Staunton, September 16 – The results of the August 29 city council elections in Riga suggest “the beginning of the end” of ethnic voting in Latvia, with historically “Latvian” and “Russian” parties promoting other issues and ethnic Latvians and ethnic Russians voting less on the basis of their ethnicity than ever before, Una Bergmane says.
The London-based Latvian scholar says this has shaken “the political landscape of the Latvian capital.” More than that, it has called into question Moscow’s continuing efforts to use ethnic Russians to promote its interests even when they conflict with the interests of the country in which these people live (fpri.org/article/2020/09/riga-a-new-beginning/).
For the last 11 years, Harmony, a party that has presented itself as an advocate for Rusian speakers, has controlled the city council in Riga, reflecting the fact that most large cities in Latvia have Russian-speaking majorities. And Moscow has celebrated this arrangement as the basis for change at the all-Latvian level and more broadly.
The rise of non-ethnically based parties like Development/For, Progressives and New Unity reflects a decline in ethnic political polarization in Riga and greater willingness among Latvians, Russian speakers and not, to support left of center views that had been anathema because of their assumed links to Sovietism.
This combination means that the Riga elections may “indeed be the beginning of the end of ethnic voting there,” a development that if it continues will move Latvian politics away from ethnic divisions and open the way for broader left-of-center political coalitions.
One characteristic of the August vote, however, calls that into question. Participation at 40.58 percent, “is a harsh reminder that a significant number of the city’s inhabitants feel disengaged from city politics,” Bergmane says. Indeed, she adds, they may represent the disillusionment of many Russian speakers.
But the decline in participation may also reflect simple fatigue given the controversies the city council has been mired in during recent years. And one can only welcome the fact that “there was no large-scale mobilization driven by ethnic sentiments on either side” and that new non-ethnic forces are going to dominate politics there.
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