-member Saeima, a drop of 7. The party had resolutely refused to condemn Russia’s actions in Ukraine or cut its ties with Putin’s United Russia party, thereby losing voters but also seeing part of its traditional supporters simply not coming to vote. Just behind Harmony, with 23 deputies came Unity (Vienotība), the previous leading coalition party, an increase of 3 but with some leadership problems.

Also gaining in the elections were the Greens and Farmers Union (Zaļo un zemnieku savienība – ZZS) with 21 deputies, a gain of 8; ZZS is a traditional party with a very divided identity – it is closely allied to Latvia’s timeless oligarch Aivars Lembergs in Ventspils, but also has a very loyal base of farmers and small businesspeople and a very pro-national stance on many issues. The National Alliance (Nacionālā apvienība – NA ) also gained 3 seats to now have 17, being the party most vociferous regarding Russia.

Much of these gains were made at the expense of the Reform Party, the hastily organised grouping after the previous President Valdis Zatler’s initiative to dismiss the Saeima in 2011, and which had 22 seats, but which had since disintegrated.

Unity, ZZS and NA formed the previous coalition, and are widely expected to form the next, but other events showed this would not be business as usual. For a start, the previously dominant Unity ran into severe leadership problems: Latvia’s not always easy to understand electoral system is a proportional representation system: Latvia is divided into five electoral regions, and within each region a party gets the number of deputies proportional to its vote, but with a proviso that it gains 5% of the vote overall to get any deputies at all. Voters thus vote for one party and its list, but within their vote they can select out from among the candidates on the party’s list – voters can put a plus – “+” against an individual candidate’s name which promotes that candidate up the list, or can strike out a candidate, thus demoting them in the list. Unity had its leader and former speaker Solvita Āboltiņa crossed out by sufficient party voters in the western region of Kurzeme, and lost two other ministers as well. Āboltiņa is a strong and feisty woman, and though her professionalism cannot be doubted she was perceived as arrogant and a controller. But more was to come, to which we return below.

New parties in the Saeima

Business cannot continue as normal also because two new parties have entered the Saeima in these elections. One was a party that promoted itsef as a “saviour’” party (Latvia has these regularly) with an extraordiary name which may be translated as ‘For Latvia from my heart’ (No sirds Latvijai – NSL), created by the former Government Auditor Ingūna Sudraba. In her work she established a solid reputation in uncovering many irregularities and corrupt practices, them came into politics but with an increasingly curious profile – she is close to many Russian oligarchs and even figures in the Russian security service. And her offered policies were vague and poorly articulated, but she gained a populist following, pointing to poor government practices that she vowed to change. Some saw her as a pawn of Moscow, some saw her as naive. She gained 7 seats.

However, the big surprise came from elswewhere: the Latvian Regional Alliance (Latvijas reģionu apvienība – LRA) was formed by provincial representatives, disgruntled both with government policy on regional matters, and with ZZS , the traditional regional party. They found a very representable figurehead in Mārtiņš Bondars, former head of President Vīķe-Freiberg’s office, and slowly gained support to finally pick up a surprising 8 seats, also providing the real highlight of the election. While most of their deputies are the respectable regional figures one may expect, one candidate was the very opposite – Artūrs Kaimiņš is a young Riga actor, radio announcer, flim maker and general anarchist, publicly criticising everything the government does, engaging in bizarre stunts, most recently writing to the European Commission warning them to be careful of former Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis’ personal ambitions, as Dombrovskis was angling for a position there! Kaimiņš offered his candidature but the LRA brains trust put him in his place, as 35th on the list of candidates for Riga, where realistically the party could have hoped to win only one or two seats.

