Mike Collier in Riga -
Latvians will vote in a parliamentary election on October 4, for which the issue of relations with its giant neighbour Russia are at the fore. But precisely what form that debate takes – geopolitical or economic – varies greatly from the corridors of power in Riga to the view on the street near the Russian border itself.
A September 22 poll carried out by the SKDS pollster suggests that the leading party in the battle for 100 mandates is the governing centre-right Unity with 28 seats, followed by the social democrat Harmony on 24, the populist Greens and Farmers Union on 19, and the right-wing National Alliance on 14. Two new parties are also predicted to win mandates: the centrist Latvia From The Heart party of former state auditor Inguna Sudraba with 10 seats and the Regional Alliance with five.
Speaking to bne in the opulent lobby of the Latvian parliament, or Saeima, respected senior deputy Ojars Kalnins of the Unity party, which leads the current coalition, claims that the events in Ukraine are at the forefront of everyone’s minds, having raised interest in security issues and changed attitudes towards Latvia’s relationship with Russia.
“For the first time in more than 20 years since we restored independence in 1991 there's a real threat because Russia has demonstrated in Georgia and Ukraine their readiness to bring troops across borders into neighbouring countries," Kalnins says. "Plus the rhetoric coming out of Moscow contains numerous threats directed at the Baltic states. This country has been invaded several times by its neighbours and for many people it's a living memory."
That concern has been heightened by the fact that one of the parties in the election, the Latvian Russian Union, is openly pro-Kremlin – though polls suggest it will not win any seats despite securing a seat in Brussels in European elections in May. Around a quarter of Latvia's 2m population is ethnically Russian.
But reports that a handful of Russian Latvian citizens from the eastern Latgale region are fighting for rebel forces in eastern Ukraine have seen questions asked about the "loyalty" of Latvia's Russians in general and those from Latgale in particular.
The town of Rezekne, widely regarded as the capital of Latgale, lies 250 kilometres east of Riga but just 60km from Russia. The population is split evenly between Latvians and Russians. It doesn't look like the capital of one of Europe's poorest regions. High-tech LED streetlights swoop down the hill from where an iconic statue of Latgale Mara holds her cross aloft between Lutheran and Orthodox churches.
There's a renovated theatre, sleek modern library and landscaped park leading to the stunning Gors cultural centre, which styles itself the “Latgale embassy” and could give any avant-garde Scandinavian opera house a run for its money. The €40m pumped into the transformation of Rezekne over the past seven years seems well spent.
Any suggestion that Latgalians are disloyal or a potential fifth column raises the hackles of both communities. "It really annoys me when people say we are disloyal," Rezekne council's spokeswoman Marina Sokolova tells bne in her office directly overlooking Latgale Mara. "I'm proud of being Latvian and I'm proud of my Russian ethnicity. Of course there are extremists in any community, but how can we be disloyal? We live here, we pay our taxes, we raise our families and do out best to improve things. We are more loyal than all those people who left Latvia to work abroad."
The council is dominated by the opposition Harmony party, which counts on solid support from the Russian vote – in 2009 it signed a cooperation agreement with Vladimir Putin's United Russia party. However, during this election campaign it insists that was a pragmatic move, similar to another agreement it has with the Chinese Communist Party, and it has recently tried to position itself as a "social democratic" force. Harmony is consistently the largest party in the national parliament, but has never been in government because the ethnic Latvian parties invariably gang up to block it.
"There is not a single member of the cabinet who comes form Latgale, but they want the votes of Latgalians. To them Latgale is like an adopted child," says Andrejs Elksnins, who heads the Latgale electoral list of Harmony. "People who live in Latgale want to have good relationships with all our neighbours: Russia, Belarus, Lithuania."
""It's just not possible that we would see something like we see in Ukraine happening in Latgale," Elksnins insists. "If anyone ever did come across the border, the Latgalians would be the first to take up arms and defend Latvia."
Battling against Elksnins at the other end of the political spectrum is Erika Teirumnieka, number two candidate for Latgale on the list of the right-wing National Alliance, which has been banging the drum about the threat of Russia for years. Sitting in her office at the engineering faculty of the Rezekne's college – yet another of Rezekne's striking new buildings – Teirumnieka says the Russian threat is real, but comes from the Kremlin, not locals.
"People aren't in a panic, but they are certainly concerned about Russia's actions in Ukraine. You can't feel totally safe when you are so close to the border... but being in Nato makes a huge difference. I don't know what would have happened if we weren't in Nato, but we could probably look at Ukraine for the answer," she tells bne.
"Latgalians are very loyal to their country. We have our own flag and even our own Latgalian language. When there was referendum on the possibility of Russian as a second state language, even many Latvian Russians here voted against it. Yes, pro-Kremlin Russians exist, but their numbers are very small. And my work at the college makes me hopeful for the future. Our Russian students speak good Latvian and they have none of the bogus nostalgia for the Soviet past that perhaps their grandparents still have."
An economic issue
The further you go from the centre of Rezekne (population 35,000), the less prosperous it seems. The smooth roads deteriorate into a patchwork of potholes. Freshly plastered walls turn into Soviet brick apartments and then wooden shacks at skewed angles, before the town peters out in a tangle of marsh and forest. Huge stretches of the main road to Riga are reduced to a single carriageway as road works attempt to make them capable of handling the large numbers of trucks en route to Moscow 700km to the east.
Here on the edge of town the official statistics about the Latgale region begin to seem realistic: unemployment of 18% (just 5% in the Latvian capital Riga), average gross monthly wages of €520 (€866 in Riga). According to official data, in 2013, 21% of Latgalians could not afford to meet their basic housing costs and 74% would not be able to cope with any unexpected financial expenses.
So it is not surprising that on the streets of the town, the general opinion is that Russia is an economic factor in the elections rather than a geopolitical one, with many worried about the effects of escalating sanctions between the EU and Russia on a region that relies on Russian transit, warehousing and tourism for cash. Political parties are trying to convince voters that their way of dealing with the EU-Russia trade war will be less painful than the alternatives.
According to a September 9 report by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), Latvia is being hit the third hardest in the trade war – and that's just in the food sector.
Latvian food exports account for 0.34% of total GDP. However, the impact on Latvia may be greater than the figures suggest, as items such as milk are often supplied to Lithuanian producers for re-export to Russia.
Economy Ministry figures suggest Russia's sanctions as they stand will reduce Latvia's GDP by around 0.25%. Any extension of Russian sanctions to transport and transit could have a much more serious effect. Rail freight traffic has already started to drop off: in the second quarter of 2014 Latvia transited 428,000 tonnes by rail compared with 663,000 tonnes in the same period last year.
Chatting in the park while children play in a new playground are Miks Balodis, 31 and Ieva Blumene, 30. Both say they will be voting and seem to have given the matter plenty of thought. "I want to see people in parliament who support economic development. The problem is they all say they do and it's difficult to tell them apart," Blumene laughs.
"Politics isn't something that just happens for two weeks before an election. It's a continuous process. We need stable, economic development and open politics." Balodis says.
"We may not be as cosmopolitan in Latgale as some places, but we have a strong sense of identity and traditions. The problem isn't Russians or Latgale – the problem is people who talk about Latgale without ever seeing it for themselves," he smiles.
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