Putin kept at bay in Latvian elections

Latvian Freedom Monument
Latvian Freedom Monument, Riga

By John Ruberry

After seizing the Crimea and invading Ukraine, Russia-watchers wonder which former Soviet republic is next on Vladimir Putin’s expansion list?

Latvians fear it could be their nation.

Yesterday parliamentary elections were held in the small Baltic state. Ethnic Russians with Latvian citizenship–not all of them enjoy this benefit–mostly lined up as predicted behind the Harmony Party, which is led by Nil Ushakov, the mayor of Riga, Latvia’s capital and largest city, the population of which is about half Russian.

In an attempt to water-down ethnic minorities that began during the tyranny of Josef Stalin, Russians were moved into Soviet republics such as Latvia to replace people deported to Siberia.

Latvian speakers, proving in a way that they belong in Europe, traditionally split their vote among a dozen or so parties, and yesterday was no exception.

Harmony won about one-quarter of the seats in the 100 member Saeima, the Latvian parliament. more than any other party. Another pro-Russian party, For Latvia from the Heart, may end up with a couple of seats, but the Russian-bloc, with no other feasible coalition parties, will fall far short of a majority. In fact, Harmony will probably have fewer seats in the new parliament.

Saturday was a good day for the ruling center-right coalition led by Prime Minister Laimdota Straujuma. Her Unity Party, along with the Union of Greens and Farmers and the National Alliance, received about 60 percent of the tally. Straujuma favors the current NATO build-up in Latvia and is getting credit for her nation’s economic turnaround after the 2008 recession.

Harmony’s Ushakov, while favoring Latvia’s membership in NATO and the European Union, raised eyebrows when he said on Russian television that Putin was the best leader for Russia from the Latvian perspective.

Riga's Old City
Riga’s Old City

For now, it looks like Russia has been checked in Latvia. But Putin can look at a half-million Russian speakers as potential partners to destabilize the small nation. Or he can look  to the north of Latvia at Estonia. Over ninety percent of the population of its third-largest city, Narva, which sits across a river from Russia, is Russian-speaking.

Or perhaps Putin can cast his gaze to the south and Kazakhstan, the northern part of which is heavily Russian. Kazakhstan is not a NATO member.

John Ruberry regularly blogs at Marathon Pundit.  His wife was born in Latvia and he has traveled to the Baltic nation twice.