Understanding Latvian politics

Krišjānis Kariņš

European Parliament, MEP

To understand Latvian politics, one has to understand a little bit about Latvia’s history, both during the Soviet occupation, and following independence.  Significant for the country’s current political system is the fact that during the Second World War, Latvia lost about 1/3 of its population, which during the Soviet occupation was replaced by Russian-speaking immigrants coming from all parts of the former Soviet Union.  In their view, the immigrants did not arrive in a foreign country, but to another part of the huge Russian-speaking empire.  From a Russian population of around 8% before the war, Latvia currently has about 38% of its inhabitants who are native Russian speakers.  Around 20% of Latvia’s 2.2 million inhabitants still do not speak Latvian, the official language of the country.  Although the country has very liberal naturalization laws, 16% (just over 344.000) of its permanent residents still have not naturalized, and hence do not have the right to vote.  All children born to non-naturalized parents with permanent residency in Latvia are automatically given citizenship as soon as (if) their parents register them.  It is also important to note that during the period of privatization following the regaining of independence, the lion’s share of economic wealth was not broadly distributed, but came under the control of a rather small number of individuals and “business interests”, a number of whom have taken up and are actively engaged in politics.

Partly due to being a very young democracy, partly due to the disproportionate influence of a few wealthy individuals with political ambitions, and partly due to the heavy burden of Soviet occupation and the ensuing wave of mass migration from various parts of the former Soviet Union, Latvia’s political parties are delineated more along the lines of ethnicity and “business clan” affiliation (or lack thereof) rather than along lines of socio-economic political ideology.

Along the “ethnic divide” are parties that are referred to as “Latvian”, and those that are referred to as “Russian”.  Within each broad grouping, there is of course a full spectrum of political views ranging from quite radical Latvian nationalists, to quite radical neo-Kremlinists.  What both groups have in common is that their core voters come from different language groups – one from Latvian-speaking voters, the others from an ethnically diverse group of Russian-speakers.  Although many parties have in various ways attempted to cross the “ethnic divide”, none has so far succeeded very well.  On a national level, the Russian-speaking parties draw around 25% of the vote, leaving 75% to the “Latvian” parties.  To date, the “Russian” parties have always been in the opposition on a national level.  However, during the last local elections in 2009, the party union “Saskaņas Centrs” (SC), which is a Russian-oriented party, secured the mayorship of the capital city, Riga.  Their success can be attributed to both the ethnic make-up of Riga, as well as to the fact that SC is a political union comprising of three individual parties, drawing all of their star politicians under one roof.

What can prove to be disorienting to an outside observer, as well as misleading to voters, is that the Latvian-speaking parties are considered as being on the “right”, while Russian-speaking parties are considered to be on the “left” of the political spectrum.  Economically speaking, this is simply not true in the broader European sense.  In fact, most parties internally represent a very broad spectrum of socio-economic views.  The Social Democrat party, which arguably has a clear socio-economic policy, has not crossed the 5% threshold during the last two parliamentary elections, and has not been represented in parliament for 8 years.  This does not mean, however, that social democratic views and values do not influence Latvian politics.  Within practically all political parties, there are a good number of politicians who could clearly be labelled as social democrats according to the political views that they publicly espouse.

On the “Latvian” side of the political spectrum the political parties can be further divided across three different axes:  “business clan” affiliation, degree of internal democratization, as well as social and economic policy.

Of the “Latvian” parties, three of those in parliament, broadly speaking, are often described as being “business clan” affiliated.  These are parties headed by Mr. Šķēle (Tautas partija, the “People’s party” – TP), Mr. Šlesers (Latvijas Pirmā partija, the “First party of Latvia” – LPP), and Mr. Lembergs (Zaļo un Zemnieku savienība, the “Union of Farmers and Greens” – ZZS), who is not the formal leader of ZZS, but appears to be their most influential politician, as well as being their longstanding Prime Ministerial candidate. These three politicians are often referred to as “oligarchs” in the press, each apparently controlling large financial resources.  None of these parties is written about as having a large degree of internal democratization.  They consist of more “top down” decision making, at least on all major decisions.

Other “Latvian” parties represented in parliament are Jaunais laiks “New Era” – JL, Pilsoniskā savienība “Civic Union” – PS, Savienība Citai politikai “Society for a different politics” – SCP, and Tēvzemei un Brīvībai “For Fatherland and Freedom”  – TB.  Each of these four parties broadly speaking consists of politicians who through their strong personalities and lack of visible wealth rule out the possibility of any one individual taking full control.  Hence, they are by nature more democratic parties.  Of course, given the plurality of individual views on many issues within these parties, internal discord within them from time to time is visible to outside observers.  For the upcoming national election, JL, PS, and SCP have joined together to form the union Vienotība “Unity”.  A common theme shared by politicians in this union is to provide an alternative to the “oligarch” parties.  TB is the “Latvian” party which puts national identity as its most visible value.

Along the socio-economic spectrum, the “Latvian” parties have various stances.  The more “conservative” are TP and LPP, which generally are quite pro-business parties.  JL and PS are more centrist, having politicians who stress economic development, as well as politicians who stress social responsibility.  ZZS and TB are perhaps more on the social or “left” side of the economic spectrum in terms of policy that they advocate, while SCP has tried to present itself as a clearly non-communist supporter of social values.  What is noteworthy is that the current round of party integration is along the “oligarch/democracy” axis, as opposed to the “conservative/liberal” axis traditional in European politics.

On the “Russian” side of the political spectrum, party consolidation happened a number of years ago, leaving only two parties:  Saskaņas Centrs “Centre Harmony” – SC, and Par Cilvēku tiesībām vienotā Latvijā, “For Human Rights in a United Latvia” – PCTVL.  Both of these parties present themselves as social-oriented, although not all of their activities and views can easily be described as social democratic in the European sense.  The main difference between the two is that PCTVL is more radically pro-Russia, even pro-Kremlin oriented, while SC publicly shies away from such a clear affiliation.  Both parties are interested in introducing Russian as an official language in Latvia and hence are not supportive of official integration policies in the country.  Their politicians support Russia’s interpretation of the history of the Second World War, and regularly participate in Russian-supported political and cultural events.  Two of their three elected member in the European Parliament (one from SC, one from PCTVL) actively struggled against the independence of Latvia from the Soviet Union.

Thus, the Latvian political spectrum is split among various divides.  The “Russian” parties have succeeded quite well at unification, and together command at least 25% of the national vote.  The “Latvian” parties are still struggling to consolidate, and are still radically split along the “oligarch/democracy” line.  In the upcoming national elections in October of 2010, there will be three main groupings vying for power:  (1) the Latvian “oligarch” parties, (2) the Latvian “democratic” parties and (3) the Russian parties.  The outcome of this election will more clearly define the development of the country over the next four years.  Unfortunately for the country, political parties are still split across ethnic and business-controlled lines, which means that there is still a tremendous drag on the development of politics along the traditional European socio-economic dimension.  This is the high cost of Latvia’s history.

April, 2010