Right or Left, West is Direction For Latvian Voters

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Right or Left, West is Direction For Latvian
Voters

Ahead of general elections on 5 October, two
parties currently running well in opinion polls could throw a
spanner into the political mainstream’s strong support for bringing
the country into NATO and the European Union. However, overall the
electorate looks set to return a government that would push the
country’s bid to join both institutions. The ballot will be held
just six weeks before NATO meets in Prague to decide which
applicants can join.

If the survey results are borne out in the
parliamentary elections, it would continue the tradition of
Latvians placing their trust in brand-new political parties. In the
1998 elections, the new People’s Party (TP) won a plurality of the
popular vote and 24 seats in the 100-seat parliament (Saeima). The
TP leads the most recent poll alongside New Era (JL), which has
consistently topped opinion surveys since its creation less than
one year ago.

Yet another newcomer, the Farmers’ and Greens’
Union (ZZS), and the left-of-center opposition union For Human
Rights in United Latvia (PCTVL) come next in the polls. Both are
suspicious of a stronger Western orientation, but from radically
different stances–the ZZS hints at policies favoring the
Latvian-speaking majority, while PCTVL is trying to woo
Russian-speakers.

Many voters are disappointed with the political status
quo.

“Those who have had the chance to make things
better–[the liberal] Latvia’s Way, the People’s Party, and [the
nationalist For Fatherland and Freedom/Latvian National
Independence Movement Union] TB/LNNK–always talk about issues that
are insignificant to the people. They talk about the EU and NATO
and don’t have a clue what it means to try to survive with less
than $100 per month,” said Ramona Birzina, a mother with three
children. “Many don’t know who and what to believe, so the
newcomers–New Era and the ZZS–could win.”

Birzina named corruption and health care as the
key problem areas the incoming government must face. The Corruption
Prevention Bureau has been unable to start operating because a
suitable chief cannot be found. Health care is an even more
contentious issue, with strikes in the sector breaking out
throughout the summer.

Andrejs Svilans of Radio Free Europe/Radio
Liberty agreed that braking high-level corruption is an urgent
need, but argues that the voters’ constant thirst for novelty
actually makes reform more difficult. “This is an idiomatic
political disease–every four years people choose newly established
parties instead of old and experienced political players.

“Another sensitive issue is regional policy,”
Svilans said. “Everybody talks about it, but so little has been
done. Approximately 90 percent of foreign investment still goes to
Riga.”

New Era, led by the former president of the Bank
of Latvia, Einars Repse, places fighting corruption high on its
list of promises to the voters. To bolster its claim of being
transparent, honest, and devoted to the national interest, the
party has held rallies in churches and has eschewed paid
advertising, preferring to spread its message through
house-to-house visits.

Five of the seven parties likely to top the 5
percent barrier and be represented in the next Saeima, including
New Era, support the key foreign policy goal of full integration
into NATO and the EU. The ZZS and the PCTVL, however, are quite
elusive in their attitudes toward both international
organizations.

“These are the two unknown and unpredictable
players,” political scientist Valts Kalnins said of the parties.
“The Farmers’ and Greens’ Union disingenuously doesn’t say that
it’s against Latvia’s accession to the EU, but judging from
statements in the press, these politicians actually don’t support
it. The same can be said about the PCTVL and NATO–the par ty does
not say that it opposes Latvia’s membership in the alliance, it
only says that Latvia has other areas to spend its budget on. But
still, this devious formulation can only be interpreted as actual
opposition to Latvia’s accession to NATO.”

Kalnins doubts that either party has a serious
chance of entering the next government. “[New Era leader] Repse
says he will not form a coalition government with the parties that
have been in power for the last few years,” he said. “Then whom
will he choose–the Farmers’ and Greens’ Union or the PCTVL? The
last variant would be a betrayal for Repse’s voters.”

The PCTVL appeared to boost its standing among
the Russian-speaking minority when party leader Janis Jurkans met
with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow recently.

“There is no doubt about it. With this meeting
Russia clearly demonstrated that the Kremlin wants Latvia’s
Russian-speaking citizens to vote for Jurkans,” Atis Lejins,
director of the Latvian Foreign Affairs Institute, told TOL. “Of
course, this meeting will have a huge impact on voters’ decisions.
… Suddenly, the Russian president has time to meet an opposition
leader from little Latvia.”

The PCTVL, which traditionally has stood up for
the rights of Russian-speakers in Latvia, appears to share Moscow’s
view on Latvia’s claim to NATO membership.

“Citizenship is a very painful issue for us,”
said Tatjana Favorska, chairwoman of the Russian community in
Latvia. “We support the PCTVL’s position to grant automatic
citizenship to those noncitizens who were born in Latvia. We also
want Latvians to stop questioning our loyalty to the state and work
hard to start real social integration.”

Latvian student Ieva Lapina echoes the concern
over the widening gulf between the language communities.

“It would be a lie to say that Latvia is not a
country with two communities that hardly talk to each other,” she
said. “I expect the new government to enhance real integration,
although I doubt that the nationalist parties are able to do that.
In my opinion, nationalism kills integration, but these political
parties seem not to have realized it. Political parties are talking
about Latvians and Russians, but nobody talks about people in
general.”

Unlike for the PCTVL, however, for Lapina the
road to integration leads westward. “If the next coalition is
formed by the rightists, the direction of Latvia’s development will
not change and we will join the EU and NATO,” she said. “But if the
PCTVL does surprisingly well, I doubt that we will get an
invitation to join the alliance this year.”

But Lejins thinks that the PCTVL is so eager to
be in government that after the elections the political union could
split, with one faction doing a U-turn on NATO membership. “These
elections cannot influence Latvia’s goal to join the alliance,” he
said.


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