Amid economic woes, support for ethnic Russian party surges prior to Latvia’s election

Friday, October 1, 2010

Ethnic Russian party gains before Latvian vote

RIGA, Latvia — The implosion of Latvia’s economy has propelled an unlikely candidate to the front ahead of Saturday’s national election: a left-leaning party rooted in the country’s ethnic Russian minority.

The fault lines between ethnic Latvians and the Russian minority run deep in this small Baltic nation, and the idea of Russian influence evokes painful memories of 50 years of Soviet occupation. Ever since Latvia’s independence in 1991, after the fall of the Soviet Union, politics here have been dominated by center-right governments steering the country on a pro-Western course, culminating in NATO and European Union membership in 2004.

But the economic plunge — deeper in Latvia than any other EU country — appears to have changed the landscape. And many Latvians fear that a victory for the opposition Harmony Center would give the Kremlin a voice in EU and NATO affairs, even though the party’s leadership denies the accusations.

With confidence in the country’s leaders plummeting, polls show support for Harmony Center has grown beyond its traditional base of native Russian-speakers, making it the front-runner among five or six parties expected to win seats in the 100-member Parliament.

Russian-speakers, mostly ethnic Russians but also Ukrainians and Belarusians, represent one-third of Latvia’s 2.3 million population. But given that many traditional Latvian parties are blamed for the recession, some Latvians are willing to vote for the center-left Harmony Center. The party last year won a municipal election in Riga, the capital.

As a result, Harmony Center could grow from the current 18 seats to about 30 in the next legislature, which would make it a powerful force even if it remains in opposition.

Party leaders have tried to dispel fears that they would reverse Latvia’s policy of western integration. Still, some Latvians are alarmed at Harmony Center’s ties to Moscow.

“First, Russia would be happy to have a vote inside NATO and the European Union. Second, radical changes in our foreign policy … will move Latvia to the periphery in all decisions made in NATO and the EU,” said Sarmite Elerte, a 53-year-old former journalist campaigning for Unity, a new centrist political bloc that slightly trails Harmony Center in the polls.

Also under question is the €7.5 billion ($10.2 billion) bailout plan put together by the EU and the International Monetary Fund in December 2008 when Latvia stared into the abyss of bankruptcy.

Harmony Center leaders have blasted the program’s tough austerity measures in public, though when pressed they say they will adhere to the deal. Regardless, the party’s center-left platform has appealed to more Latvians tired of crony politics and corruption.

“Our political platform basically is the same. It’s just in greater demand than it used to be,” says Boris Cilevics, a Harmony Center lawmaker and the party’s candidate for foreign minister.

“We’re the only social democrats among the main players in the field, and more and more people in Latvia understand the destructive nature of neo-liberal policies that led to the crisis,” he says.

Even if Harmony Center wins, it’s not guaranteed a role in the next government. President Valdis Zatlers, who will nominate the next prime minister, has made it clear that the party’s desire to recall Latvia’s troops from Afghanistan makes it unfit to govern.

Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis, leader of the Unity party, has said the current center-right coalition must stay in power to see through painful reforms and budget cuts that will have to continue for at least two more years.

Dombrovskis took over the government in March 2009 after the previous leadership collapsed over a wave of angst amid the deteriorating economy.

Latvians have seen their economy shrink 25 percent in two years. One in four working-age adults lost their job. In January last year, popular anger boiled over and a riot erupted in Riga after a peaceful political protest.

Ivars Ijabs, a political science professor at Latvia University, said Harmony’s biggest asset is that they’ve never been in power.

“They’re clean. You can’t blame Harmony Center for the crisis because they’ve been in the opposition the entire time,” he said.

One possible outcome is that Harmony Center and Unity forge a grand coalition. But analysts believe the kingmaker in any postelection alliance will be the Greens and Farmers Union — a populist party whose multimillionaire leader Aivars Lembergs three years ago was jailed on suspicions of graft, bribery and tax fraud.

The case is still being investigated. Lembergs professes his innocence and claims he’s the target of a witch-hunt organized by the U.S. State Department and billionaire philanthropist George Soros, among others.

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