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In Latvia’s October 2 elections, the new nationalist party All for Latvia! and its veteran ally For Fatherland and Freedom/LNNK took eight seats. Touted before the polls as likely coalition partners for the Unity block, All for Latvia! has been denounced by some as extremist. Russian officials have warned that the party’s inclusion in the government would set back bilateral relations, while sections of the British press have criticized the Conservative Party for being in the same European Parliament grouping as All for Latvia! and other Eastern European ultra-right wingers. On October 25, Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis ended weeks of speculation and announced that All for Latvia! would not be invited to join the coalition. Despite this setback, 27-year-old All for Latvia! leader Raivis Dzintars is still one of the rising stars of Latvian politics. Philip Birzulis spoke to Dzintars about language policy, Waffen SS veterans and other controversial issues.
The process of forming the coalition has perhaps been a little more complex than you expected. The Unity alliance hasn’t greeted you with open arms.
Government formation is always complex and we expected that it would be. We also knew that Unity has internal differences, which is as it should be. The long term results of this are hard to predict, but in the short term we won’t stay without a government, some combination will come about. But how long this combination endures is the question. Right now it is very important to maintain stability in a time of tough decisions and to retain the trust of the international community we have earned. It’s a big challenge for Latvia’s politicians.
Speaking of stability and the international community, the British press and others have described you as extremists.
There are differing attitudes within the British press, amongst British politicians and European politicians in general. Russia undoubtedly has a big influence on the global shaping of information. These are the results of Russian propaganda and it is very easy to earn the unfriendliness of Russia simply by sticking to your principles or refusing to back down. But many of the signals that the West may not accept All For Latvia! is in my opinion a matter of internal politics. I have recently met representatives from the US embassy in Riga, we had an open discussion and they said that there have been no such signals from the US embassy.
After the elections, Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovksis said that whether you become part of the coalition depends on how you position yourselves so that Europe understands you. Do you think you have an image problem and how can you improve this image?
With regard to Mr Dombrovskis’ comments, you’d have to ask him to clarify them himself. As regards All for Latvia!, unlike other parties we have entered politics and achieved something without much money. We haven’t hired PR experts and we haven’t been able to mount a massive campaign to inform people about our positions. We have often been the subject of half-truths put out by media outlets we don’t control, which is something we take into account and fight against. But in regard to my own image and the party’s election campaign, as far as possible we have tried to present ourselves as we really are rather than doing things just to look good. I’ve heard my political partners say that it was a good move for us to tidy up at the Jewish cemetery in Riga on National Clean-up Day in April. But this wasn’t some rehearsed act to polish our image – it is our conviction. We have nothing against any nationality, and we understand the suffering of all nationalities.
What is your attitude toward the annual March 16 march of Latvian Waffen SS veterans, the so-called Legionnaires?
At what point does laying flowers at a memorial become a march? The primary objection to this event is that it takes place at the Freedom Monument in Riga, and when similar events have been held elsewhere, there have been no objections. So why is the Freedom Monument a worse place? Because the only motivation of those men who fought, and I know them and meet them ever year, is the same as the inscription on the monument – For Fatherland and Freedom. They fought for Latvia’s independence, and if today in independent Latvia they can’t lay flowers at our most scared place and remember their fallen comrades on the anniversary of the only battle in which the two Latvian divisions fought together, then something is not right in our society. Of course, the propaganda espoused by various organizations in Russia has influenced attitudes in the international community about this event. The job of Latvia’s diplomats should be to explain the situation - that’s what taxpayers like me pay them to do.
But for several years, Latvia’s leading politicians have considered that distancing themselves from the march is the best way to explain it. Doesn’t your attitude differ sharply from the generally accepted position of the political elite?
