During 2005, there was no change of government in Latvia. Perhaps this time there should have been. It was largely successful external politics that dominated the year, but some local politics could always be relied upon to take the gloss off external achievements and reveal previously unplumbed depths in Latvian political life.
The dawning of 2005 came in new colours—the unexpected “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine. Strongly supported by the Baltic states, Western Europe and the United States, Viktor Yushchenko’s turning of the tables on the corrupt, Russia-backed incumbents continued the slow overturning of such regimes that had begun in Georgia earlier in 2004 and was to be repeated—perhaps even more unexpectedly—in Kyrgyzstan in 2005.
For those who had believed that accession to the European Union and NATO in 2004 guaranteed Latvia a quiet and protected life, the year brought new challenges and, for the most part, challenges that were well responded to. Of central importance was President Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga’s high-risk politics surrounding the May 9 celebrations in Moscow to mark the 60th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany. Against much advice, she decided to attend these celebrations, but used her response to the invitation to point out that the end of Nazism was followed by nearly 50 years of Soviet occupation, which also needed to be condemned. This led to several months of intense diplomatic and not-so-diplomatic rhetoric. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin reacted strongly, and when Vīķe-Freiberga gave him a copy of a recent history of Latvia, Putin used the Auschwitz memorial ceremony in January to attack those who he accused of attempting to rewrite history.
Eventually, the May 9 celebrations in Moscow were decidedly less than a triumph for Russia. The other two Baltic presidents declined to attend and received considerable publicity for that, but even greater attention was paid to Vīķe-Freiberga. U.S. President George W Bush pointedly visited Latvia just before and Georgia just after the May 9 celebrations, again bringing displeasure from Moscow as he supported the spread of democracy and implicitly pointed to the growing lack of democracy in Russia.
Other external gains can also be counted, including the European Parliament being willing to look at issues of the consequence of Soviet rule in the new EU member states. Many forces, including the EU and particularly Poland, continued pressure on Russia over its slide to authoritarianism and legal and human rights abuses, but Latvian representatives on the whole resisted criticizing Russia on all matters, stressing the need for good relations despite issues of contention, and deflecting Russia’s now flagging criticisms of Latvia’s minority politics.
Over the same period, the tortuous on-again, off-again negotiations over a border agreement with Russia ground to a halt for both Latvia and Estonia, with both Baltic countries insisting on attaching their own addenda outlining the history of past treaties with the Soviet Union and their consequences, and a subsequent refusal to accept this by Russia. While I have earlier argued that Latvia had gone about these negotiations in an often incompetent manner, it was somewhat “saved” by a similar fate befalling Estonia.
However, local politicians can always make matters worse. Aleksandrs Kiršteins, chair of the Saiema (Parliament) Foreign Affairs Committee, excited passions with a call for Russians to leave the country, adding that this exodus should be accompanied by brass bands at the railway stations. After rather prolonged pressure he resigned, widely regarded as a provocateur.
The bigger external problems, however, took a new form in 2005. Not only the Baltic states but also much of Europe are highly dependent on Russian gas and oil, and Putin has put in considerable work to woo particularly Germany and France to support Russian ambitions. A stage-managed “750 year anniversary of Kaliningrad” (that’s the old Königsberg, the city of philosopher Immanuel Kant, now a Russian oil and weapons sludgepile) saw Putin invite just two western leaders to the celebrations – France’s Jacques Chirac and Germany’s Gerhardt Schröder – as these were people who Putin said “spoke the same language” as himself! And what did they speak about? A radical plan to build a submarine gas pipeline from St. Petersburg to Germany, bypassing the Baltic states and Poland and creating potentially an environmental catastrophe in the Baltic Sea. Despite Russia’s many foreign affairs setbacks in the recent past, energy geopolitics is now the name of its game. This will be a test for Germany’s new Chancellor Angela Merkel. Latvia’s former Foreign Affairs Minister Sandra Kalniete, who had earlier made waves with her own well-reported equation of Nazism with Communism, also darkly warned that values, not trade, should underpin the European Union’s relations with Russia.
