Saeima elections and Latvia’s political challenges

  • 2014-07-03
  • By Viesturs Janis Drupa

WARRIORS: Latvian and Estonian presidents Berzins (right) and Ilves commemorate the Battle of Vonnu in Cesis in a show of solidarity on June 22.

RIGA - Latvians will go to the polls this coming October to elect a new 100 member Saeima, or parliament. It’s now been twentythree years since Latvia regained its independence from Russia and much has taken place since then. Probably the biggest achievements have been that the country became part of the European Union, joined NATO and converted to the euro currency. Like much of the world, it survived the recent worldwide financial crisis by the strong leadership of then-prime minister, Valdis Dombrovskis. It was Dombrovskis’ government that adopted an unpopular austere economic policy, and it was that policy that led Latvia out of its economic crises.

Dombrovskis’ leadership helped achieve economic normalcy for Latvia, yet such success stories are few. Those early years after 1991 were forgiving, but now the government’s honeymoon is over. The recent events in the Ukraine and the Crimea have wakened Latvians to face reality with its neighbor, Russia. All Latvian citizens now need to look to Latvia’s future and they can start by voting for leadership at the upcoming Saeima elections. One challenge currently facing Latvia is how to address relations with Russia in light of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the annexation of the Crimea. Latvians have seen the Russian bear forcibly occupy their nation twice after independence, and then saw it annexed to Russia before it finally achieved independence again in 1991. It’s no wonder that Latvia still harbors concerns about what Russian interests are in Latvia. Current Russian involvement in sovereign Ukraine has Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin acting like Hitler when he invaded Austria and Czechoslovakia before World War II.

Putin has, in the past, lamented about the breakup of the Soviet Union and now appears, by his Ukrainian actions, to be trying to bring back some of those countries into the Russian fold. Let’s not forget that Russia still sees Latvia as part of that Russian group. Traditionally, Russia has always felt unsafe with its borders and has gone to great lengths to continually try to expand them. In the Ukrainian incursion Russia used the excuse that it was protecting ethnic Russians. Protecting them from what? World War I escalated from that same premise. Latvia has a large ethnic Russian population left behind from the last Russian occupation that to this day has not been able to fully integrate into Latvian society. Helping ethnic Russians in Latvia may very well be the next excuse that Russia uses to occupy Latvia. It’s unlikely, but with Russia, however, who knows?

Most Latvians look at all this and say that NATO will be their protection. Or will it? The argument is that because the Ukraine is not in NATO, Russia’s actions in the Ukraine are not NATO’s concerns. And, because Latvia is in NATO, it will come to the aid of Latvia. Latvia’s large ethnic Russian population could be used by Russia as an excuse for possible intervention in Latvia. In the event of such Russian intervention in Latvia, I, however, doubt that NATO will come to the aid of any Baltic State, and here are my reasons. In spite of all the promises and a small show of force by NATO in the Baltics, Europe is much dependent upon Russia and, at the same time, is reluctant to get involved with more armed conflicts. Also, United States policy is now to downsize its military, while Russia is increasing theirs. The U.S. used to be NATO’s biggest player in the past, and once provided the leadership and the internal glue that held NATO together and became a strong force to reckon with. Now that relationship has been weakened by the ending of the Cold War, European dependence on energy from Russia, and a growing reluctance to get involved with any more conflicts. All this, in my opinion, has weakened NATO resolve.

In some circles today, the very future of NATO is being questioned. Latvia’s next elected Saeima has to seriously look at the NATO alliance scenario affecting the Russian- Latvian relationship. Latvia, as small as it is, is like David to the Russian Goliath, except that Latvia has no slingshot. For all practical purposes, it has no army and no military defense to mount on its own. The future Saeima has some serious challenges to face about the military establishment. It’s difficult to get accurate numbers, but best estimates of the military establishment are anywhere from 300 to 1,500 personnel in the army and roughly 5,000 to 11,000 in the Zemessargi, or the national guard, and somewhere around 3,000 in the Ministry of Defense as a whole. The problem with these numbers is that the Ministry can only, at the most, field one combat effective force about the size of a company. One company alone cannot possibly defend Latvia from any aggression. Add to that no effective air force or navy and what you come up with is a military force consisting of smoke and mirrors only. To this day, the military has too many different and confusing nonstandardized small arms weapons, and no large effective weapons for any kind of defense.