Readers of Latvians Online will then be interested in how Kaimiņš went from 35th to number one, and become a deputy: he did it of course through social media, directly addressing the young (no other party in Latvia has ever thought of that!) and interestingly doing it both in Latvia and outside – the many Latvian citizens outside Latvia are allocated to the Riga electorate, and norrmally have little influence on the result. Yet Kaimiņš targeted younger Latvians in Europe who follow Latvian social media, with remarkable results: while most Latvian voters in Western Europe vote for either Unity or the National Alliance, Kaimiņš got the LRA up as the winner in no less then 13 polling places outside of Latvia (including Dublin, Manchester, Birmingham, Bergen, Bradford, Peterborough and Rejkjavik,) and was second top party in half a dozen others including Oslo (by one vote less), Aberdeen, Stockholm and the Hague. And this avalanche of votes and pluses from outside Latvia had tangible results – on the Saturday night the electoral commission’s first solid provisional results gave LRA 7 and Harmony 25 deputies, but as the votes came in from overseas the tide shifted, with LRA picking up the last seat in Riga from Harmony. Anarchy has not been a significant theme in Latvian politics since, say, 1905; it has now returned in novel form. It seems Kaimiņš drew in many younger disaffected voters who may not have participated otherwise; and who did not go to the populist NSL.


But finally, returning to the big players, the demise of Unity’s Āboltiņa was in strong contrast to the fortunes of Unity’s parliamentary faction leader Dzintars Zaķis, who had become notorious for cheating on taxation and having dubious connections to various oligarchs; at the same time he was useful to the party for kicking heads and doing deals with the Big Boys. Well, in his region of Latgale, he had no worries, ethical matters seem not to weigh heavily on the voters’ minds, and by getting more pluses Zaķis moved up the party list in Latgale from third to first. But, just to show there was cosmic as well as earthly justice in these elections, Zaķis has since been accused of buying votes, paying people to give him a plus. There is considerable interest in the outcome of this development.




The Speech That Angela Merkel Did Not Make

Latvia is among all the countries in Eastern Europe watching with trepidation as Russian aggression unfolds in Ukraine. When Putin annexed the Crimea, and sent his forces into Ukraine, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel might have at any stage, but did not, give this speech:

“In late December of 2013, President Vladimir Putin signed a law making the promotion of separatism in Russia illegal; any action aimed at separatism in any part of the Russian Federation, or even advocacy of such separatism, has become illegal.

Since January, however, the same President Putin has done nothing but engaged in separatism – first in Crimea – which is a legitimate and internationally recognized part of Ukraine, and since then in Ukraine itself. These actions were carried out accompanied by systematic lying about Russia’s intentions and involvement, and all too quickly revealed to be lies.

Two other palpable lies have been broadcast by Putin to justify his actions. One is that he is carrying out such military activity, with thinly disguised and fraudulent referendums in areas his forces control, in order to protect Russians, or so-called ‘Russian-speakers’. This, significantly, has been a constant theme of all Russian efforts to destabilize all those countries that were part of the Soviet Union and were only too willing to leave the Soviet empire. The truth is that there is not one Russian – anywhere in Eastern Europe – who is under threat. I repeat, not one Russian is under threat in Eastern Europe, not one who needs protection from anything. Neither is the Russian language under threat; it is widely used and respected. That is the reality. But the lie continues.

The second major lie that has come with Russia’s aggression is that Ukraine no longer has a legitimate government but is now in the hands of usurpers and – most of all – fascists. Well, I am sorry, but President Putin is wrong on both counts. The Ukrainian Maidan revolution was a democratic revolution, carried out by Ukrainian citizens – including many Russians in Ukraine – against a corrupt and disgraceful government that President Putin believed he could manipulate as he liked. Putin, it seems, cannot recognise democracy, but chose to support those who tried to suppress democracy, through thuggery and criminal sniper attacks and murder. His present actions are a consequence of his failure to be able to manipulate Ukraine through his puppet.

The second claim – that Ukraine has been overtaken by fascists, is a lie, but a lie where this time the German nation itself has something to say. We know something about fascism, and something about how fascism can be stopped, and we will not be lectured about fascism by Putin, who turns out this out-of-date bombastic rhetoric about fascism when anyone or any state chooses not to go along with Russian bidding.

But the historical record shows a number of inconvenient truths about this grandstanding on fascism: we know, that one of the great crimes of the 20th century was not Nazi Germany alone, but Nazi Germany in partnership with the Soviet Union beginning World War II, when the Molotov-Ribbentropp pact in 1939 saw Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union in a perfectly friendly partnership dividing up Eastern Europe between them. Starting with Poland, divided up between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, to begin World War II. Until Hitler turned on the Soviet Union in 1941, no criticism was made of fascism.

