The citizens of Latvia went to the polls on October 2nd, to cast their ballots in the 10th Parliamentary elections of Latvia.  The results reconfirm the importance of language in identity politics of the country and inter-party contestation, as the election results were split between the two linguistically defined political parties – the Russian speaking Harmony Center, and the Latvian speaking Unity party alliance.   The Unity block, consisting of a conglomerate of Latvian parties, received 33 seats in the new Parliament, or 31 percent of the popular vote.  While the Harmony Center party, identified as the Russian language party, received 29 seats in the new Parliament, or 26 percent of the popular vote.

The municipal elections of 2009 had already established that the Russian language party, Harmony Center, had the electoral support to secure the important post of the Mayor of Riga.  For the first time in history the Mayor of Riga, Nils Usakovs, was of Russian descent and from a Russian language party.  Furthermore, the first year of this term progressed without significant scandal and with modest increases in his popularity.

Building on the municipal success, leading up to the Parliamentary election, there was speculation that potentially Unity and Harmony Center could form the majority coalition in the government.  Several politicians and government representatives went on the record to say that it would only be fair and about time that the government coalition represented both linguistic groups.  The most notable of these comments came from the head of the Constitution Protection Bureau – Janis Kazocins.  In expressing his private opinion, Mr. Kazocins stated that he believed systematic exclusion of the parties identified as representing the Russian speaking population from active participation in the decision making process of the Latvian government was dangerous and unfair.

It is interesting to note, that the latest election coincided with the most recent draft of the Society Integration Policy Guidelines 2011-1017, developed by the Ministry of Justice.  The document uses integration principles, defined as a two way process based on mutual understanding and cooperation between the majority and minority in society, as the theoretical basis.  The goal of integration, as stated by the document, is a consolidated society supporting Latvia’s democratic development.  The need to build common trust and promote mutual respect within the society is also mentioned as an important goal.

Arguably, the best example of integration and a solid showing of support from the government for its own initiative of Integration Policy would be integration at the government level.  The simple fact that Harmony Center was even considered a potential coalition member in the Latvian government, something that would have seemed unfathomable only a few short years ago, gave reason for hope that integration was happening at the highest levels.  A coalition consisting of both linguistic parties, representing both populations, and working toward a common goal with partners that have proven themselves to be capable and professional at the municipal level, seemed like the ideal solution to finally bridging the gap between the two sizable linguistically defined groups and as a means to build trust and mutual respect.

Two weeks after the elections, the leader of Unity block Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis did issue an invitation to Harmony Center and the right-wing nationalist coalition Visu Latvijai!/TB/LNNK to take part in the government negotiations.  However, the promising government coalition consisting of both linguistic groups collapsed even before negotiation talks really had a chance to begin.  The main issue that proved to be of contention was history.   The Unity block, tasked with forming the government coalition, sent the four potential cooperation partners (three returning from the existing government coalition and Harmony Center) a draft document titled “Cooperation Agreement about Promotion of National Unity and Growth” to be used as the basis of the coalition negotiations.  The document sought agreement from the potential coalition partners on a wide variety of issues, including the recognition of Latvian as the only state language, and a unified view of historical events, including the admission of Latvian occupation in the 1940’s.

Harmony Center expressed willingness to negotiate, but without predefined points of agreement.  Unity reconfirmed that it believed the future coalition partners had to be of agreement on these fundamental facts and refused to start negotiations from a blank slate.  On the morning of October 19th, Harmony Center confirmed that it would not be continuing the government coalition negotiations on these terms stating that their voters, who had entrusted 29 Parliamentary seats to Harmony Center, did not need to be put under such scrutiny.  On the TV show “100.pants” Nils Usakovs was directly asked if Harmony Center would be willing to recognize the Latvian occupation fact to which he replied that he was not a historian and could not define if the events of the 1940’s were incorporation, occupation or annexation.

On October 21st, Nils Usakovs issued an open letter to the Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis stating that in these difficult economic times the people were looking to the elected leaders to solve the country’s pressing problems, not concentrate on political and ethnic nuances.  In expressing grievance with the negotiation process, the letter stated that the electorate of Harmony Center are just as entitled to have a say in the government as any other Latvian citizens, and that it is unfair and against democratic principles to segregate people into “right” and “wrong” citizens.  The letter also implied that it is unreasonable to expect Harmony Center voters, Latvian citizens, to blame themselves and apologize for the events that took place under a different regime in the 1940’s.

The recent political negotiations, concentrating on the long ago historic events of the 1940’s, have brought to light the fact that history and its interpretation, not just language, is still a defining issue for both groups.  If we take politicians to be representatives of the electorate, and their actions as prompted or constrained by their voters, then we see that there is still a lack of political will from both sides to see eye to eye on these fundamental identity issues.  Any talk of integration, of building mutual trust and social cohesion, will fundamentally be futile as long as history remains a divisive issue.  Usakovs can urge the government in his open letter that the key priorities of the country are now economic development, growth, unemployment and social issue resolution, to be resolved by a united and professional coalition putting ethnic issues aside, but the lack of trust stemming from in-group/out-group identification based on history will forestall any cooperative efforts.

For a more detailed analysis of integration achievements, failures, and challenges in Latvia, please see the University of Latvia Faculty of Social Sciences Integration Audit.

Ieva Gruzina, PhD candidate at the University of Latvia Faculty of Social Sciences