Monday, October 4, 2010

Russian Surge In Latvian Elections

Voters in Latvia went to the polls over the weekend and gave a second term in office to the ruling coalition headed by current Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis; placing a strong second was the left-leaning Harmony Center, a party which draws it support almost exclusively from Latvia's ethnic Russian minority population (some pre-election polls suggested that Harmony could gather the most votes of any single party in the Latvian elections).

It is a surprising turn in Latvia where Russians complain that even though they make up nearly a third of Latvia's population, they are openly discriminated against. The teaching of Russian was barred in Latvian schools a few years ago, while Russian-speaking Latvians are not automatically granted citizenship unless they can pass Latvian language exams or prove that their family lived in Latvia before the outbreak of World War II. The discrimination is a reflex action on the part of ethnic Latvians following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Latvians view the Soviet era as a time of occupation – a native Latvian once told me a Soviet-era joke: that the two-story KGB headquarters in Riga was the tallest building in all of Latvia, because from there you could see Siberia.

The Harmony Center was formed five years ago to maximize the political power of Latvia's ethnic Russians by uniting various Russo-centric political parties and movements under one banner. Since Harmony's foundation, they have been gaining steadily in political strength, including getting one of their own elected mayor of the capital, Riga. Harmony has been helped in part by public backlash against the global economic crisis, which has hit Latvia especially hard – the Latvian economy contracted by nearly 25% last year, prompting a series of unpopular austerity moves on the part of Prime Minister Dombrovskis. But the head of Harmony's faction within the Latvian parliament, Janis Urbanovics, contends that the reason for Harmony's growing support outside of Latvia's Russian community is not only their opposition to the austerity measures, but also because they represent a future for Latvia as a multicultural state that has moved past the ethnic feuds of the post-Soviet era. “Voters are now looking to our side because we stand for ending this division of our society into two separate ethnic camps which traditionally mistrust each other and hold different views on everything from politics to culture and even past history,” Urbanovics was quoted as saying in the Los Angeles Times.

Still, some ethnic Latvians view Harmony Center as a stealth attempt by Russia to again take over Latvia. Armands Tsepulis, an ethnic Latvian, was quoted in the same Times article as saying: “it is simply a creeping Russian revenge. Russia never dropped its plans to get us back, and I can see it trying to do it by hook or by crook.”
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