We Germans know what fascism was and Maidan was the very opposite of fascism. We also know how to stop fascism: after World War II and the harm that fascism had done to the world and not least to Germany itself, we pursued a policy of lustration, where it was impossible for any significant figure in the Nazi party or Gestapo to ever hold public office. Such a policy was not pursued when the Soviet Union was dissolved. The Soviet Union has always been acknowledged in its victory over Nazi Germany, but then it proceeded to set up its own authoritarian regimes, which were often just as oppressive as what it had overthrown.

Now, Putin must be careful his own state is not defined as having all the marks of fascism itself. Very telling here is Putin’s use of the ethnic argument – protecting Russians – that Hitler used of Germans in other countries, before World War II.

I mention these historical truths because the Russian people have been lied to terribly, and not by President Putin alone. They have been lied to for most of the last 97 years – and most significantly lied to about their own history and realities, as well as lied to about the rest of the world and its attitude to Russia. His control over the media in Russia makes this lying complete. No country has any desire in relation to Russia except to live in peace with it. The only country not wanting such a peace is Russia itself.

And finally, a piece of legislation in Russia this year that some may have missed was a law making it a criminal offence to criticise or to cast aspersions on any aspect of Soviet behaviour during World War II, including the behaviour of the Soviet Army. Anyone criticising that army of 70 years ago faces criminal prosecution.

President Putin shows appalling judgment in the laws he promotes. Or rather, perhaps the laws he passes are a good guide to his future actions. Just as the law against separatism in Russia shows the hypocrisy of promoting separatism in Ukraine, so the law on criticism of the Soviets and the Soviet Army in World War II only serves to draw attention to it and to any actions of the present Russian army in a new war. Speaking from this place, I can only say that the people of Eastern Europe, and let me say specifically the women of Berlin, have not forgotten the Red Army and its behaviour.

Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is unacceptable and must be reversed. The fog of lies that enshrouds this aggression must be exposed for the hypocrisy it is.“

Angela Merkel, the one leader in Europe with the obvious stature to challenge Putin, did not make this speech or anything like it, but has chosen an uncertain private telephone diplomacy instead, urged keeping lines of communication open, stressed the need for good relations with Russia, and tended to see the Ukrainian situation as an internal issue only. This could have grave consequences for all of Europe, not least Latvia. Putin seems confident that Germany will not be too harsh in its response to his aggression. The danger is that, parallel to the Molotov-Ribbentropp pact, we may have a Merkel-Putin pact to divide Europe into spheres of influence once again.

Latvian Parliamentary Elections in the Shadow of Ukraine

Latvia’s 12th Saeima (Parliamentary) elections this October 4 will take place in the shadow of continuing conflict in Ukraine and an atmosphere of great uncertainty.

The last few elections have resulted in various coalitions of centre-right and conservative parties, but dominated by the leadership of Valdis Dombrovskis from the Vienotība (Unity) party, until his resignation in the wake of the supermarket Maxima roof collapse tragedy last year. The past elections and subsequent coalition bargaining have also resulted in the pro-Moscow Saskaņas centrs (Harmony Centre) – the largest party after the last election with 31 deputies out of 100 – perpetually not being part of the coalition.

This year Unity had a huge victory in the May European Parliamentary [EP] elections, capturing 4 of the 8 deputies for Latvia, with the other 4 deputies coming from 4 different parties.

It was considered that the tensions in Ukraine already had an effect on this EP election. Harmony Centre had earlier appeared to be gaining in strength and confidence and prominence; its charismatic leader Riga Mayor Nils Ušakovs had followed a clear Moscow line, deriding the Maidan demonstrations in Kiev, gloating over Putin’s takeover of Crimea, but becoming increasingly uncomfortable as the messy and bloody Ukraine conflict continued, and Harmony Centre supporters did not turn out in the numbers expected at the EP elections. The shooting down of MH17 seemed to completely disorient Ušakovs. However, taking over the extreme pro-Moscow running has been old Soviet veteran Tatjana Ždanoka and her rebranded party Latvijas krievu savienība (Union of Latvia’s Russians), who gained one place in the EP elections (the same number as Harmony Centre) and seems to be regaining its former strength as Harmony Centre falters. Ždanoka with much fanfare visited Crimea soon after its annexation, and lauded Putin.