The 5,000 force of border guards could be some help, but no serious coordination, nor planning, has taken place on their integration into the military defense structure. The Zemessargi is primarily a volunteer organization that is poorly equipped, undertrained and often their members double as private security guards to earn extra money. In spite of all this, the Ministry of Defense has general officer ranks in their organization who, when based on unit strength, can only be justified at the level of a lieutenant colonel. My question is, why has the Saeima let all this happen, and what will the new Saeima do to correct all this? For the past 23 years, the Saeima has watched the population of the country dwindle. According to the Latvian statistical bureau, Latvia in 1991, the year of re-independence, had a population of 2,658,164. By the first quarter of 2014, the population had shrunk to below two million, for the first time, to 1,997,500. Since independence, Latvia has lost approximately 660,000 persons to emigration. In perspective, that’s roughly the population of Riga today. As more and more Latvians emigrate, the current population gets older and the death rate is higher than the birthrate. In the long run, Latvia cannot sustain these kinds of figures and remain a viable nation. The lack of decent paying jobs in Latvia has often been cited as a reason for so many citizens leaving. Others argue that that is not a great problem because these emigres often send money home to Latvia and that as the Latvian economy improves, they will return to their homeland. Current statistics, however, don’t point to this happening. Unemployment in Latvia is currently running around 12 percent, emigration has not slowed, and indications are that more and more emigres are establishing permanent households in countries other than Latvia.

In spite of all these statistics, Saeima continues to make it easy for foreigners to buy property in Latvia and then, in addition, provides them liberal resident policies. The irony to all this is that the majority of foreign investment comes from Russia, a country that always seems to have eyes on Latvian occupation. Could Latvia become the next Crimea? Russian money in Latvia not only goes toward property or investments, but has, as some speculate, gone toward Latvian elections. It’s a difficult allegation to prove given the existing Latvian political and judicial systems. One only has to remember that Saeima members are above the law.

I have some business friends that dismiss any Russian threat and will argue that Russian money in Latvia is good for the economy. One certainly can agree that Russian money has helped the Latvian economy and without those investments, the economy would have taken longer to recover. But at what expense has all this been a help to Latvia? As long as emigration continues at its current pace, Russian influence continues to increase. The seacoast town of Jurmala, with its large Russian population and property investments, is often referred to by many Latvians as “Little Russia.” The capital city, Riga, is not immune either from increased Russian influence. As Riga’s Latvian population decreases, more and more ethnic Russians become the ever increasing population figure. The Latgale region and Latvia’s second largest city, Daugavpils, in the country’s east, already have large ethnic Russian populations. None of this would be so bad in itself if the two major ethnic populations would only integrate. To this day, Saeima has not been successful in achieving this noble endeavor and the Latvian identity and culture is slowly eroding away. I raise all of these concerns because I don’t see any of the current political parties mentioning any of this and yet, these are some of the realities that are facing Latvia today.

Latvia needs leadership and so far neither Saeima nor President Andris Berzins have provided any so far. Both Saeima and the electorate need to get their heads out of the sand and plan for the future. The electorate has a chance again to vote for those individuals that have the best interests of Latvia at heart. To those elected to the Saeima, I hope that they will serve with honor for their country and not for personal gain. Latvia needs to seriously address the issue of the size and purpose of the military. The army needs to talk with the other Baltic States and NATO about future plans for Baltic security. The Latvian Ministry of Defense needs to come up with a better plan for national defense in line with limited resources. It’s time for them to realize that they have no army, navy, nor air force.

Sadly, the combined Latvian military forces today represent a paper tiger and only some bold thinking now can correct this situation. Saeima also needs to quickly address the issue of jobs, a dwindling population, revitalization of the economy, and ethnic population integration. All of these things can be solved, and it won’t be easy, but the new Saeima will have to take strong corrective measures. Latvia now needs leaders with wisdom and matched courage to break the do-nothing chain. I urge all citizens, Latvian and ethnic Russians alike, to realize that Latvia is your home. Take care of it and preserve it for posterity. Being small does not mean insignificant. Being small can also mean being unique.