• 2001-03-29
So Latvia's center-right governing coalition has lost Riga.

Latvia's capital city which accounts for one third of the country's 2.4 million residents and nearly 80 percent (about $1.69 billion) of its tax income has just elected a Social-Democrat mayor who comes from the free-port city of Liepaja some 250 kilometers south of Riga.

To add to the ruling parties' humiliation, one of the Social Democrats' close allies, Sergejs Dolgopolovs, of the For Human Rights in a United Latvia bloc, was elected first vice-mayor of the city. For Human Rights - left-wing campaigners for the rights of Latvia's Russian-speakers - would not now be in this dominant position if another widely-touted ally of the Social Democrats, the right-wing Fatherland and Freedom Party, had not declared its confidence in its coalition partners in the government, the liberal Latvia's Way and People's parties.

Latvian Prime Minister Andris Berzins has hastily responded that he sees no threat to his government and that it will be difficult for the opposition to rule Riga. That may be true, but the lack of support in the capital will certainly hamper the ruling parties' wheeling and dealing at national level, as can be seen from the statistic above demonstrating the relative wealth of the residents of Riga. To add to this, Riga accounts for 64.3 percent of income of the municipal budget and 60 percent of state social insurance payments.

However, to the question already being asked by some readers of The Baltic Times - "Is Riga turning red?" there is no simple answer. First, it is not clear what the Social Democrats' plans are; the normal problem for analysts when a party long in opposition comes to power. Second, the Social Democrats' position in the council is shaky because they won only the minimum necessary votes (31) in support of their candidate for mayor. But with the right steps they can become stronger because support for Dolgopolovs, who has a reputation for being a reasonable, practical man was more solid - he won 41 out of 60 votes for his candidacy.

Riga's voters can hardly be blamed for wanting a return to socialism in their city. This was more a desperate protest vote triggered by the council's recent handling of property issues, the sense of danger many residents have, and a lack of honest, practical leadership in the city. In the words of Dainis Ivans, another locomotive of the Social Democrats' campaign and a former independence movement leader: "Latvia's Way and the Peoples' Party have displayed the arrogance and cynicism of the nouveau riche, so they were taught a great lesson."

Let's hope the time for such lessons is over. Let's hope those desperate voters who supported the Social Democrats will not be given a bitter lesson when the dark horse they invited into the stall refuses to serve them as the previous ones did.