The choice between the western-oriented Latvian centre and right-wing parties on the one hand, and the Moscow-oriented Harmony Centre and Ždanoka on the other seems a clear choice, but it is unlikely that Unity will repeat its EP success in October. Latvian politics throws up endless schisms, particularly among seemingly similar-oriented centre parties, and this election sees three new parties emerge with some chance of reaching the 5% barrier needed for representation in the Saeima, and thus challenging Unity.

Two of the three parties are the parties of former prominent politicians: Einars Repše was a former Prime Minister and founder of the party that with various transmogrifications became Unity, but left the Prime Ministership when he could not work with coalition partners. He attracts very divided opinions: some see him as charismatic and an excellent economist, being formerly a very successful head of the Latvian Central Bank; others find his personal unpredictability and inability to cooperate with others a fatal negative. His new party Latvijas attīstībai (Latvia’s Development Party) has drawn some prominent business people but has yet to gain substantial favour.

The other former politician to re-emarge is one-time Transport Minister and best friend of oligarchs and family values, the head-kicking and pro-Russian business Ainārs Šlesers, seen by some as one of the architects of Latvia’s financial crisis in 2008, by others as the one politician who understands how to get the economy moving. With no doubt unlimited resources, despite official constraints on campaign spending, his party Vienoti Latvijai (United for Latvia) will be loudly heard in these elections.

Both Repše and Šlesers are riding on the growing dissatisfaction with the present coalition government, headed by Unity and the decidely uncharismatic Laimdota Straujuma as Prime Minister. A previosuly good, technocratic but low-key minister, the matronly Straujuma has struggled to take on the mantle of Dombrovskis and the coalition has really been drfiting for some time; while economic growth is up, needed reforms have not been carried through. So, while popular as a pro-European party, Unity is vulnerable to attack for its economic and other policy record.

The third new party that is making waves is completely different: Inguna Sudraba was a very prominent Auditor-General, the first to make an impact on Latvian corruption and shady public sector dealings, but she comes with little hard political experience and that is beginning to show: she has put together a party of some business people and other social activists, and given it the saccharine-sweet title of No sirds Latvijai (literally, ‘With All My Heart for Latvia’) and makes highly emotional but policy-wise insubstantial pronouncements on all matters governmental. She also has unusual and problematic relations with a number of prominent Russian business people and even Russian security officials – a pecular mix indeed.

Critics have been quick to characterise these parties as two ‘Zombie’ parties (former politicians risen from the dead) and one, to put it mildly, eccentric party, that of Sudraba, but given the confused situation and lack-lustre domestic performance of the coalition, surprises could be in store. The rise of these parties is also a clear result of the total collapse of what was the second largest party after the last 2011 elections, the Reform Party, headed by former President Valdis Zatlers. Hastily formed after Zatlers as President recommended the dissolution of the previous Saeima, it had a brief truiumph in the subsequent elections but despite providing some good ministers, was wracked with internal dissension and splitting. Its 22 seats are the ones everyone else wants to grab.

Of the other established parties, the more right-wing National Alliance has been loudly promoting its told-you-so credentials in the wake of Putin’s aggression, and will not lose support even though several of its ministers have fallen by the wayside for various reasons, including a couple of ministers who did not get the highest level of security clearances, indicating odd connections or activities in the past on which there could be further interesting developments. And just to show this security issue is spread around other parties as well, the Central Electoral Commission has notified that four candidates have been identified by a state agency concerned with documenting activities in previous totalitarian regimes, as having been agents of the KGB.

The final established party, a member of the Straujuma coalition, is a hybrid built on one of Latvia’s oldest parties, Zaļo un zemnieku savienība (Greens and Farmers Union), that unlikely joining of pro-conservation greens and conservative famers. It has a strong base in regional governments and councils and was successful for the first time this year in gaining an EP deputy, but its credentials are being undermined by the outrageous antics of its long-time sponsor, oligarch, one-time Prime Minister candidate and general ‘godfather’, Ventspils Mayor Aivars Lembergs, who has repeatedly attacked the stationing of American NATO troops in Latvia, and is increasingly revealing his pro-Putin leanings.

Ukraine thus casts longs shadows into many areas of Latvian domestic politics, with outcomes on October 4 difficult to predict.