Baltics' European election playbook

  • 2018-12-12
  • Ryan Heath

Welcome to POLITICO’s special edition European Elections Playbook series. I'm Ryan Heath, political editor at POLITICO, and I'm exploring the intersection of national and European politics in 15 EU countries in weekly newsletters up until the May 2019 poll. Next week: Ireland Playbook.


In addition to sharing an unhappy era of Soviet occupation and distrust of today’s Russia, all three Baltic nations are committed to liberal economics, and to spending more than 2 percent of GDP on defense as President Trump insists. They're also working on a joint high-speed rail line, due to open in 2026, with trains traveling up to 249 kilometers per hour, mostly funded by the EU.

Money laundering is the key domestic scandal: Read about Latvia's money laundering mud-fight and Danske Bank's Estonian crutches. For Lithuania, the risks are centred on the country pitching itself as Europe's cryptocurrency captial. In Latvia, the problem is significant enough that the U.S. ambassador there, Nancy Bikoff Pettit, used an international anti-corruption day Sunday to warn the country it needs to do more to tackle corruption or risk paying heavy financial, political and social penalties. The ambassador's statement is here.

MIGRATION REVERSAL OF FORTUNES: POLITICO's visualization of the top issues concerning voters shows that immigration is the number one concern in Latvia and Estonia, a debate crystallized around the United Nations migration pact. The Latvian parliament last week asked the government to reject the U.N. pact (the Lithuanian parliament is OK with it). In Estonia, a protest against the accord turned nasty, and according to Estonia's border guard, just 3,000 extra arrivals could cause a crisis: That's an extra 0.02 percent of the population, or one in 5,000 people. On Monday 85 percent of United Nations countries backed the pact.

Inward migration is a new drama for the Baltics: For 25 years, Baltic countries have been emptying out. From 2004, the EU's free movement of labor  reinforced the mass migration trend started after liberation from Communism, especially in Lithuania and Latvia. Antanas Guoga, and Lithuanian MEP, thinks the EU is literally killing off his country by draining it of its people.

Russian speakers: Then there’s the fact that many people in Baltic countries are wary of their own Russian-speaking populations. A recent proposal to end bilingual education in Estonia was defeated by a single vote in parliament. Moscow is playing close attention to the fate of Russians in Europe, writes Vjaceslavs Dombrovskis.

THE BALTIC EXISTENTIAL CRISIS — RUSSIA. Lithuania unilaterally blacklisted more Russian officials over the Kerch Strait incident and is calling on other EU countries to do the same. Linas Linkevičius, Lithuania's foreign minister asks "how many wake-up calls do we really need to wake up?"

Friends of Europe has published a paper on what lessons can be learned from Baltic efforts to resist Russian hybrid warfare. The EU’s new action plan against (frequently Russian) disinformation has been well received in the region.

CLOSE TRANSATLANTIC TIES: Baltic and traditional American foreign policy communities are closely knit. MEPs Tunne Kelam (Estonia) and Sandra Kalniete (Latvia) were last month awarded the Truman-Reagan medal of freedom, by the U.S.-based Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation. Kelam has decades of freedom-fighting form: In 1972 he smuggled a democratic manifesto out of Estonia demanding independence and free elections, which caused him to lose his job.

MISSING MEPS: Ordinary folk aren't the only people with a habit of migrating — a total of 104 MEPs out of 751 have left the European Parliament since 2014, including Estonia and Latvia losing three MEPs each, and Lithuania a relatively restrained one MEP out of 11.

EASIEST PART OF EUROPE TO WIN A SEAT: In Latvia, the average gross salary is €926 per month. For MEPs, it is over €8,000. If that's not tempting enough, it's easier to become an MEP in the Baltics than, say, Germany. That's because the EU guarantees a minimum of six seats to small countries and Baltic nations also have low voter turnout. In 2014 ,it took more than 300,000 votes to win a German seat in the European Parliament; in the Baltics you can get there with less than 50,000.

In Estonia, barely 300,000 people  voted in 2014 (there are about 903,000 registered voters in the country). With seven seats up for grabs in 2019, that means it's likely an Estonian can become an MEP with just over 41,000 votes. Your vote counts seven times as much as it does in Germany.

