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To the Eurozone with Ušakovs

A few weeks ago, champagne corks popped in Latvia. The European Commission and European Parliament stated that the country is ready for the introduction of the common European currency.

August 25, 2013 - Tomasz Otocki - Articles and Commentary

From January 1st 2014, Riga is to become the 18th country of the eurozone. The decision was taken by European Union ministers during a meeting of the Economic and Financial Affairs Council (ECOFIN) in Brussels. However, what makes the Latvian financial and political elites happy, society finds worrying. The best proof is the success of forces against the common currency in the June 1st local elections.

“Of course I voted for Ušakovs. They were the only ones with courage to say what they think about introducing the euro,” said a taxi driver named Vladislavs (although, he insists he’s not of Polish origin) during a trip to Riga airport. “The Latvian right-wing has gone too far with this political project; here, everyone is afraid of high prices. We also worry that our salaries will be the same in euros as they are now in lats, but prices will rocket.” Even if this is an exaggeration, as salaries after January 1st 2014 are to be accurately and precisely calculated in euros, it reflects the attitude of the majority of society. Fifty-three per cent of Latvians are currently against the common currency. And this is despite an active campaign by Valdis Dombrovskis’s centre-right government, which is rightly praised among the European elite for getting Latvia out of the crisis.

Nils Ušakovs

The Latvian right-wing had no real vision for the last elections. Since 2009, when young Nils Ušakovs, who is of Russian descent, became the Mayor of Riga, the centre-wing Vienotība party (Unity) has been trying to find a way to deal with him. Recordings of him sharing a few swear words with deputy mayor Ainārs Šlesers were made public, and he has also been criticised for careless personal policy in Riga Town Hall and letting oligarchs into municipal partnerships (the Latvian-oligarch “Honour to Serve Riga” party is Ušakovs’s coalition partner in the Riga Duma). However, he is, in fact, mainly criticised for something else: the fact that a representative of the national minority, one that occupied Latvia until 1991, became mayor of the capital of “Latvian Latvia” (the nationalists’ slogan), was an insult for many Latvians.

The truth is, and here the problem begins for Latvian political parties, that it is difficult to associate Ušakovs with the Soviet occupier. He is 38, was educated at Western universities and most of his life has spent in independent Latvia. He speaks English fluently, studied in southern Denmark. He is bright, outspoken, and made of Teflon, as even the swindles which shook the Riga Duma didn’t lose him popularity. Nowadays, most inhabitants of Riga, regardless of their nationality, support Ušakovs, whose political party, Saskaņas Centrs (Concord Centre), is attempting to profile itself into the so far non-existent Latvian left-wing. And it has been a successful attempt – it has introduced reforms which are characteristic for social democracy, for example, free transport for seniors and students.

Not to lose Riga

In the elections for the Mayor of Riga, Ušakovs had three adversaries – each of them represented a different centre-right party. The best known is Sarmīte Ēlerte, a successful Latvian journalist, an activist of the Latvian National Front from the period of the struggle for independence, and for 16 years the editor in chief of a prestigious newspaper. In her views, Ēlerte is liberal, although she has been working for the Latvian national centre-right for the last few years. She also fights for the Latvian language. In New Riga magazine, published by her political party Unity, apart from a range of social promises (including increased funding for schools and kindergartens), reduced fares for public transport, discounts for textbooks and subsidies for flats, there are also national demands that make this party different from Ušakovs’s party: grants for Museum of the Occupation of Latvia, more Latvian language in kindergartens so that citizens can integrate from an early age. The slogan: “If we lose Riga, we lose Latvia”, is the reason many centrist voters blame the right-wing. Why scare people with Ušakovs if a positive programme could be proposed instead?

Results

And yet, it didn’t work out. Fourteen per cent of people voted for right-wing Unity, 17 per cent voted for the nationalists, while 59 per cent voted for the Russian minority party. The results would have been even more devastating for the Latvian parties if the right to vote had been granted to non-citizens (like for example in Estonia). For those fighting for a “Latvian Latvia” it was shocking that Ušakovs was to remain in power for another term. Was Riga supposed to be drifting even more towards Moscow? Nationalist Jānis Dombrava, sharing those concerns points out at the reasons for Ēlerte’s failure: “People know that she has very liberal views, perhaps even neoliberal views. She attempted to profile herself as a candidate both nationally and socially sensitive. When she was speaking about ‘national’ and ‘conservative values’ she was simply untrustworthy. One cannot simply change their views all of a sudden. Had she been just herself and presented her true opinions and principles, people would have trusted her.”

