Sunday

20th Jan 2019

Pro-Western government wins Latvia elections

  • The left-wing party, Saskanas Centrs, led by Riga mayor Nils Usakovs, got 23 percent of votes (Photo: Zigurds Zakis)

Latvia’s main Russia-friendly party scored worse than in previous elections and is likely to stay out of government.

The left-wing party, Saskanas Centrs, led by Riga mayor Nils Usakovs, got 23 percent of votes on Saturday (4 October), maintaining its status as the biggest faction in parliament, but doing 5 points worse than in 2011.

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By contrast, the right-wing and centrist parties in the ruling coalition - NA, Vienotiba, and ZZS - increased their share of seats by 14 points to almost 60 percent.

Turnout reached 70 percent in the Riga area, and was lowest in Latgale, a majority Russian-speaking region, on 47 percent.

Latvia is home to more than half a million ethnic Russians, but some 280,000 of them do not hold Latvian citizenship and did not get a chance to cast ballots.

For his part, Usakovs told press he should get a chance to form a new government.

But the Latvian president, Andris Berzins, indicated in a radio interview on Monday that he will give the mandate to those parties which can realistically form a ruling group.

Laimdota Straujuma, the ZZS’ current prime minister, on Sunday also rejected Usakovs’ overtures to create a German-style right-left bloc. “I don’t think there should be a rainbow government if there is an opportunity to continue to work in the [current] coalition”, she told a TV programme.

The elections took place in the shadow of the Russia-Ukraine war.

Analysts note that Usakovs, whose party has formal links with Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party, damaged his popularity by visiting Moscow and saying Putin is “the best thing possible right now” for Russia.

But Straujuma, who helped lead Latvia from an economic crisis back to growth and who is a strong advocate of Nato and of EU sanctions on Russia, campaigned on Latvian security.

"This election is different because of what is going on in Ukraine … the situation is escalating there and people are worried what will happen because we have a border with Russia”, she noted while casting her vote.

The Ukraine war has jangled nerves in the Baltic states, which all host large Russian minorities, after Putin vowed to protect the rights of ethnic Russians abroad.

Russia in the run-up to the Latvian election kidnapped an Estonian intelligence officer and seized a Lithuanian fishing boat.

One of its senior diplomats, Konstantin Dolgov, also gave a speech in Riga in which he claimed, falsely, that the government plans to “liquidate” Russian-language schools in a move that would have “far-reaching, unfortunate consequences”.

Some ethnic Russians have lived in Latvia for decades, while hundreds of thousands of them were forcefully resettled by Stalin after World War II, causing antagonism.

Many older Russian speakers cannot get a Latvian passport because they find it hard to pass a Latvian language test. But their non-citizen status also has benefits, letting them go in and out of Russia without a visa.

Andis Kudors, a Latvian academic who specialises in Russian soft power, told EUobserver there is no support for autonomy or for joining Russia even in Russia-majority regions because economic conditions in Latvia are better than in Russia.

Even more radical pro-Russia politicians, such as Miroslav Mitrofanov - who backed Putin's annexation of Crimea but whose party failed to reach the 5 percent threshold in the Latvian parliament - agrees.

“We feel that we are Latvians, even if in our native language and culture we feel that we are Russians”, he told this website.

Meanwhile, Schengen Property, an elite real estate firm in Riga, has published data saying that Russians are flocking to Latvia where they can better protect their wealth.

It noted that demand for Latvian residency under an investor programme is up 70 percent on last year, with Russians accounting for 9,650 out of the 13,800 applicants.

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