Is Latvia Putin's New Target?
by Stephen Schwartz
In May 2014, I attended an interfaith conference in Kosova where I met Janīs Priede, an associate professor in the department of Oriental Studies at the University of Latvia, located in the national capital, Riga. Having watched, from the Balkans, the Russian annexation of Crimea and further attempted partition of Ukraine during the first half of the year, I expressed my concern to Prof. Priede that Latvia, a member of the European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), could be the next object of aggression by Vladimir Putin. He agreed.
My worries about Latvia—as with Ukraine—originated in the obvious parallels between the situation of both countries and the attempted Serbian carve-up of Croatia and successful division of Bosnia-Hercegovina (the latter left with a "Republic of Serbs" and a "Croat-Muslim Federation") in the Balkan Wars at the close the past century. The rupture of Bosnia's centuries-old borders was made permanent by the much-praised Dayton Accords of 1995, crafted by the late Richard Holbrooke in the name of peace. But it was a peace in which the freedom of Croats and Muslims who had lived in Serbian-ruled territory went unsecured. Most were expelled and few have returned to their long-established homes.
Ukraine is undergoing aggression in which Vladimir Putin, following the pattern established by Slobodan Milošević, has agitated Russians living in eastern Ukraine (like Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia) into supporting separatist "republics." Russian and Serbian propaganda share the argument that Ukrainian (and Croatian) leaders should be labelled "fascists" bent on oppressing their Russian subjects.
In Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina, Serbian intrigues were assisted by the presence of Serb minorities—about an eighth of the population in Croatia and almost a third in Bosnia-Hercegovina. In Ukraine in 2014, according to the CIA World Fact Book, 17.3 percent out of 44 million is Russian. Latvia is 26.2 percent Russian, of 2.1 million.
On October 4, Latvia conducted parliamentary elections. To the surprise and dismay of some observers, and as reported by Richard Milne of the London Financial Times, the Harmony Party, which functions in Latvia but is allied with Putin's own United Russia party, gained first place in the balloting, with 23 percent of votes and twenty-four parliamentary deputies. Harmony is lead by Nils Usakovs, the mayor of Riga.
Milne warned that "there are signs that the Russian president could be gearing up to test the Baltics," pointing to the cross-border abduction by the Russians of an Estonian intelligence official, Eston Kohver, and the capture of a Lithuanian fishing vessel in international waters, both in September.
Nevertheless, the Latvian election, viewed more closely, offers indications of hope. The Harmony party's share in the polls dropped to 23 percent, from 28 percent in 2011. The ruling coalition gained 58 percent—grouping the Unity party (twenty-three seats in parliament), the centrist Union of Greens and Farmers (twenty-one seats), and the National party (seventeen seats). The "victory" of Harmony was therefore more rhetorical than practical.
In an emailed interview, Prof. Priede offered his view that there is: "a split in the Russian-speaking electorate, with many of them more cautious about supporting a Russian-linked party." He pointed out that the extremist Latvian Russian Union gained only 1.58 percent of votes and thus forfeited any chance for representation in the hundred-member, unicameral national legislature (the Saeima), which has a 5 percent minimum for election to the body. The Latvian Russian Union retained one of Latvia's eight seats in the European Parliament during EP elections in May 2014. Prof. Priede described most of the successful Harmony candidates, however, as "hard-liners."
According to him, an orientation by Harmony favoring Russian interference in Ukraine had driven away citizens of Ukrainian origin residing in Latvia. Further, "Many Russians are not convinced that the disorder found in Russia should be introduced in Latvia."
Still, 59 percent voted for Harmony in the Riga municipal elections of 2013. Priede explained this support by "the large amount of money the municipality is putting into social projects (by selling its properties). Therefore the party will continue to gather voters in the municipal elections anxious about social benefits."
Should Putin choose to extend his policy of provocation in Ukraine to Latvia, Priede cautioned, "Militarily, Latvia is very weak in spite of the recent (and not quite realistic) promises by NATO to arrive in 48 hours if needed.After the economic measures (late and insufficient) against Russia, the perspectives are slightly better now in the sense that an open or undeclared military aggression is a bit less likely. But if you have driven a rat into the corner, there are many chances that the rat will try to bite you. It seems that the rulers of the Kremlin are now in a corner. The Baltic states are close to Russia and are the weakest element in the Western world; that means there are more possibilities of aggression or provocation against them."
Valdis Dombrovskis, the former Latvian prime minister, has taken up a post as the EU's new vice-president in charge of Eurozone economic policy. Dombrovskis told European parliament members on October, as described by Peter Spiegel of the Financial Times, "the era of severe budget cutting had come to an end and [he] vowed to focus on the social and employment impact of the EU's crisis response measures." With the recession beginning in 2007, Latvia experienced a severe financial decline, but its fiscal situation is now improving.
Richard Milne of the FT indicated Latvia's most vulnerable aspect: "a third of the 545,000 ethnic Russians are classified as 'non-citizens,' deprived of the right to vote or the ability to work for the government." That problem hides another aspect of Latvian history: large-scale immigration by Russians during the 1945–1991 occupation of the country by the Soviet Union, when Russians in Latvia increased from a tenth to a third of the census, in an example of "colonizing immigration."
All of which may make Latvia a tempting field for meddling by Putin, and a small country the West should watch carefully.