Latvia: decisive election gains for pro-western parties
Latvia’s October election saw a collapse in support for the Harmony party, closely associated with the country’s ethnic Russian population: Russia’s war on Ukraine proved a galvanising political issue for many. Prime Minister Arturs Krišjānis Kariņš will likely continue in office, leading a centre-right coalition, and the country will maintain its policy of staunch opposition to the war and solidarity with Ukraine. But some of Latvia’s ethnic Russians feel their identity is coming under attack, particularly from a right-wing nationalist party that’s likely to remain part of the government. Latvia should show it opposes the war while respecting the rights of all its citizens.
Across Europe, Russia’s war on Ukraine continues to have wide-reaching political repercussions. In some countries, political change is resulting from the war’s impact on fuel costs, which has driven prices up across the board.
In Italy high prices were one of the contributing factors behind the far right’s recent rise to power. In the Czech Republic, large-scale protests, again prompted by high energy prices, have called on the government to resign, questioned the country’s membership of the European Union and NATO and demanded neutrality towards Russia. In Bulgaria, the government likely to be formed following its recent election may take a weaker position towards Russia.
The issue of Russia had a significant influence on voting choices in Latvia’s 1 October parliamentary election. As in other cases, this election took place against the contemporary backdrop of soaring energy prices and high all-round inflation linked to Russia’s invasion – but given Latvia’s location on the European Union’s eastern frontier and its border with Russia, national security and international solidarity with Ukraine were also major issues.
Biggest party a casualty
Voters decisively turned their backs on a party historically seen as pro-Russian. The centre-left Harmony party, which came first in the last two elections, was left with no parliamentary seats after its vote share fell to a little below the threshold of five per cent.
The party is associated with Latvia’s ethnic Russian minority, which makes up around a quarter of the population. Until 2017 it had a formal cooperation agreement with Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party. But the war has divided Latvia’s ethnic Russian population. Harmony criticised Russia over the invasion, but was accused of saying little about the vast human rights atrocities Russian forces are committing in Ukraine.
It seems clear that many ethnic Russians deserted the party in 2022. It may have lost support on both sides: seen as not pro-Russian enough by ardent Putin followers, but viewed as too strongly associated with the threatening power to Latvia’s east by others.
Some Harmony supporters appear to have switched to a new force, For Stability!, a Eurosceptic populist party that split from Harmony last year. It gained profile by opposing COVID-19 lockdowns and mandatory vaccinations, and supports the right to education in Russian. It took 11 of 100 seats in the Saeima, Latvia’s parliament, on close to seven per cent of the vote, making it the only party in parliament that claims to speak for Latvia’s ethnic Russians.
In contrast, there was little support for the Latvian Russian Union, the most pro-Kremlin party standing, which gained no parliamentary seats on under four per cent of the vote.
Change and continuity
Harmony’s absence from parliament doesn’t mean a change of government. It’s only ever played an opposition role, with other parties refusing to work with it. When coalition governments formed after the 2014 and 2018 elections, Harmony wasn’t a part of them.
Political volatility isn’t new in Latvia: in the 2018 election many people rejected established parties following a series of financial and corruption scandals. As well as for Harmony, many voted for Eurosceptic and nationalist parties, which formed part of the resulting five-party centre-right coalition government. The government took a broadly positive approach to civil society.
Following the 2022 vote, Arturs Krišjānis Kariņš will likely continue as prime minister. His party, New Unity, was the smallest in parliament after the 2018 election, but in 2022 it came first with 26 seats, rewarded for its leadership in response to the war and putting it into a commanding position to lead the formation of the next government.
Some kind of centre-to-right coalition seems inevitable again, but it could have a slightly different complexion, with the government no longer glued together by a determination to keep Harmony out of power.
New decisions will have to be made because Latvian voters’ quest for novelty continued in 2022. Parties that fared well in 2018 and joined the government – the Conservatives, Development/For! and For a Human Latvia – have, like Harmony, vanished from parliament. In their place, as well as For Stability!, is a new right-wing populist party, Latvia First, founded and funded by oligarch Ainārs Šlesers, which won nine seats.
