October 6, parliamentary elections were held in Latvia. Turnout amounted to 55%. After 95% of the votes were counted, it became known that seven parties managed to overcome the five-percent barrier (overall, 16 parties participated in the elections). As in the last parliamentary elections, Harmony party of the Russian minority (almost 20% of the votes) has gained the greatest number of the votes. So now it might take 24 out of 100 seats in Latvian Sejm. In 2014, the Latvian Russians were left behind the political sidelines thanks to the coalition agreement of the center-right New Unity party, the Union of Greens and Farmers (this includes the People’s Party of the current Prime Minister Māris Kučinskis) and the National Alliance of Raivis Dzintars (right-wing politician – Ed.), they have formed a parliamentary majority and took 61 seats in the Sejm. This time the political situation in Latvia is more delicate. These parties in the aggregate gained 28% of the vote, and this is not enough to form a new coalition (it is necessary to control 51 seats in parliament).
This time they were ousted by parties that previously were not members of the government: the populist KPV LV party (Who owns the state?) (14.07%), New Conservative Party (13.6%), Development/For! New Conservative Party and KPV LV will receive 16 and 15 seats in parliament, respectively. Edgars Tavars, a member of the Union of Greens and Farmers, believes that his part would conduct coalition negotiations with their partners. Negotiations will be difficult because the initiative is out of their hands. For Ukraine, the outcome of the parliamentary elections in Latvia is of particular importance as, since 2014, this Baltic republic has supported Ukraine in the fight against Russian aggression, supports the policy of anti-Russian sanctions and opposes the implementation of Russian Nord Stream-2 gas pipeline project, which can deprive Ukraine of its great share of revenues from transit of Russian natural gas. The composition of the future coalition depends on Riga’s position concerning the Ukrainian issue.
Latvians are tired of “Ukraine’s friends”
A victory of those parties, which do not support rapprochement with Russia, are beneficial for Ukraine. First of all, this concerns the National Alliance party, which supports the strengthening of NATO’s military presence at the EU borders, and its language policy is similar to Ukrainian one, namely the complete transition of education to the state language. Their leader Raivis Dzintars has repeatedly called on the Latvian parliamentarians to take a sober look at the Russian threat after the annexation of Ukrainian Crimea. He believes that the Russian Federation uses the information space to zombieing the people of Latvia with the idea of restoring the Russian Empire. His partner from the Union of Greens and Farmers, Prime Minister Māris Kučinskis, opposes construction of the Nord Stream-2 Russian gas pipeline.
Yet Ukraine’s friends failed to repeat their past successes in these parliamentary elections for obvious reasons. A significant proportion of Latvians are not satisfied with the way the government is struggling with the problem of corruption and money laundering. A serious blow to the reputation of Māris Kučinskis government was the suspicion of the US Treasury in February 2018 that the Latvian ABLV bank was involved in money laundering, bypassing the UN sanctions against North Korea. After that, the bank’s customers withdrew deposits in the amount of $ 740 million from their accounts. Americans were considering the possibility of introducing restrictive measures against ABLV. This scandal reduces confidence in the banking system of Latvia, which has become a kind of financial hub between Russia and the West.
According to the non-governmental organization Transparency International, in 2017, Latvia was ranked 40th out of 180 countries in the world in terms of susceptibility to corruption (Ukraine ranks 130th). Nevertheless, despite the membership in the European Union since 2004, the problem of bribery still exists in the Baltic republic. In almost all spheres, the business faces the bribes challenge. The existing anti-corruption legislation works ineffectively in the fight against bribery. The problem of bribes is also widespread in Latvian authorities, for example, in the areas of taxation, customs, land regulation, and public procurement. The head of the Central Bank of Latvia Ilmars Rimsevics extorted 100 thousand euros as a bribe from ABLV. After being detained in February 2018, the Latvian authorities released him on bail, and even the president and the prime minister could not convince the corrupt official to resign. In 2015, the corruption story involving the then CEO of Latvian Railways, Ugis Magonis, caused a scandal; he received a half a million euros bribe from Oleg Osinovsky, owner of the Estonian Skinest Group company, to buy used diesel locomotives.
Latvian society is dissatisfied with the level of salaries in its country, and labor migration to other EU member states has become common. The average salary in Latvia is 670 euros per month, and the minimum salary is 430 euros (in neighboring Estonia it is 500 euros). The lowest salaries are observed in the spheres of the hotel business, catering, computer repair, and household appliances, education, and civil service. Local residents consider these salaries too low and therefore prefer to go abroad to earn money. From 2000 to 2018, the population of Latvia decreased from 2.38 million to 1.95 million people under the influence of external migration. Latvian youth leave mainly to the UK, Ireland, Germany or the countries of Northern Europe, like Denmark. This trend is common among the Russian-speaking population, which does not want to learn the state Latvian language, which impedes obtaining citizenship and applying for a highly paid job. Russian-speaking "non-citizens," especially young girls, try to learn English well, get a higher education in Latvia, and then leave to work or re-study in Europe.
