After decades of political oppression and brutal dictatorship during the Soviet occupation, last weekend Latvians could practice their democratic rights in a free and fair election to Saeima, Parliament of Latvia.
One more time, Latvia reached the top of the growth in the European Union at 4 percent, after having carried out an outstanding austerity-based recovery for a small country that during the 2008-2009 crisis witnessed a dramatic economic fall of ca. 18 percent in GDP.
However, unlike before, for the first time since the collapse of the USSR, the focus in this election campaign has been shifted from economy and social affairs to the national security, preserving Latvia’s independence and sovereignty.
The traumatic memories of nearly 60 years of the Soviet rule as a result of an illegal annexation of the Republic of Latvia by Soviet Russia have been instantly recalled to life after Russia’s military aggression in Crimea which then moved to Eastern parts of Ukraine. The fears in Latvia grow stronger as the country’s share of the Russian minority is around 26%, which is significantly higher even compared to Ukraine’s 17%.
Although there have never been observed real ethnic tensions between Latvians and Russians, Russia and pro-Russian forces in Latvia have continuously been exploiting the situation to destabilize the generally unproblematic everyday life communication between the two ethnic groups.
One of Moscow’s currently main instruments of the informational war against the Latvian government has been the Russian-language PBK (Pervyj Baltijskij Kanal – First Baltic Channel), part of the biggest pro-Kremlin broadcasting company in Russia, which has resulted in complete disinformation and, unsurprisingly, growing sympathy to the Kremlin’s policies within the ethnically Russian minority, and different perception of the Ukrainian crisis between the Latvians and Latvia’s Russians.
Consequently, this election campaign had been heavily dominated by the needs of a larger NATO presence in the Baltic’s, stronger military co-operation, increased spending on defense and, most important of all, the issue of which political force in Latvia is most capable of defending the country’s sovereignty in the face of the escalating political and military aggression from the Russian Federation towards its neighbor countries.
Having always dismissed any close political ties with Russia, the Latvian center-right political parties, mainly the Unity Party, have become the major and the most tempting electoral alternative that could offer a stable and continuous course towards the West.
Thus, even the Social-Democratic Harmony Party, with close connections to Vladimir Putin’s United Russia Party, had for the first time excluded from its election manifesto any mention of Russia or Russian questions, in a desperate attempt to win more votes when the mood of the Latvian electorate was generally against them. At the same time, another source of outrage and a blow for the Harmony Party in the pre-election period came when Nils Ušakovs, leader of the party, said on the Russian TV that Vladimir Putin is “the best for Latvia”.
With all votes counted now, the current center-right coalition led by the conservative Unity Party has won a convincing majority of 58% (61 seats out of 100), whilst the Harmony Party, the main opposition party supported by the Latvian Russian-speaking minority and the Russian Federation, has lost significant support gaining 23.13%, down from 28.37% in 2011.
Laimdota Straujuma, conservative Prime Minister (Unity Party) and first woman to hold the post in Latvia, ended her campaign appealing to the people that voting for the pro-Russian political forces in Latvia would mean a direct threat to Latvia’s independence. Ms Laimdota will now have a stronger center-right political coalition to govern with, but also a challenging task to lead Latvia through the six-months period of the presidency of the European Union that starts in January, in a geopolitically unstable Europe where democracy, territorial integrity and freedom have been threatened more than ever before since the end of the Cold War.