Against this external backdrop, Latvia’s awkward and often meandering coalition government of Aigars Kalvītis struggled to deal with mounting internal problems, but was saved by a booming economy. Poll ratings for all parties in the coalition were poor throughout 2005, with only New Era (Jaunais laiks) and occasionally the People’s Party (Tautas partija) scoring above the 5 percent barrier. Former Prime Minister and New Era leader Einars Repše spent the first half of the year as almost a political irrelevancy, involved in a number of strange property deals and personally distancing himself from all political engagement, even while fulfilling the role of defense minister. However, in the second half of the year his activity both as minister and politician markedly improved, and when he was faced with a serious leadership challenge during the New Era’s party congress, Repše responded with vigour but also with understanding, almost seeming to lose his former arrogance and distance. New Era has now shown itself to be more than a one-man party. (Repše stepped down as defense minister and resigned his seat in the Saeima on Dec. 22 in reaction to Kalvītis going public with news that the state anti-corruption bureau has begun a criminal investigation of Repše’s finances – ed.)
On the other side of the political fence, National Harmony Party (Tautas saskaņas partija) leader Jānis Jurkāns retired from politics, rather in despair at the prospects of his party which has begun to seriously fray, losing members to central parties on the one hand while often being sidelined by the more aggressive pro-Moscow forces on the other. Jurkāns had a long engagement with politics going back to the People’s Front (Tautas fronte) days of the late 1980s. He was foreign minister in the Ivars Godmanis government (1990-1993) when Latvia regained its independence, but then split from many of his People’s Front colleagues. The National Harmony Party was variously seen as left-wing and appealing only to the province of Latgale and Russian-oriented interests, but Jurkāns saw it as an alternative both to the nationalists and to the hard-line ex-Communist diehards.
Meanwhile, in the Saeima the quality of political life continued to be eroded with several measures that further alienated the public. Using a variety of hypocritical arguments and parliamentary obstruction tactics, Saeima deputies twice defeated a proposal to remove deputies’ immunity to administrative law prosecution – that is, legal cases that might arise from administrative abuses of their position, related business dealings, etc. And as if to rub in this immunity, in the most vicious display of self-interest a majority of deputies backed sudden, unexpected and unexplained turnarounds in gambling laws that overturned previous restrictions on expansion of gambling facilities, a clear case of cui bono—who benefits?
But finally, one totally unexpected issue has left a cloud over the year in Latvian politics and makes us question much of the apparent gains made over recent times. Latvia’s inaugural “Rīga Pride” gay and lesbian march took place on July 23, leading to a sequence of events still reverberating. In the old Soviet system gay culture was even more underground than it had been in the West. Now, 15 years after Latvia regained its independence, you could think that gay culture would have found its largely uncontroversial niche as it has elsewhere. Not so. The march caused a storm even before the event, with raging controversy in the Rīga City Council over permission for the march and finally a court case determining it could proceed. On the day, marchers were harassed and in some cases physically attacked by a set of opponents forming a momentary but bizarre coalition – neo-Nazis, National Bolsheviks, virtually all major religious bodies and right-wing family-first groups. Controversy continued to rage afterwards, resulting in further strange alliances, for example Russian Ambassador Viktor Kalyuzhny praising Latvia’s Catholic Cardinal Jānis Pujats for condemning the march. In late November, Riga’s Lutheran Archbishop expelled the dean of the University of Latvia’s theology faculty, Juris Cālītis, from the Lutheran church for participating in a gay church service and supporting gay culture, the archbishop’s representative colourfully equating homosexuality with Satanism.
Readers may well understand how marginal much organised religion is in present-day Latvia. But this opportunity to attack a perceived threat and raise social passions was not scorned by prominent mainstream politicians, particularly the plutocratic and populist Transport Minister Ainars Šlesers, who criticised the court for allowing the march and mounted a campaign in the Saeima to amend Latvia’s constitution to define marriage as being between a man and a women. Almost unbelievably, on Dec. 1 the Saeima passed this proposal, the first move in securing a constitutional amendment, doing it in such a bloody minded and hyped-up environment that only three deputies voted against the proposal, and not one deputy daring to speak against it. While such actions have been strongly criticised by much popular response in Latvia itself, and almost universally condemned by contributors to public debate from outside Latvia, they nevertheless also aroused strong anti-gay sentiments from many within Latvia.
No other incident so clearly revealed the political opportunism and cynicism that characterises Latvian politics. But it also revealed the enormous well of homophobia that still exists in significant sections of Latvian society. While certainly not wanting to underestimate homophobia in western societies, the scale and nature of this issue in Latvia shows the still yawning chasm that exists between the very damaged society in Latvia and the Europe it aspires to be part of. In other circumstances we could fear that such an incident could lead to Latvia becoming the laughing stock of Europe, but on this occasion it is likely that Europe will not be laughing.
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