RIGA - As the European Parliament elections approach, Latvia's political parties are working overtime to hammer out platforms, beef up the public relations, and in some cases, ratchet up political tension. And now that NATO and EU membership has become a reality, partisan leaders have pinpointed the issue that will win votes come June 12: minority rights.
A leading leftist party has even gone so far as to give the ruling coalition of Prime Minister Indulis Emsis an ultimatum if it didn't do something urgently about addressing the issue of minority right and education reform over the next four weeks.
Meanwhile, a party on the right has called for the resignation of Nils Muiznieks, the cabinet minister in charge of minority rights, for his alleged failure to prevent the situation with minorities from spiraling out of control.
In fact, more than ever before, the Europarliament elections are crystallizing differences between parties on ethnic issues, which include education reform, citizenship and asylum seekers. Even on the left, often rallying around minority-related questions, a rift has become increasingly evident.
The National Harmony Party, which threw its support behind the Emsis-led Cabinet, said its continued support would depend on whether the government was able to solve educational and social problems. Party leader Janis Jurkans stressed that there were ways to solve the education reform issue without amending the law.
To accommodate Jurkans, the Cabinet announced on May 18 that it would invite representatives from the National Harmony Party to participate in roundtable debates on educational and social problems.
The other leftist party, For Human Rights in a United Latvia, has become more intransigent, promising a continuation of student demonstrations, to empty schools as of Sept. 1 and to promote closer EU-Russian relations.
"This is a radicalization process that is taking place due to the education reform," Nellija Locmele, editor in chief of the public policy portal Politika.lv, said.
In the meantime, right-wing parties are running on platforms that promote a condemnation of communism and safeguarding national interest. What they seem to lack, however, is a unique message guaranteeing to bring the voters out in mid-June.
"Right-wing parties really do not have a unifying issue like the left-wing," Locmele said.
Other observers saw it differently.
"I don't think the effect of the EP elections are substantial but are more linked to domestic concerns," Zanete Ozolina, head of the political science department at the University of Latvia, said.
Regardless, relations between the state and minorities have been slowly eroding. Calls for public protest are occurring more frequently, from the minority school defenders and even the Russian Embassy, which released a statement decrying Latvia's alleged abuse of human rights after Parliament failed to send the framework convention on national minorities to committees, thereby leaving the document dead in the water.
In a symbolic move, leftist Vladimir Buzayev was banned from the Parliament for the next six sessions for speaking about the student demonstrations when the topic on the agenda was the war in Iraq.
Even the president was not immune to the marginalization in society. In an interview with the Russian language paper Argumenty i Fakty, Vaira Vike-Freiberga said, ethnic Russians "must accept that this is an independent state and have to become Latvians of Russian origin - but Latvians. If they want to be Russians they can go to Russia."
This drew an angry condemnation from Jurkans, who said the quote was akin to a "national scandal."
Nationalist forces kept up the pressure throughout the week and on May 17 the oppositionist New Era party, the most popular in the country according to nearly every poll, called for Muiznieks' resignation.
"There needs to be direct action, and we have felt an acute lack of action," Krisjanis Karins, leader of the New Era parliamentary faction, said. In New Era's opinion, Muiznieks has not done near enough to diffuse tension in society surrounding the upcoming education reform.
New Era has also called on the government to step down, though party leaders said that, for now, they would only petition to have Muiznieks, a member of Latvia's First Party, removed.
Some analysts were quick to criticize New Era's initiative.
"New Era is so weak right now and so divided internally," University of Latvia's Ozolina said. She described the move as New Era's way to strengthen itself and test the resilience of the current government.
Oskars Kastens, a member of Latvia's First Party, also attributed the move to oust the integration minister to "populist decisions."
Until the June 12 elections, the tensions and rhetoric should continue to mount, even more so since some seven ministers and more than 30 MPs are competing for Latvia's nine seats in the European Parliament, something unheard of in West European countries.
"This affects political debate across the spectrum," Muiznieks said of the elections.