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Latvia: elections in the shadow of war

Jānis Urbanovičs
Saskaņa Social Democratic Party, Chairman of the Board and Chairman of the parliamentary group

In the Latvian parliamentary elections on 1 October, the main ‘player’ was the war started by the neighbouring country Russia in Ukraine. The war indirectly determined both the winners and the losers of these elections. All four parties that achieved the highest results in the previous elections were pushed below the 5 per cent parliamentary threshold – among them the Social Democratic party ‘Saskaņa’. Very surprisingly, the war also handed victory to the party, that – blatantly unsuccessfully – had led Latvia in the previous four years through the crises of the pandemic, energy security and unprecedented inflation growth.

The Russian Question

Since the restoration of independence, the main problem of Latvia has always been the tensions between the two main components of its society. The Latvian majority and the Russian-speaking minority have not been able for decades to unite in a single political nation. The Latvian-speaking community underlines the atrocities of the Soviet regime, while the Russian-speaking part insists on its dissatisfaction with the experiences of the last 30 years. The right-wing political parties shamelessly use these divisions, making a third of the country’s citizens ‘strangers’, even though they have built and protected this country side by side with the founding nation.

Since 24 February, Latvia has become a border country to a war. Initially, the conservative and right-wing parties of the government tried to address the Russian-speaking citizens, and support their patriotic mood. As the elections approached, however, everything was done to make Latvian Russians feel guilty for Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. The outcome was predictable – the response of Russian-speaking citizens is radicalisation.

Saskaņa’s dilemma

For several decades, ‘Saskaņa’, the Social Democratic Party, had received the unequivocal support of the Russian-speakers in elections, which has allowed us to be regularly the biggest party in parliament. When we woke up in a completely different world on the morning of 24 February, we faced a dilemma: to fundamentally condemn the war started by Russia or remain silent about it, which would have meant morally supporting the aggressor. 

Latvian Russians are connected to their ethnic homeland in many ways – through family ties, family history, culture, and language. Therefore, the Russian aggression was a complete shock to them, and they struggle to accept the new reality. If acting out of mercenary considerations, perhaps it would have been more beneficial for us to remain silent. But we chose the only right position, in alignment with that of the government: we took a sharp stand against Russia’s military invasion. And even now, after we dropped out of Parliament because of this position, we consider this stand to be the only possible for our party. On the other side, the populist party ‘For Stability!’ won a significant number of votes based on a campaign that accused Saskaņa of ‘betraying’ Russians.

The division of society is deepening

During the electoral campaign, when the war had become the central subject, the right-wing parties not only turned against the aggressor-country Russia, but also against everything that is Russian, repeatedly violating European principles on minority rights. Suppression of the Russian language from the public media, from the education system, restrictions in pre-election campaigning and even in the private sector…, – all these elements were used in the name of ‘strengthening the position of the Latvian language’. This was followed by a fanatical fight against Soviet-era monuments, despite the fact that in the eyes of many Russians, these monuments are emorials to their ancestors who fell in the war against fascism.

Not only extreme nationalist parties followed this campaign agenda, but also the more moderate right-wing parties, which should have realised how dangerous exacerbating tensions is during wartime.

The result is that we have been pushed back decades in the creation of a unified society, and a political nation. Latvia has become a target for the propaganda of war aggressors, arguing that Russian-speaking people are oppressed in Europe.

Significantly, the elections caused important changes not only in the preferences of Russian-speaking voters. The entire electorate also expressed a clear refusal of the liberal ‘Attīstībai/PAR’ party, and of the conservative ‘Konservatīvie’. Thus, Attīstībai and Konservatīvie ministers who were responsible for defence, justice, education and healthcare were removed from government. On the other side, the centre-right party ‘Jaunā Vienotība’ (‘Unity’) of Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkēvičs, won the most votes and unprecedented popularity. 

It is possible that, in this way, Latvian voters sublimate their concerns about everything that is happening in the country’s internal politics and link their hopes with help from the outside – the European Union, NATO, and international institutions. 

Some big questions remain: doesn’t the lack of trust in the politicians who shape Latvia’s internal policy make our country a weak link when there is war in the neighbourhood? And are the winners of the elections, ostensibly happy that Saskaņa has lost its leading position, aware of the responsibility that lies in their hands?

Photo credits: Shutterstock/Radowits

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