Noting the rising influence of a largely ethnic Russian political party in Latvia, the American embassy in Rīga by late 2009 was preparing “for the real possibility” that Harmony Centre (Saskaņas centrs, or SC) could become part of a coalition government, according to recently released diplomatic cables.
The cables, released Sept. 2 by WikiLeaks, reveal concerns of U.S. embassy staff about the center-left party, which generally is viewed as pro-Moscow and appealing to a large portion of ethnic Russian voters in Latvia.
American diplomatic staff increased their engagement with Harmony Centre, meeting regularly with key party members to discuss foreign and domestic policy, according to a confidential Dec. 21, 2009, cable to the U.S. State Deparment from Ambassador Judith Garber.
“We do not expect to make dramatic shifts in SC policy,” the ambassador wrote, “but hope that we may have some influence on SC attitudes, while we prepare for the real possibility that a Moscow-oriented party may find itself sharing in the governance of a NATO ally.”
Harmony Centre earned 29 of the 100 seats in the October 2010 election for the 10th Saeima, second only to centre-right party Unity’s (Vienotība) 33 seats. Harmony Centre almost got to be part of the current coalition government, but talks between it and Unity broke down.
In advance of this month’s election for the 11th Saeima, Harmony Centre has been doing well in the polls. The party also controls the Rīga City Council and the capital’s mayor, the popular Nils Ušakovs, has been nominated by Harmony Centre as its candidate for prime minister.
However, ethnic Latvian and center-right parties have been taking aim at Harmony Centre, suggesting that if the party wins big on Sept. 17, then Latvia could come under influence from Moscow.
These concerns were evident in the U.S. diplomatic cables, although the embassy in Rīga also downplayed just how big a role Harmony Centre might have in running Latvia.
“The coalition nature of Latvian government makes it unlikely that SC would obtain core ‘power’ ministries such as defense, finance, foreign affairs, or justice, but any SC participation in a future cabinet would present us with challenges,” Garber wrote.
In the same cable, Garber noted Harmony Centre’s 2009 cooperation agreement with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party.
“(Boriss) Cilevičs (a leading Harmony Centre member of the Saeima) told us that the cooperation pact with United Russia shows it is serious about improving relations with Moscow and not just paying lip service to the idea as ethnic-Latvian parties have done,” the ambassador wrote.
However, Garber also commented that in the embassy’s view the agreement “had more to do with nailing down its domestic voter base than with creating an alliance with Moscow.”
Harmony Centre also had to move quickly to sign the agreement, because its competitor, the conservative First Party of Latvia (Latvijas Pirmā partija / Latvijas ceļš) had nearly completed a similar pact with United Russia. The First Party is led by oligarch Ainārs Šlesers.
Embassy staff were reassured by Harmony Centre leaders that the party would not fundamentally change Latvia’s foreign policy and would honor the country’s relations with the NATO defense alliance and the European Union. Harmony Centre leader Jānis Urbanovičs told embassy staff that his party would push for increased defense spending in support of NATO, but in return would expect the defense alliance to create jobs in Latvia.
The December 2009 cable also noted that Urbanovičs left no doubt about where party supporters look for guidance.
“…Urbanovičs admitted that many SC voters looked primarily to Moscow for guidance on foreign policy,” Garber wrote. “Urbanovičs said many of SC’s voters are ‘nostalgic’ for ‘Mother Russia’ and consider Latvia to be more like their ‘step-mother.’”
A spokesperson for Harmony Centre could not be reached for comment.
A more recent unclassified diplomatic cable, dated Feb. 12, 2010, addressed how ethnic loyalty was becoming less of a motivator for voters in Latvia. Citing Viktors Makarovs, director of the Rīga-based EuroCivitas policy center, Garber observed that the state of the Latvian economy was becoming more of a factor for voters.
Harmony Centre’s position over the years has moderated, according to the cable. As a result, more ethnic Latvians are ready to vote for the centre-left party. At the same time, some ethnic Russian voters have expressed readiness to vote for an ethnic Latvian party “if they thought it would consider the interests of Russian speakers.”
Estimates for the number of ethnic Latvians among voters for Harmony Centre ranged between 5 percent to 30 percent, the latter number coming from the party itself, according to the cable.
However, for many voters an ethnic divide remains.
“Negative stereotypes remain, along with differences in opinion about specific policies—particularly surrounding language requirements in schools and workplaces,” Garber wrote. “As a result, only a small portion of voters have crossed the ethnic line so far.”
Political parties generally have marketed themselves to their own ethnic group, the ambassador wrote, with the exception of the First Party of Latvia.
All cables released
The two cables are among more than 600, transmitted from 2006-2010 by the U.S. Embassy in Rīga, that are part of more than 250,000 cables obtained by the whistle blower website WikiLeaks. While the site had been slowly releasing the cables in cooperation with a number of media organizations, it unveiled the full collection on Sept. 2.
WikiLeaks partners, including the Guardian newspaper in London, condemned the release of unredacted cables because of the potential that some sources mentioned in the dispatches could be put at risk.
The Latvian news magazine Ir reported Sept. 3 that, according to the Rīga cables, Auditor General Inguna Sudraba had considered forming her own political party before last year’s election for the 10th Saeima. Sudraba also planned to become her party’s candidate for prime minister.
Sudraba had been courted by several political parties, but had publicly denied rumors of her political ambitions.
Cables released in December 2009 unveiled the NATO defense alliance’s plan to defend the Baltic states and Poland in the event of an attack by Russia. First reported by the Guardian, the defense strategy is called “Eagle Guardian” and would involve mobilizing nine division of U.S., British, German and Polish troops.
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