Latvia had 1,472,478 registered voters in 2014 but only 445,000 turned out to vote. If that's repeated in 2019, it will take just under 50,000 votes to win a seat.

Lithuania, the biggest of the Baltic states, has over 2.5 million voters and 11 seats. With a turnout of 47 percent, you will need about 100,000 votes to win a seat there.


A common identity: Estonians are not only richer than their Baltic neighbors (now the 26th richest people in the world according to the prosperity index of Legatum Institute) and 55 percent of them identify as Nordic.

Recycling habits: Lithuanians are the best, and Estonians are the worst waste recyclers in the EU.

Estonia is making public transport free


Digital surprise: Despite Estonia’s golden digital reputation, Latvia has Europe’s fastest fiber broadband networks.

Did you now? Riga is the birthplace of the Christmas tree, in 1510, and Latvia's Kolka Cape Beach has been named among world's best with a surprising (yet chilly) 267 days of sunshine per year.

Latest POLITICO 2019 seat projections: Unity, which won four out of eight seats in 2014, has tumbled to seventh place in the polls and may not win a single seat. Only Harmony, the social democrat party generally viewed as Russia-friendly, is set to pick up more than one seat. Its 25 percent poll rating will see it comfortably take two seats. New parties occupy the second, third and fourth poll rankings. See the full details here.

Is Harmony a Russia-controlled party? The social democrats finished first in the election and  are treated with suspicion abroad because of their Russian links. Party leaders are, however, making efforts to trade direct links with Putin's United Russia for ties with Europe's center left. Leonid Bershidsky in an opinion piece for Bloomberg analyses the allegations.

Video guide to Latvia's political parties, from Europe Elects.

Ladbrokes betting odds forMost seats in Latvia

Essential Latvia voting information

WHAT IS THE 2019 EU PLAYING FIELD LOOKING LIKE? If the New Conservatives fail to form a government, they will have a set of candidates with time on their hands.

The big question: Will the leader of Harmony, the mayor of Riga, Nils Ušakovs, run? And is that a good thing if he does: the investigative journalism project Re:Baltica has reported that Ušakovs isn't the cleanest candidate.

THE MEPS MOST AT RISK IN 2019 ELECTION: Kārlis Šadurskis, who sits in the EPP group, has only been an MEP for a matter of weeks, replacing Artis Parbiks. With his Unity party set to drop from four seats to one, Šadurskis, Krišjānis Karinš and Inese Vaidere are all at risk. Iveta Grigule quit her liberal party to sit as an independent, and will also face an uphill battle to be re-elected. These four seats could all go to parties that didn't exist at the 2014 election.

THE MEPS MOST LIKELY TO STAY ON: Miroslavs Mitrofanovs — a Russian-speaking Green — has been doing his best to raise his profile in the domestic debate around controversial school reforms. Sandra Kalniete could stay on as the only Unity (EPP) MEP, and Roberts Zīle for ECR group.

WHERE ART THOU GOVERNMENT? Latvia is still without a new government after a national election two months ago. The latest deadline for proposing a new government passed Monday, and President Raimonds Vējonis is expected to now withdraw the mandate for forming a government he had given to populist leader Aldis Gobzems, from the KPV party. In the meantime, the chairs of 16 Saeima (parliament) committees and a new Saeima presidium have been elected (follow the timeline of developments here).

Over the weekend, Gobzems had warned "If my proposed government composition is not approved, I will ask President Raimonds Vējonis to announce emergency elections."

The biggest stumbling block to a government is that each of the biggest parties has a red line over working with some or all of the other parties that could together form a stable majority.

The war of the oligarchs: Another of Latvia's richest people has been weighing in, with Ainārs Slešers writing social media posts supporting Gobzems, a move Gobzems sees as an attempt to damage rather than support him.

Contenders profiled: From Latvia Ir magazine: Gobzems profile | Bordans profile | President Vejonis


The most notable thing about Lithuania's MEP cohort is the army of assistants they employ: an average of 12 each, according to their official Parliament web pages. This is possibly thanks to a combination of low local minimum wages and the use of interns — but it's less than in 2015, when some MEPs had 32 assistants on the books. By contrast, Estonian MEPs employ an average of fewer than four assistants. And Zigmantas Balčytis of Lithuania manages to do his job with just three.

