As Latvia goes to the polls to electsa new parliament Saturday (04.10.2014), Russia’s Ukraine policy will likely have a strong impact on the result. The government in Riga is no longer ruling out an act of aggression from the Kremlin, which has repeatedly declared its intent to protect Russians abroad. Their share of the total population of the Baltic state is 26 percent, significantly higher than that in Ukraine, where they make up 17 percent. Latvia has a difficult relationship with Russia. In 1940 it was annexed by the former USSR. “The experience of 60 years of Soviet occupation is rooted deeply in historical memory,” says Norbert Beckmann-Dierkes, who heads the German Konrad-Adenauer Foundation in Riga. The 100 seats in Latvia’s parliament, the Saeima, will be fought for by 13 parties. Some represent Latvians only, others the Russian-speaking population, many of whom are so-called “non-citizens.” These are mostly Russians who, after Latvia became independent in 1991, were not offered passports. Nearly one in eight residents in the country is a “non-citizen.”
The Latvians and Russian-speaking minority live side by side, according to a report by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OECD), which examined the state of Latvian politics prior to the election. It’s not surprising, therefore, that the parties evaluate the Ukraine crisis differently. While the ruling party bloc supports the EU and NATO – Latvia has been a member of both since 2004 – the pro-Russian groups are sympathetic to the Kremlin’s policy.
Leading the current campaign is the center-left “Harmony” party, which is supported by the Russian-speaking minortiy, as well as the ruling center-right “Unity” faction. The Harmony party has excluded from its election program any mention of Russia or Russian questions. In doing so it hopes to capture the votes of ethnic Latvians, in contrast to the Unity alliance, which made ethnic issues and relations with Russia the primary theme of its campaign. “They hardly talk about economic or social issues,” says Alexandr Gaponenko, director of the Institute of European Studies in Riga.