Russian wolf in sheep's clothing
As in the last elections, Harmony party has united the Russian-speaking minority, which makes up 25% of the population of Latvia. Local Russians trust Nils Ušakovs, who for 9 years has been the mayor of Riga. He has repaired and equipped many schools, playgrounds, historical sights, buildings, and public institutions. Nils Ušakovs was accused of spending 8 million euros from the state budget for social networks promotion. The candidate for prime minister from Harmony party, former Minister of Economics Vjačeslavs Dombrovskis headed the analytical center Certus, which financed the scandalous ABLV bank.
Nevertheless, Nils Ušakovs believes that it is impossible to form a viable and stable coalition without the participation of his party. He said that he was proud that there would no longer be “nationalists” at the head of parliament. Harmony party is very different from the post-Soviet political forces that are oriented toward Russia, such as, for example, the Party of Socialists of the Republic of Moldova. Ushakov’s political force avoids rhetoric about the need for rapprochement with Russia in the political and economic sphere, does not justify the annexation of Crimea, and formally adheres to the pro-European course. Harmony has even terminated the agreement with the Russian "United Russia" ruling party in 2018, which was considered a barrier to the European Parliament.
Nevertheless, Harmony party can be compared with a wolf in sheep’s clothing, which Putin pulled off a leash so that he could sneak into the Latvian and European Parliament and influence the position of Brussels and Riga regarding the anti-Russian sanctions and Nord Stream - 2 in favor of Russia. One of the founders of the party was Alfrēds Rubiks, the former leader of the Latvian Communist Party. He was imprisoned because he supported the attempted coup of the Soviet security forces revanchists of the State Emergency Committee in August 1991. Deputy Dzintars believes that with the help of Ušakovs and the Harmony party, the Kremlin wants to destabilize Latvia.
Harmony defends the interests of the Russian-speaking inhabitants of Latvia, who have their own vision of the development of the Baltic republic. In 2015, at the request of the government, a survey was conducted among the Russian-speaking population of Latvia, and according to its results, more than half of the respondents supported the restoration of the Soviet Union, and 20-30% supported Latvia’s accession to Russia or the Eurasian Union. Economic interests of local Russians who trade with Russian counterparties play their role here. Latvia is a kind of Russia’s railway and road bridge to the countries of Western Europe, and some Russian export cargoes go through the territory of Latvia. Anti-Russian sanctions and the participation of Latvia in their way prevent business. Local Russian-speaking people blame Ukraine for their troubles, not Russia, which provoked the introduction of restrictive measures by the US and the EU. Ušakovs himself believes that the idea of imposing anti-Russian sanctions was a failure, and the "sanctions war" was unprofitable for Russia and Europe.
In the course of the election campaign, Ušakovs has developed the Western image of the Consent party. For this, he hired an American political technologist, Christopher Ferry, who previously worked at Davis-Manafort and advised Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham, as well as Viktor Yanukovych, when he was Ukraine’s Prime Minister. Ušakovs said that the USA is an important ally of Latvia and was photographed against the background of unloading tanks in the port of Riga. He even tried to find some of Ukraine’s sympathy.
Once Ušakovs reproached the ruling parliamentary parties with hypocrisy since Russian-speaking Ukrainians in Latvia (for the most part) do not have citizenship. In fact, these people simply do not want to learn the state language, the knowledge of which it is compulsory for getting a Latvian passport.
Conservatives and populists: the cornerstone of the coalition
However, Ušakovs should restrain his ambitions in the political arena of Latvia, because his Harmony party might bring eggs to a fair market if other political forces form a broad anti-Russian coalition. Latvians lost confidence in the current government and voted for those who promised to overcome corruption, solve the problem of money laundering, and raise wages. In particular, the “New Conservative Party” promised to raise the minimum salary to 500 euros per month, raise salaries for doctors to 1,700 euros per month, increase social spending for children, reduce the number of ministries, and create a single national agency to fight corruption. But representatives of Development/For! also promise to increase the minimum wage to 500 euros, to raise pensions by half over the next 10 years, and also protect gay rights. But this does not mean that they support Russia and want to keep learning in Russian in schools and universities.
Despite the fact that Raivis Dzintars suspected the “New Conservative Party” of relations with the Kremlin, its leader Jānis Bordāns, who is aiming at the premiership, said his political force was ready to conduct coalition negotiations with all parties from the parliament, with the exception of Harmony party. He refused to join the coalition with Ušakovs and the leader of KPV LV party, actor and showman Artuss Kaimiņš, who demanded that he recognize the annexation of Crimea, the Soviet occupation of Latvia, and abandon the idea of multi-language education in Latvian schools. In general, Latvian society perceives Russia as a threat, so for any Latvian party, it is undesirable to cooperate with the political forces of the Russian minority not to lose face in front of the overwhelming part of Latvian society. Unless, the Kremlin bribes any of them, given the propensity for corruption of a part of Latvian population.