LITHUANIA'S COLORFUL MEPS: The most colorful of all is Antanas Guoga, aka Tony G, a multi-millionaire champion poker player who owns a group of resorts and poker businesses and is a major sponsor of the national basketball team. If you want to know more about Guoga, you can sit down with him at a poker game with an €1,100 buy-in. He's also behind the campaign to ban the selling of Soviet iconography.

The MEP freelancing with Putin: Then there's Rolandas Paksas ,who told reporters that he met Russian President Vladimir Putin on December 5 and discussed ways to reduce tension in the Baltic Sea region. That's always a good way to get a headline in the Baltics.

Latest POLITICO seat projection for 2019The EPP's Lithuanian affiliate, the Homeland Union, is set to top the poll as in 2014, rising from two seats to three. The Farmers and Greens union — which rules at national level — is set to triple their vote from 2014 and pick up two seats. The remaining six seats will likely be split six ways.

Too close to call in 2014: In 2014, Homeland Union topped the polls by only 1,945 votes. That was a margin of 0.1 percent over the second-placed social democrats.

Most at risk in 2019: Liberals and Valdemar Tomaševski from the small Poles In Lithuania party which is polling at just six percent.

Ladbrokes betting odds forMost seats in Lithuania

Essential Lithuania voting information

DOMESTIC DRAMA — THREE MINISTERS FIRED OVER TEACHER STRIKE DEBACLE: The prime minister fired three ministers over a four-week long teacher strike. Some of the teachers, who had been protesting a new pay system, occupied the education ministry in a demonstration that only ended over the weekend. Baltic News Network has more details.

Catching our eye — sidelining Soviet iconography: One of the more effective recent MEP campaigns is a Lithuanian effort to push large retailers to stop selling Soviet iconography (think ubiquitous hammer and sickle shirts), by pointing out that this is similar to selling Nazi propaganda given the massive political murder schemes of each regime.

The presidential backdrop: Lithuania's presidential race takes place in two rounds May 12 and May 26, with the second round coinciding with the European Parliament election. Incumbent president Dalia Grybauskaitė — one of the world's most powerful women — is term-limited, so isn't running. Keep an eye on her as a contender for the European Council presidency, replacing Donald Tusk, in 2019.

Lithuania's experience of Macron-inspired citizen consultations: Thirty events on the future of Europe have been held since June, usually with an audience of 30-50 people, and supported by a social media campaign. They’ve proven popular enough for the program to be expanded.


POLITICO SEAT PROJECTION FOR 2019It's going to be a great night for the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats in Europe (ALDE). Their member parties (Center Party and Reform Party) are first and second in the polls, and set to take home five of the seven seats on offer. That means the Conservatives (Tunne Kelam) and the Greens (Indrek Tarand) are each at risk of losing their only seat.

Conservatives file complaint against Indrek Tarand MEP with district prosecutor, after he barged into an anti-migration EKRE party rally against the U.N. Migration Compact, which got out of hand. Tarand is elected as an independent and caucuses with the European Greens. What you probably don't now about Tarand is that he's appeared on both the Estonian version of Dancing With The Stars and hosted the programme Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?

New party watch: The most significant newcomer is Eesti 200 (Estonia 200), funded by Priit Alamäe, CEO and major shareholder of Nortal.

Estonia's two most influential MEPs quit (Kaja Kallas and Marju Lauristin) in the last 12 months.

Ladbrokes betting odds forMost seats in Estonia

Essential Estonia voting information

The parliament backdrop: Estonia is due to hold a national parliament election in March, which is certain to affect the final talent pool of EU-level candidates. The national vote is also the first big test of former MEP Kaja Kallas, who hopes to lead her Reform party back to the prime minister’s office, by nudging out fellow liberal Jüri Ratas and his Center Party.

What they’re dreaming of in Estonia: A Finland-Estonia train tunnel, that would cut travel times to 20 mins from 2-3 hours. Tickets are already on sale for the €20 billion project, led by Peter Vesterbacka, a former executive at Rovio, the maker of Angry Birds. He's raised €100 million. Tens of thousands of Estonians work in the Helsinki area, via a weekly ferry commute.

Visit the dedicated EstoniaLatvia or Lithuania pages on POLITICO's European Elections hub.