Another new forced emerged from a split in the Union of Greens and Farmers group, a centre-right agrarian-green alliance funded by another controversial oligarch, Aivars Lembergs. Lembergs, who has been praised by Russian state propaganda channels over his criticism of NATO, received a five-year jail sentence in February 2021 for corruption, money laundering and abuse of office. He was released after a year and sensationally nominated by the Union of Greens and Farmers as its candidate for prime minister.
Opposition to Lembergs’ role led several parties, including the Latvian Green Party, to split off and run as the United List on a socially conservative, green and regionalist ticket. Both groups fared well: the Union of Greens and Farmers gained five seats to stand at 16 and, in its first election, the United List took 15 seats. It’s remarkable that Lemberg’s jail term doesn’t seem to have deterred voters, indicating the continuing power a handful of oligarchs enjoy in politics. But Kariņš is likely to exclude his grouping from government, and instead seek to limit oligarchical influence and populist power by working with the United List.
Likely to play a continuing role in government is the right-wing nationalist National Alliance party. Unlike many similar European parties, it supports NATO and has a generally pro-west orientation, informed by its opposition to Russia. But like other such parties, it has consistently attacked the rights of migrants and LGBTQI+ people. Its politicians have expressed support for Poland-style ‘LGBT-free zones’ and tried to resist progress towards legal recognition of rights for same-sex couples, in one of Europe’s most hostile countries for LGBTQI+ people. Its continuing influence can only hold back progress on this front.
The new government will face the challenge of standing up to Russia while respecting the rights of all Latvia’s people.
There is, however, another option for Kariņš: he could include the Progressives, parliament’s only centre-left party. Winning representation for the first time, the Progressives support a Nordic-style social democracy encompassing gender equality, LGBTQI+ rights, migrants’ rights and environmental responsibility. Their involvement in a coalition would position the government on the centre ground and offer potential progress in advancing rights, without compromising Latvia’s stance on Russia. It remains to be seen whether Kariņš will embrace this bolder option.
Latvia’s ethnic Russians in the spotlight
The result is bad news for Putin. It means Latvia will stay among the countries united against him and determined to support Ukraine. But whatever the make-up of the government, it seems clear that the identity and allegiance of Latvia’s Russian-speaking population will remain under question. Many Latvians vividly recall living under the Soviet yoke, when Russian language and culture were imposed and Russians were encouraged to live in the country. That resentment hasn’t gone away, and Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has only inflamed tensions.
Latvia’s ethnic Russians are being presented as not patriotic enough and as insufficiently assimilated with Latvian culture, particularly by National Alliance politicians. The National Alliance makes the kind of attacks on the Russian minority that Europe’s far right normally reserves for non-white and Muslim populations.
The government has reacted to the war not just by supporting Ukraine and urging strong NATO action, but also by moving against the Russian language and historic symbols. An annual commemoration by Latvia’s Russian speakers of the Soviet Union’s role in winning the Second World War has been banned. In August the government tore down the place they used to gather, a monument to Soviet soldiers in the capital, Riga. The use of Russian in schools has been limited.
Since the start of the conflict, Russian-speaking media have been restricted, with some media channels banned and websites blocked. Undoubtedly, this has helped prevent the sharing of Russian disinformation. Independent Russian journalists in exile have also based themselves in Latvia, including the banned independent TV channel Rain and newspaper Novaya Gazeta. But ethnic Russians may feel their media landscape is shrinking.
Some of Latvia’s ethnic Russian population doubtless support Putin and his war, and some will be either conscious or unwitting agents in spreading Russian disinformation. Many may feel fear of speaking out, exacerbated if they now lack political representation. But it’s clear from voting patterns that many ethnic Russians aren’t siding with Putin. The new government will face the challenge of standing up to Russia while respecting the rights of all Latvia’s people: to demonstrate in practice commitment to the human rights values Putin clearly despises.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
The new government must commit to upholding the rights of all Latvians.
The government must ensure that any restrictions of the freedom of expression, including of Russian-language media, are temporary and in line with international and European laws and standards.
The government should work to recognise and uphold the rights of LGBTQI+ people, including by giving legal recognition to same-sex couples.
Cover photo by Reuters/Ints Kalnins via Gallo Images