Tough Times Spark Russian Resurgence In Latvia

Nov 24, 2011

Of all the economic downturns of the past few years, the tiny European nation of Latvia may have suffered as much as any place. Incomes fell and families suffered as the government implemented harsh austerity measures.

Now, the citizens of this former Soviet republic seem more open to what was once unthinkable: backing a social democratic party that's pro-Russian.

Twenty-three-year-old Liva Zvaigone never considered supporting Russian politicians. Her family felt the pain of Soviet rule, and like many Latvians, she was never eager to give ethnic Russians too much political power.

Then again, in the capital, Riga, a party with political ties to Moscow is running the city government and seems to have created a safety net for people as they emerge from Europe's deepest recession.

"They're good workers. You can see it in Riga, what's happening in Riga. I believe it's better than in other cities," Zvaigone says.

Zvaigone works as a waitress at a Riga coffee shop that's bustling with customers. She sees the local economy more vibrant now than a year or so ago, when her father lost his job and her mother, a teacher, lost much of her salary. Economic issues are for now outweighing resentment over the past.

"History is history. You have to know it. But you don't have to live with it all the time," she says.

Political Victor Sidelined

In recent weeks, headlines have been dominated by political upheaval in Greece and Italy. But these turbulent economic times have brought political change elsewhere — less noticed, but no less significant. In Latvia in September, Harmony Center, a party that mostly represents the country's roughly 30 percent Russian minority, built on its success in Riga and won the most votes in the national parliamentary election.

The party's support still came mostly from ethnic Russians. Yet some Latvians, too, liked the leftist party and its call for better pensions and more spending.

Ultimately, though, the prime minister, Valdis Dombrokvskis, cobbled together a new majority coalition in Parliament, without Harmony Center.

Supporters took to the streets in anger. Eugene Albert was one of them.

"So the winners [have] been left behind the fence, if there is such a thing," he says.

Albert, who is an ethnic mix of Latvian and Russian, says leaving the party out of the governing coalition was an act of discrimination against Russians, many of whom moved or were relocated to Latvia during Soviet times.

"Don't you ever mix Russians with the Soviets. They are different people. Most of the Russians who live here respect this country and love this country. It's their motherland and fatherland, for God's sake," Albert says.

Leaving History Behind

After the fall of the Soviet Union, Latvians turned what was once a pro-Soviet museum into the Museum of Occupation. But they did leave some things, like a statue outside the building that honors Latvians who fought with the Bolsheviks.

"As you see, we didn't [take] away the Red Guards monument. It's still standing there because this is a part of our history," says Aldis Kashkis, an ethnic Latvian.

And how to deal sensitively with history is now confronting the nation's politicians. One reason Latvian leaders are wary of giving Harmony Center a larger voice is that the party has refused to acknowledge that Latvia was forcibly occupied during Soviet times. Kashkis, a former member of Latvia's Parliament, says that's wrong.

"Soviet totalitarian communism is the fact. And the occupation is the fact," he says.

But he insists the decision to keep the party with Russian ties out of the governing coalition in Parliament was not about history, or ethnicity — but about the party's leftist ideas.

"You cannot raise the pensions. Take a look at what's going on in Greece. Who wants Greece here in Riga? No," Kashkis says.

Even if Harmony Center were to gain more political strength, no one expects Latvia to become a close ally with Russia. The country is firmly in the European Union, and NATO; and Western cultural influences are strong.

But if nothing else, the political trends in Latvia seem to be a reminder of how painful these economic times have been. For some, it's been painful enough to trump the pain of history.

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