As the main party representing Latvia’s Russian-speakers, Harmony Center’s big, stable electorate may make it the biggest group in the Saeima (Parliament) after the September 17 polls. But can the party emerge from opposition and form a coalition with other politicians? Philip Birzulis spoke with Janis Urbanovics, chairman of Harmony Center’s parliamentary faction, about Latvia’s history, economic reforms and eurozone membership.
Before the Riga City Council elections in 2009, Harmony Center positioned itself as a centrist party appealing to both ethnic Latvians and Russians. Judging by some of your recent public statements, would it be fair to say that you are no longer trying to attract Latvian voters?
You can express any opinion you like as a free person in a free country. But I don’t agree with you. We devote a lot of energy to communicating with our Latvian supporters. Of course not everything is successful, because we cannot forget about our Russian electorate. We move as quickly as our mass allows. We are big. I would say that we are the biggest political player and our Latvian wing is not small and crippled. It is quite big. And we try to balance these political wings, the Latvian and the Russian, taking into account interests and personalities. In fact, it is easier for a Latvian to make a political career in Harmony Center than it is for a non-Latvian.
But the majority of your MPs are non-Latvians.
That just means that we still have to build our Latvian capacity.
In a recent interview with the newspaper Diena, you said that Latvians who believe that Latvia was occupied are worshippers of a cult. Do you think that these kinds of statements bring you closer to Latvian voters, or turn them away from you?
I am in the habit of saying what I think, without calculating whether or not it will earn us political points. It is my deep conviction that the subject of occupation is no longer one of terminology – it has truly reached the level of a cult and a deity. And it is espoused by people who don’t really know the history.
But don’t you see that many Latvians find these statements deeply offensive? You are being deeply offensive about the way they perceive the past.
You see, in history we are not just victims or heroes. Like any other nation, Latvians have both geniuses and heroes and scoundrels. By cultivating a cult of victimhood, the subject of occupation denies us the possibility of looking calmly at our past. I agree that these statements have made waves and led to discussion, and that is good. Of course, as usually happens, people initially jump up and reject them, because you are questioning their dogmatism. They will curse Urbanovics and Harmony Center, but after a while they will think. Because history is not just black and white. History is very diverse. The tragic events of 1939, 1940 and 1941 have a lot to teach us. These priests of the occupation say, “we are all victims, we didn’t shoot Jews, we didn’t participate in the Holocaust, Ulmanis and his ministers didn’t betray Latvia to the occupying military forces. Everything happened against our wishes, we were violently occupied, and therefore you shouldn’t have any doubts because there have never been any scoundrels in Latvian history.” And that is not true.
Do you think that many Russians have developed a more nuanced view of their own history? Are you saying that they don’t make Russians out to be heroes who have never had any scoundrels in their midst and have never shot anyone? They have not even begun to acknowledge the horrors of Stalin’s regime.
You are a priest of the occupation cult. When you run out of arguments you don’t want to acknowledge the betrayal committed by important figures in Latvian history. Instead, you immediately start pointing out that others did it too.
I’m sure if you asked respected historians whether Ulmanis or Stalin did more harm to humanity…
Excuse me. Listen. You are making comparisons again. I propose that we discuss each of these subjects separately. The co-participation of Latvians in the events of 1939, 1940 and 1941 – that is one subject. If we look at the misfortunes that befell the great Russian nation – that is another subject. And there, too, were both heroes and scoundrels.
Can you name any of the scoundrels from the Russian nation?
I repeat. I didn’t call anyone a scoundrel. I said that they have been scoundrels. Because there is no nation which has only heroes. This cultivation of the victim position prevents us from creating a nation of champions and winners. We go on about “oh, we were occupied, oh, life is hard, oh, we have occupants. We are sufferers and we keep suffering. We had a bad childhood.” And so on. We have to be strong, and a strong person and a strong nation are those who calmly look at their history – without being offended or making insults.
Are you really saying that Russians do not say offensive things to Latvians? That Russians are able to calmly look at history?
Why do you keep talking about Russians?
Because Latvians and Russians both live in the same country.