Just because something is generally accepted doesn’t make it right. Distancing ourselves would be correct if we acknowledged that something was wrong, that we are at fault or have made a mistake. But these men are not commemorating any occupation regime. Their wartime songs clearly showed that they were equally negative towards both the German and Russian occupants. They go to commemorate the independent state of Latvia, and if politicians acknowledged this, then they wouldn’t have any reason to distance themselves. What I’d really like to see is for those Latvian soldiers who fought on the other side to march together with the Legionnaires, symbolically burying the hatchet and saying “we are marching together, we have a complex history but we are all Latvians who fought with one goal.” And that would create new arguments to explain to the world that March 16 is not about glorifying any occupation regime. We are in touch with organizations from both sides, and we will do everything possible to see this happen.
Your party programme declares that the language of instruction in all schools should be Latvian. Reforms relating to language in schools were extremely controversial a few years ago and led to massive protests. Don’t you think that your policy will just reopen these wounds in society?
The policy relates to all state-funded schools. In my opinion the problem with the earlier education reforms was that schools had started working in one language and then suddenly the language proportion was changed. Our proposal is that education in Latvian should begin from grade 1, because childhood is the best time to learn languages. Then we will gradually arrive at the logical situation where the state funds education in the one official state language. If we want real integration and to avoid the creation of a state with two separate communities, a situation where someone in Latvia can get by with just Russian is unacceptable. We have to arrive at a point where an active social life is impossible without knowledge of the state language, as is the case in any self-respecting country.
Do you think that Latvia’s minorities will simply accept your ideas or will they stage big protests like they did over the more moderate reforms?
Those reforms weren’t more moderate, because they changed the rules in the middle of the game. Russians and other minorities in Latvia are a very diverse group. Many are already sending their children to Latvian schools because they want their children to live in Latvia, to be fluent in Latvian, and receive higher education in Latvian, because they see their future as being here in Latvia. Of course, there will always be a section of the community who are dissatisfied with a lot of things, but I don’t think that fear of such people is a real argument. There has to be dialogue, but there cannot be a constant backing down on all issues. A country that doesn’t respect itself and politicians who don’t respect themselves will not make society patriotic.
Are these issues relevant today? Mr Dombrovskis’ first priority will be economic reforms – are you prepared to get behind the painful decisions that will have to be made?
We are already involved in various groups working on the government declaration. In the election campaign business groups praised our economic programme as one of the best. There are many important economic reforms that need to be addressed, but we don’t agree with making other issues taboo. No one is going to forget about economics, but for our voters and also many Unity voters the sort of environment we live in is important. Will school children be raised as patriots? Will they be taught the history of Latvia and our national culture? A person who isn’t loyal to his or her country will be less productive in the workplace, and a number of studies show that culture has a very big impact on economics.
There have been discussions between Unity and Harmony Center about involving the latter in the coalition in some way. Can you see any way that you could be in the same coalition as Harmony Center?
If Harmony Center changed, then we could consider it. They have to acknowledge the fact that Latvia was occupied. There cannot be a party in the government which has not accepted this - that would be the same as a party in Israel being in power which denies the Holocaust. They would also have to reject the idea of Russian as an official language. We also cannot accept that Harmony Center includes people who openly oppose Latvia’s independence, such as Alfreds Rubiks and his Socialist Party, who openly celebrate the anniversary of the occupying army entering Riga. We cannot accept the agreement that exists between Harmony Center and the undemocratic rulers of Russia, the United Russia Party. If these things were to be resolved, we would have no objections to Harmony Center or their leader Janis Urbanovics. What we object to is the ideology that this force represents. If there was a political grouping in Latvia with Russian surnames who didn’t espouse such principals, then I would have no hesitation in being friends with them.
I’m sure they could make a similar list of demands from you. Is it reasonable to expect the other side to cut off their left or right arm in order to cooperate?
That’s the question. If Harmony Center’s imperialistic stance is like their left or right arm, then it would be suicidal to accept them into the government. This is both a practical and a moral question – can people who were tortured and had their lives destroyed by the Soviet regime accept having a party in the government that celebrates the entry of the occupation army? We are a democratic country, and I think the majority of Latvia’s citizens have made their views on this matter clear.