A Latvian Government for Latvia

By Vladimir Socor

Latvia’s government approved the country’s new government, a three-party center-right coalition that does not include the leftist Russian party Harmony Center (BNS, LETA, October 25). This outcome was in doubt until almost the last moment. Western-oriented Latvia came close to being governed by a hybrid coalition that would have included Harmony, an openly Russia-oriented party, signatory to a cooperation agreement with Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party, and allied to certain local Latvian oligarchs. Harmony is also Latvia’s single largest party as a legacy of Soviet-era migration from Russia’s interior, followed by monolithic Russian voting in today’s Latvia.

Harmony’s possible participation in the government became the central issue of Latvia’s politics after the September 17 parliamentary elections. This idea arose not only unexpectedly but also unnecessarily, given the parties’ electoral programs and the parliamentary arithmetic. Three Latvian parties, natural allies and working together in the outgoing parliament, were generally seen by Latvian voters as a prospective coalition in the newly elected parliament.

Such an outcome seemed at hand as the three parties won a total of 56 seats in the 100-seat chamber. Zatlers’ “centrist”-labeled, though right-of-center Reform Party (created by the outgoing head of state, Valdis Zatlers, as recently as August) won 22 seats; the Unity Party (a tripartite bloc of national conservatives, free-market right-liberals, and social-liberals), 20 seats; and the National Alliance (a two-party bloc of older-generation conservatives and young social-conservatives), 14 seats. For its part, Harmony won 31 seats; and the Greens and Farmers Union (the last remaining oligarch-dominated party in parliament) 13 seats.

Under Latvia’s constitution, the head of state confers a mandate to the prime minister-nominee to form the government. In practice, the three parties of the prospective coalition had to designate the nominee for subsequent investiture by the head of state, Andris Berzins (elected in August with Harmony’s and oligarchs’ support against Zatlers). The Zatlers Party’s first-place finish turned its leader into king-maker within the prospective governing coalition.

Unexpectedly, Zatlers decided that Latvia’s interests required the inclusion of Harmony in the new government. His insistence on this issue delayed the formation of the new government. The incumbent government, led by the Unity Party under Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis, remained temporarily in charge (until October 25), but unable to introduce urgently needed anti-crisis measures (BNS, LETA, September 18 – October 24).

The proposal to invite Harmony into government sparked a backlash, both inside the projected coalition of Latvian parties and among sections of the Latvian electorate. It could hardly be explained convincingly. Harmony had crossed several “red lines” that had previously been declared by these three Latvian parties jointly. Thus, Harmony as a party declined to acknowledge the historical fact of the Soviet occupation of Latvia (it attempted instead to offer some ambiguous formulations); and it maintained its close political and business links with Latvian oligarchs, particularly in the Riga City Council (which was not up for re-election). Acknowledging the Soviet occupation and giving up the oligarch connections had been announced in advance among the requirements that Harmony must meet for joining a post-election government. Harmony was unlikely to meet such requirements, and in the event it did not. 

The government installed on October 25 ensures the continuity of Latvia’s Western orientation and its effective anti-crisis measures, now entering the recovery phase. Retaining their posts from the predecessor government, Prime Minister Dombrovskis and Finance Minister, Andris Vilks (both from the Unity Party) have earned internal political credibility and international recognition for overcoming the worst effects of the crisis through severe austerity measures. Latvian voters have re-elected this party despite wage and service cuts, job losses, and tax hikes.
Unity’s Artis Pabriks continues as Defense Minister, the Zatlers Party’s Edgars Rinkevics takes over as Foreign Minister, and unaffiliated Aivis Ronis as Transport Minister. These officials had earlier played key roles in Latvia’s accession to NATO, which Harmony criticized at the time (After NATO membership had become an accomplished fact, Harmony criticized policies deriving from Latvia’s membership).

Unity Party’s Solvita Aboltina has been re-elected to the Parliament’s chair, defeating Zatlers for that post. Moreover, six parliamentary deputies, out of 22 from Zatlers’ Reform Party, have split off and formed their own group, still supporting the new government. As a net result, Unity is now the leading factor in the governing coalition. Zatlers’ poorly explained rapprochement with Harmony, although temporary, has proven politically costly to him and his team. 

The government’s top priorities include overcoming the effects of the international economic crisis, reallocating resources to developing Latvia’s regions, receiving a fair share of EU agricultural and cohesion funds (which in some cases favor fiscally unreformed countries instead of the fiscally responsible, such as Latvia), addressing demographic problems (with focus on family issues and return of expatriate Latvian citizens), and ensuring the development of the Latvian nation and culture in an inclusive society  (Latvia in Review, October 24).

Harmony Center’s entry into the government as an “ethnic” bloc would have almost certainly institutionalized a bi-communal society in Latvia, instead of bridging the divide as some proponents of this idea had hoped (see “’Ethnic Voting’ in Latvia: Three Misconceptions,’’ EDM, October 26).
The Eurasia Daily Monitor