By Olevs Nikers
July 31, 2018
The last remnants of the so-called “Homo Sovieticus” phenomenon—characterized by low loyalty toward the national state, hostility to Western-style liberal-democratic values, and high levels of Soviet nostalgia and pro-Russian feelings—may be on the verge of extinction in Latvian politics. Most of the country’s main political parties, which are currently submitting their candidate lists ahead of the parliamentary election (scheduled for October 6), are notably putting forth a new generation of Latvian politicians (Cvk.lv, July 30; Lsm.lv, July 19, 30). And importantly, many of their platforms vow to unite Latvian society through concrete measures of political and social inclusiveness.
Independent Latvian researcher Mārtiņš Kaprāns has studied why the Homo Sovieticus phenomenon has been so persistent in this Baltic republic and across the former Communist region. In particular, he points to widespread dissatisfaction with Latvia’s socio-economic model, which, contrary to the Soviet system, does not provide a sufficient sense of social security. This reality effectively turns Communist nostalgia into a form of social protest. Secondly, such nostalgia is fueled by dissatisfaction with the individualism-centric values inherent in liberal democracy, which contrast with paternalistic, Soviet-era collectivism (Delfi.lv, July 2, 2012).
The Latvian Ministry of Culture has found that the number of people who still feel a sense of nostalgia for Soviet times has diminished. In 2017, Only 16 percent thought life under the Soviet Union was “good” or “very good,” compared to 29 percent in 2015 (Delfi.lv, October 11, 2017). Years of such collected survey data suggests that generational change, when combined with an improving economic situation, will result in a continued decrease in nostalgia for Soviet times.
Still, according to the European Union’s official statistical agency, Eurostat, the percentage of people at risk of poverty or social exclusion in the Baltic States is higher than the EU average (23.4 percent). The Eurostat survey reveals that 28.5 percent of the total population, or 550,000 people, are at risk of poverty or social exclusion in Latvia. In Estonia, this proportion is lower—24.4 percent, or 320,000 people. While in Lithuania, 30.1 percent are at similar risk, which translates to around 870,000 people (Diena.lv, October 17, 2017).
Vytautas Kersanskas, a researcher at the Eastern Europe Studies Center, in Vilnius, argued that “Soviet nostalgia” has no national or “ethnic face.” According to polls, he said, there is rather a noticeable correlation between such sentiment and the economic or geopolitical situation. For example, rates of Soviet nostalgia were found to increase during the last decade’s economic crisis, but sharply decreased following Russia‘s invasion of Ukraine, as many in Latvia came to see a strong possibility of conflict affecting their own country. Indeed, most studies on Soviet nostalgia conducted in neighboring Lithuania show that besides emotional aspects, social/economic grievances are important to take into account. People fondly recalling Soviet times may be conflating the bright memories of their own youth; while ideas of social/economic security are routinely equated with the notion that “everyone” in the Soviet economy had job and a home, and that this security was “disrupted” under capitalism (Author’s interview, July 20).
Dr. Ivo Juurvee, of the Tallinn-based International Center for Defense and Security, believes that the most powerful countermeasure against Soviet nostalgia (and its attendant anti-systemic sentiment) is to dramatically improve the prosperity and living conditions in the Baltic States. “Fortunately, he asserted, “this is something that has been dealt with [in Estonia] on a daily basis for 27 years already” (Author’s interview, July 19).
The role of economic reforms in boosting or dialing down Soviet nostalgia is importantly complemented by differences in the domestic political environment. Illustratively, while Estonia and Lithuania both have an ideologically functioning “leftist” political wing, Latvia for decades since the restoration of independence had not gone back to its tradition of social democracy. “The ethnic cleavages [within Latvian society] prevented the development of leftist politics. In Latvia, what most people mean by ‘left’ effectively refers to post-Communist/Russian-speaking [individuals or organizations],” said political scientist Dr. Ivars Ījabs, of the University of Latvia (Opendemocracy.net, December 18, 2017).
However, ideologically consistent parties have finally begun to emerge in Latvia in recent years, according to Dr. Iveta Kažoka, a director and leading researcher at the Riga-based think tank Providus. This contrasts with the rather vague groupings, often centered around one particular figure, that had heretofore defined Latvian politics. Among the new type of political parties, Dr. Kažoka named For Latvia’s Development (liberal, center-right), Movement For! (liberal, center-left) and the Progressives, an explicitly social-democratic faction campaigning under the slogan “Turn Latvia in a Nordic direction.” The researcher argued, “We [Latvia] are moving to a more values and issues-based politics than previously,” and noted that, unlike even a few years ago, Latvian political parties are no longer afraid to state that they are center-left or that they are socially liberal (Opendemocracy.net, December 18, 2017).
“Despite optimistic statistics of economic growth, Latvian people continue to flee [emigrate],” maintained Daniels Pavļuts, who heads Movement For!. He relates the issue of social inequality and exclusion to persistent flaws in health care, education, retirement and an unjust tax system in Latvia. In his opinion, taxation should be changed to a progressive rate instead of the current fixed one (Lsm.lv, July 27, 2017; Kustibapar.lv, accessed July 23, 2018).
Similarly, the goal of the Progressives is to develop such conditions for all residents of Latvia so that they can be assured of their social security. “Social inequality is not an abstract indicator, it affects the availability of healthcare and education, housing quality, and other areas of human life and activities,” noted Roberts Putnis, the leader of the new social-democratic party (Author’s interview, July 17). The Progessives’ political platform explicitly states that national security must be considered in relations to all areas affecting broader society. This means providing a full-fledged social support network for crisis situations or individual assistance as well as fostering civic engagement. Security also means environmental safety and protection of nature, the highest industrial and cyber security standards, along with traffic safety, effective civil protection and state protection against external threats (Progresīvie.lv, accessed July 23).
Since Latvia is already meeting its obligations under the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to spend 2 percent of its GDP on defense, Latvian politicians gearing up for this year’s parliamentary elections are now turning their attention to social security issues, designed to boost social solidarity and loyalty toward the state. Such policies, if successfully implemented, may finally help dispel the remnants of Soviet nostalgia, which has continued to feed Homo Sovieticus.