Excuse me, unfortunately we still don’t live in the same country. They have one country and Russians have a different country. It’s only territory that unites us. This is a big problem. Our political goal is to create a united nation, where everyone wishes each other and the country well.
But with your statements you are dividing society.
No, we are healing the divide.
It is quite possible that you will do very well in these elections and you may have an even larger number of MPs. But do you think that you will be able to form a coalition with other parties, for example with Unity or the Zatlers Reform Party?
I have no doubts whatsoever. Why should I have any doubts?
After the previous elections a year ago it didn’t work out. What has changed to make it possible this time?
We’ll see what happens. You shouldn’t pay much attention to election campaign chatter.
How do you rate the Dombrovskis government’s economic and financial policies over the last two years?
I think they have done very little. They haven’t made any radical decisions; they haven’t started planning their own work. All they have done is reacted to events, instead of developing their own policies.
Some might say that they have taken very serious and unpopular decisions, while Harmony Center has sat in opposition.
Not at all. It wasn’t our choice. Dombrovskis chose his partners; we were prepared to enter the government, but Dombrovskis wasn’t ready to work with us. So we are not to blame here. Regarding the unpopular decisions, you are wrong. It is a cliche that they have done something, when all they have done is arithmetically cut the budget for the so-called budget consolidation, which is completely pointless. They haven’t made any systemic changes in the classification of the budget which would allow the country to move forward. They’ve just dithered all this time.
What would you have done differently?
We wouldn’t have done anything like they did.
So spending shouldn’t have been cut and taxes shouldn’t have been raised?
It shouldn’t have been done the way it is being done now. None of the goals has been achieved. Statistics show that we have some kind of growth in GDP, but how is this calculated? They take the 2010 indicators, which are really a decline of 20 percent as a base, and say, oh look, it’s risen! That’s not growth, it’s a rebound from the bottom.
What are your views about the euro? Should Latvia adopt the euro?
I have nothing against the euro as money. My position is that people don’t care what kind of money they have in their pocket, whether it’s the lats or the euro. But the problem again is that the euro has been hailed as a kind of god. If we join the eurozone in 2014 all will be well! Latvia’s economy is not ready to join the eurozone, just like it wasn’t ready to join the EU. Look at how we’re being robbed on farm payments, how we lost our sugar factories and our fishing boats. This proves that we weren’t ready to join the EU. We should learn lessons from our own mistakes and join the eurozone when we’re ready.
In five or ten years’ time, what could Latvia be exporting to the world? And if you were in the Cabinet, what would you do to help Latvian exports?
Latvia’s undoubted privilege is its geographic position. That’s number one, two, three, ten and so on. We must develop transit through a logical and transparent transit policy and have our three logistics centers – Riga, Liepaja and Ventspils – linked with very good roads and intelligent railway networks, and together with our European partners and our partners to the East, in Russia, go over to electric trains, including for cargo trains, in all directions of this partnership.
And what role do you think that small and medium enterprises can play in society and the economy?
Of course, this is about employment policy. Full-time jobs could be created not in large, but in small- and medium-sized enterprises because they are more nimble and react quicker to positive, or not so positive, changes in state policy. If an employer didn’t have to pay social tax for at least a year, the state wouldn’t lose anything either, because it wouldn’t have to pay unemployment benefits. One person, or even one family, would go from being disadvantaged to being prosperous. There is international experience in how countries have reacted in these situations. If investors won’t create new jobs, then the state should do it. We live in a part of the world with cold winters. Insulating buildings is an issue with social, economic and energy efficiency aspects. Why hasn’t the Ministry of Economy done a very simple thing by looking at all those buildings which need to be renovated and insulated?
Should the Ministry of Economy do that or should it be up to municipalities or residents of the buildings?
Right now it has been left up to the poor residents to deal with. But considering that all of those buildings are Soviet-era, series-type buildings, it should be possible to calculate how much insulation material, paint, windows and so on you need and, instead of importing these materials, to produce them here from our own sand, lime and clay that we have here in Latvia. Creating all of these raw materials and instruments for the renovations. It should be a state program.
So one central apparatus should make decisions for every apartment building in Latvia…
No, you’re exaggerating again. The state must create the conditions, but the conditions cannot be created in the way that is happening now.