By Patrick Lannin (September 19, 2011)
Latvia’s pro-Russian party launched a bid on Monday for a place in government for the first time in the Baltic state’s post-Soviet history, despite differences over economic policy and suspicions it could steer policy towards Moscow.
The Harmony Centre party, traditionally supported by Latvia’s large Russian minority, held a first round of talks with the two centre-right parties leading coalition negotiations after winning the most votes in a snap weekend poll.
The parties said they had decided to hold more meetings and indicated they had found some areas of agreement, including on an international bailout programme to shore up Latvia’s finances which Harmony had wanted to revise.
One key difference was about how fast to link old age pensions to inflation, a key Harmony Centre demand, they said.
“We are working to form a stable and effective government which can work for three years (to the next regular election),” said Harmony leader Nils Usakov, 35, after meeting Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis, whose party came third.
Usakov also met former President Valdis Zatlers, whose party came second in the election, which was called to try to reduce the influence of powerful businessmen or oligarchs in politics.
Usakov distanced himself from concerns Harmony would allow Russia to increase its influence in the NATO member and EU state, which has not had a party catering to its Russian minority in government since it won independence in 1991.
The party has a cooperation deal with the United Russia Party of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
“We cannot have any effect on the influence of Russia, we are a Latvian party,” he told Reuters.
Nils Muzhnieks, political scientist at the University of Latvia, said foreign policy worries could emerge later in the debate over whether to take Harmony Centre into the government, but that economic concerns were more pressing.
“I think they have a good chance of making it into the government, it’s about 50-50 right now,” he said.
“The thing is that Harmony Centre is ready to sign off on just about anything to get a chance of power.”
Latvians have so far been little troubled by the prospect of Harmony Centre getting its first taste of power.
“I don’t feel like the Russians are coming, but maybe such concerns can be a good thing as the United States has been giving less attention to the Baltic states in the last few years,” said Janis Nigals, 30, a photographer.
“My grandmother sees Russians as occupants, because she was sent to Siberia. I don’t see them that way. I see them as people who now have problems because of what their ancestors did, but they should not be blamed for that.”
Zatlers forced the snap election less than a year after the last vote by dissolving parliament in a fight to reduce the influence of oligarchs.
He is seen as a natural ally of Dombrovskis, who oversaw tough austerity measures and says his policies helped Latvia recover from an 18 percent output drop in 2009.
The parties of Zatlers and Dombrovskis jointly have 42 seats in the 100-seat parliament to Harmony’s 31 and need a third partner for a majority. That could be Harmony, or a nationalist bloc, which has 14 seats.
Before the vote, Harmony backed more social welfare spending and is reluctant about moving to the euro.
In a newspaper interview, Usakov backed holding a referendum on launching the single currency, but both Zatlers and Dombrovskis said after the talks they were against the idea.
Usakov said any disagreement over how to view Russia’s role in Latvian history could be resolved if parties agreed to a government declaration that the Baltic state was illegally occupied by the Soviet Union but that no “occupants” remained.
About a third of the 2.2 million population are Russian speakers and just over half of them have the right to vote.
If Harmony is eventually left out of the coalition, Zatlers and Dombrovskis could turn to the nationalist All for Latvia-For Fatherland and Freedom-LNNK to form a majority.
It doubled its parliament presence to 14 seats. But some of its members are seen by many as ultra-nationalist or extreme, including one who expressed sympathy with the murders in Norway committed by a far right activist.