"Zapchyol" a suprising second

  • 2002-10-10
  • Steven C. Johnson

It's Saturday morning at a bustling Riga market, and a 40-something produce saleswoman dispenses a pithy piece of civic advice with each batch of tomatoes and cucumbers she sells.

"Vote zapchyol, only zapchyol," she says, using the Russian acronym of For Human Rights in a United Latvia, the party that many Russians here regard as the only one that defends their interests.

Most of her customers nod knowingly. "They care about Russians," says Larissa, 42. "They support our right to send our children to Russian schools."

Drawing heavily on such support, For Human Rights, a bloc that actually contains three left-wing groups, won nearly 19 percent of the vote in the Oct. 5 election and 24 seats in the 100-seat Saeima (Latvia's parliament), up from their current share of 16.

Russian-speakers make up roughly 35 percent of Latvia's 2.4 million people. They are most heavily concentrated in Riga and the eastern region of Latgale, where For Human Rights won the biggest share of the vote. The party finished second overall behind the center-right New Era, which won 26 seats.

Party leader Janis Jurkans said most Russian-speakers felt neglected by the state and angry at a decade's worth of broken promises and policies that he says are aimed at assimilation.

For many, Latvia's decision to require Russians who moved to the country during Soviet times to sit language and history tests to win citizenship still rankles.

Now they feel betrayed by the state's refusal to allow non-citizens to vote in local elections and a law that requires minorities to attend Latvian-language schools by 2004.

"We are the only party that consistently advocates respect for minority rights," said Boris Cilevics, a For Human Rights lawmaker in the outgoing Parliament.

While the party does not challenge the existence of Latvian as the official language, it advocates giving Russian similar status in areas heavily populated by Russian-speakers and urges relaxed citizenship and education laws.

The party certainly draws on support from older Russians, many of whom are non-citizens and cannot speak Latvian.

But its numbers show its appeal is wider than that. More than 80 percent of minorities said in 2001 they could speak Latvian, up from just 29 percent a decade earlier.

"I'm a perfect example," said Cilevics. "I speak fluent Latvian, but I expect my state to respect my identity."

"I voted for them because they are for a two-language system and equal rights for everybody," said Dana Romanuka, 21. "I don't think any other party cares at all about such things. They don't even admit that Russians live here."

Nils Muiznieks, director of the Riga-based Center for Human Rights and Ethnic Studies, said For Human Rights' success was a sign of "the utter failure of most parties to reach out to Russian-speaking voters."

Most are reluctant to court them, he says, for fear that it will cost them support among their Latvian constituents.

Many see the failure of the Social Democrats to win seats in Parliament as punishment for forming a coalition in the Riga City Council with For Human Rights.

"For a national party, it's political suicide to join a coalition with Jurkans," said Arno Pjatkins, spokesman for the center-right People's Party that finished third in the election. "It's important to remember that some people in that party were against Latvian independence. That matters to voters."

Jurkans' credentials as a member of the anti-Soviet Popular Front and his subsequent turn as foreign minister from 1990 to 1992 are indeed spoiled for many by his party colleagues. Among the most objectionable to many Latvians is ex-Riga Mayor Alfreds Rubiks, an unrepentant communist who was convicted of treason for backing the 1991 hard-line coup aimed at preserving the Soviet Union.

And even after his party's most impressive showing at the polls, numbers do not necessarily mean power. None of the other five parties who will comprise the next Parliament says it will cooperate with For Human Rights.

"We are right-, they are left-wing and they are exploiting the Russian theme," said Einars Repse, head of New Era and the favorite to be the next prime minister. "Their activities are sometimes absolutely contrary to the integration process."

But it is this process that Alex Krasnitsky, an editor at the Russian-language daily Chas, says most Russian-speakers find objectionable.

"Russians are never asked how they think integration should work, they are simply told, you must learn Latvian, you must give up Russian-language schools," he said. "The problem is nobody thinks in terms of win-win. They assume that the only way to strengthen Latvian, which is a legitimate goal, is to weaken Russian."

Jurkans rejects speculation that he and some of the more moderate members of For Human Rights will break away from Rubiks and others.

"We're all former Soviet people, and we need to integrate, not push people away," he said. "The Russians in this country are our Russians, and we have to take care that they don't become Russia's Russians."

But some say Jurkans' brightest moment heralds the start of the party's long, slow decline. After another four years in opposition and a decline in the pension-age segment of its constituency, the party may look back on 2002 as the year it peaked.

"I just don't see it," said political science professor Daunis Auers when asked about the party's long-term viability and chances of entering government. "I think they'll remain an isolated and ineffectual opposition."