People trusted Ušakovs, however. An employee of a tourist information centre at the seaside resort of Jūrmala doesn’t conceal the fact that she votes for the local Concord Centre party. “After 20 years, it’s time to put a stop to dividing people into Latvians and non-Latvians. We all have the same problems, for example, how to make ends meet or pay exorbitantly high rents. Right-wing parties scare people with Ušakovs – who is brave, in my opinion – since they don’t have any idea how to get people on their side. Dombrovskis’s government which is now imposing the euro onto us is dependent on international financiers and it is their puppet. Centrists would never win elections in Riga if only Russians voted for them.” Indeed, the number of mandates received by the coalition party “Honour to Serve Riga” indicates that half of Ušakovs’s voters constitute true-born Latvians. And this is what worries right-wing parties which have so far held the monopoly to represent the Latvian nation.

Not only Riga

It would be a big mistake if we saw Latvia only from the angle of Riga. It is obviously the biggest city and one with the highest economic growth, which after the dramatic crisis of 2008, has started to again characterise Latvia. And even voters of the Russian minority party admit that this is thanks to Prime Minister Dombrovskis, who is tipped to become the next European Commission President proposed by the European People’s Party that Unity belongs to. However, many people ask whether coming out of the economic crisis had to be so costly. And more and more often they are voting for “the socials” from Concord Centre whose answer to that question is: no.

Moving away from Riga for a moment, have a look at what’s going on in Ventspils, a 43,000-inhabitant city in Courland. Since 1988 it has been governed by Aivars Lembergs, until recently one of the three “musketeers”, that is “oligarchs”, who has been passionately opposed by Unity party and its Riga candidate Sarmīte Ēlerte. Often in court, Ēlerte is tormented by the media who keep asking whether it is possible to accumulate so much wealth just by working as mayor. “Obviously you cannot. He’s been stealing like everyone else. But just take look at how beautiful Ventspils is and how hideous other Latvian cities are. What’s more, our local government pays our office workers generously and on time,” said an activist from the Association of Poles in Latvia who would rather not reveal her name. In my travels I didn’t make it to Ventspils but made it to Jelgava and Jūrmala where the Union of Greens and Farmers (Zaļo un Zemnieku savienība) under the patronage of Lembergs has been very successful.

In Ventspils, however, the eccentric oligarch-mayor won ten points more in these elections than he did in 2009, ruining the whole campaign against oligarchs which was so pompously started by Unity. Although, it’s difficult to be happy about it, people in Latvia are so tired of everyday life that they even forgive the oligarchs.

What next?

Next year, Latvia is awaiting both the introduction of the euro and double elections: European and Saiema. Encouraged by the results in Riga, Concord Centre is looking forward to taking over power. However, rural Latvia does not vote in the same way as its capital, Riga, and centrists might have miscalculated. In the small towns of Livonia, Courland and Semigalia, where people are scared of Russians, the local election winner was the right-wing Unity party, the Union of Greens and Farmers, and the nationalists. Moreover, the government’s way of thinking is that after a few months, people will get over the shock connected with introducing the euro. They will warm up to it like the Estonians; and they will trust – for the fourth time in a row – the government of Dombrovskis. This calculation is not irrational as the politically smart Dombrovskis has more than once got out of trouble, but the result in Riga (and also e.g. in Daugavpils) is forcing the Latvian right-wing to redefine the existing political line: against the Russian minority party, against oligarchs, and pro-economic reforms these slogans are still sexy for the inhabitants of Latvia. The inhabitants of both nations.

Translated by Justyna Chada

Tomasz Otocki graduated from international relations and Eastern studies. Since 2010 he has worked with the Baltic Section of Radio Wnet and since March 2012 with the largest Polish information portal in Lithuania pl.delfi.lt. Since August 2013 has been cooperating with portal Znad Wilii. He also published in paper media, including: Znad Wilii (quarterly) and Echa Polesia.

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