EURASIA DAILY MONITOR
THE JAMES TOWN
February 15, 2018
Thanks to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) as well as its own efforts, Latvia almost certainly is protected against a Russian military threat of the kind some in Moscow constantly threaten the Baltic States with. Indeed, a new Estonian government report specifically concludes that a Russian military threat to the Baltic countries is relatively low (Valisluureamet.ee, February 2018). And yet, Latvia—to an even greater extent than its two immediate NATO neighbors—is now confronted by expanding Russian efforts to undermine its key domestic institutions. According to Jānis Maizītis, who heads the Bureau for the Defense of the Constitution of Latvia, the country’s banks and businesses are under threat, and Moscow is even trying to promote regime change via the ballot box, as it has attempted to do in other countries (Svpressa.ru, February 5).
This year marks not only the centennial of the establishment of Latvia’s independence, but also parliamentary elections, which will be scheduled most likely in the fall. As Maizītis has argued, Moscow is making use of familiar tactics it has employed elsewhere to try to tip the outcome against the pro-Western parties that have dominated Latvian politics for the last 25 years. The Russian government is backing pro-Moscow political factions who, at a minimum, will drop Riga’s efforts to linguistically integrate the ethnic-Russian minority into the Latvian nation and work to improve relations between Latvia and the Russian Federation. This, in turn, will facilitate attempts by Russian firms to expand their share of business and banking in Latvia and not challenge the ways in which Moscow oligarchs have used Riga banks to launder illegally acquired Russian wealth (Delfi.lv, February 13; Svpressa.ru, February 5).
Over the longer term, if the elections go as Moscow seeks to promote, it might even be possible that Latvia could morph from one of the most enthusiastic supporters of NATO into one of the members that question the Alliance’s assertive approach to Russia. A Latvia ruled by pro-Kremlin parties could even seek to limit NATO’s response to that threat. Such an outcome is unlikely this year; but Moscow clearly is hoping to increase the number of seats in the Latvian parliament that parties tilting in that direction will receive in the October elections and then use that as a base to press for even more changes in the future. At the very least, Maizītis suggested, Moscow hopes to move in that direction by means of covert financial support for such parties and its deployment of the kind of Internet activities it has used throughout the West (Svpressa.ru, February 5).
At a minimum, these Russian efforts challenge assumptions held by some in Latvia and other Western governments that since NATO and Baltic efforts have made a military thrust improbable, there is nothing serious for anyone to worry about. By its destabilizing actions in Europe as well as the United States over the past several years, Vladimir Putin’s regime has demonstrated that this type of purely military-focused “Maginot Line” thinking is the worst form of self-deception.
In his recent comments, the head of the Bureau for the Defense of the Constitution of Latvia has pointed to ways Moscow has encouraged opposition to Latvia’s language policies and provided support for several political parties, including Harmony. Those pro-Russian and Kremlin-supported political factions are already calling for a change in Riga’s policies on that issue. Moreover, they have been championing the reevaluation of Latvia’s relations with the Russian Federation, on the one hand, and the West, on the other (Svpressa.ru, February 5).
Harmony Party leader Nil Ushakov, an ethnic Russian who currently serves as Riga’s mayor, has declared that his goal in this year’s elections is to receive so many votes that the regime will have no choice but to ask him to form a government. For many Latvians, of course, as Moscow commentator Sergey Orlov points out, this would be “a shock, a nightmare, a horror, the end of everything, a coup and the end of the world” because an Ushakov government would “change the geopolitical orientation” of the country. While the Riga mayor has sought to present himself as moderate by distancing his party from Moscow—it broke with United Russia earlier—he would need to politically rely on more radical pro-Moscow forces who would push him in his originally declared direction (Svpressa.ru, February 5).
Ushakov and his allies may not be able to pull this off, even Maizītis concedes; but they may win more votes this year than many expect. This is particularly likely given the close ties of some in the Latvian business and banking sectors who are quite prepared to profit as middlemen for Moscow—even if that weakens Latvia as an independent state.
Many in the West have assumed that Moscow has focused its disruptive efforts on Latvia because of the latter’s still-sizeable ethnic-Russian population. But in fact, Latvia has long been the focus of Russian interests—and far more than either of its Baltic neighbors—because it has the best ports for trade and military use and thus the best infrastructure to support these ports. Consequently, Moscow in Soviet times promoted the influx of ethnic Russians to the major cities along those routes in the first place. Ethnic Russians continue to dominate most of those Latvian cities to this day (Svpressa.ru, February 5).
Moreover, Russia is able to exploit the attitudes of Latvians themselves. Despite their reputation in some circles, Latvians are far more open to dealing with Russians than are either Estonians or Lithuanians. Indeed, it was sometimes said at the end of the period of Soviet occupation that Estonians had been saved by their Finno-Ugric language (which Russians were unable to learn) and Lithuanians by their Catholic religion (which Russians could not accept); but Latvians had not been saved by either.
NATO may have sufficiently prevented a Russian military thrust against Latvia and its Baltic neighbors. However, as Maizītis warns, unless the West recognizes and responds to the broader socio-political realities at play in Latvia, it may discover that it has not blocked a covert advance by the Kremlin (Svpressa.ru, February 5).