The Other Presidential Election
Davies, Philip John, Ozolins, Andrejs Valdis, Contemporary Review
There were two presidential elections in Latvia in June 1996. In one of them the members of Latvia's parliament, the Saeima, elected Guntis Ulmanis for a further term as Latvia's president. In the other, it is reported that 60 per cent of those Russians in Latvia who exercised their right to vote in the Russian election made their mark for Gennady Zyuganov, the candidate of the Communist Party. These results, and the debates that surrounded the campaigns, encapsulate the tensions that determine the political landscape of this Baltic country since gaining its independence from Soviet authority.
In 1989 a modest loosening of political bonds within the Soviet Union had allowed the development of opposition groups, and in the March elections held that year for the USSR Congress of Peoples Deputies, 26 out of the 34 seats contested in Latvia had been won by candidates backed by groups favouring Latvian independence. In August 1989, when Soviet control of the Baltic states was still bolstered by the presence of immense Soviet garrisons, almost two million people formed a human chain of protest stretching the 600 kilometres from Tallinn in Estonia, through Riga in Latvia to Vilnius in Lithuania. These were examples of the political and human protests against the heritage and control of the USSR that were breaking out in many parts of the Soviet fringe, but at the time there appeared little comprehension in Moscow of the enormity of the changes that were to come.
The negotiated route to independence was fraught with danger. The military presence in Latvia was used as the foundation for shows of armed Soviet strength and arrogant detentions of numerous 'suspects' from the local population. In January 1991 there were armed clashes and fatalities in the centre of Riga. Negotiations continued, and it was difficult to know whether tough talk or hard-line action on the streets would feature in Latvia's political future until the coup against Gorbachev in August 1991. A major target of the coup was to prevent the decentralisation of Soviet power. In its failure it set the scene for devolution to accelerate to dissolution.
All the Baltic republics were left with a population that owed much to the conscious policy of russification that had been followed for the previous half century, but Latvia even more than her sister states. The evidence from the 1989 census that 34 per cent of the country's residents were Russians, with a further 10 per cent made up of Belorussians, Ukrainians and Poles. Much of this population resulted from the large Soviet garrisons. Demobilised soldiers remained in the country, and Soviet officers from throughout the USSR, free to retire to almost any location in the Soviet Union, regularly chose settlement in the attractive location afforded by Latvia's main cities. Integration between the Latvians and immigrant populations has been modest, hindered by suspicion on both sides. Many of that 52 per cent identified as Latvians in the census questioned whether an inclusive form of citizenship would be a just or reasonable foundation for independent Latvia.
Initially the cause of protecting and defending Latvian culture and nationhood became the foundation for a relatively exclusionary impulse. Citizenship was granted automatically to those who were resident in the Republic before 27th June 1940, and to their descendants. Access to citizenship by others was subject to stringent language, residency and quota restrictions. Movement has been made towards a more tolerant and inclusive political structure. Residency requirements have been reduced, quotas revised upwards, and the cultural rights of minorities given legal protection. The question of ethnic division has been projected into the background partly by pressures from western allies to adopt a more compromising position, partly by the realisation that fostering residents' positive feelings about citizenship is more fruitful than helping them harbour long-term resentments, and partly by the need to deal with the pressing questions of economic development, but policy preference, ethnic background and political choice are still intimately connected in Latvia.
In the 1996 election Guntis Ulmanis was standing for re-election to the post he has held since the first post-Soviet presidential election, held three years ago. Ulmanis' life could symbolise the tension, compromise and division between Latvia and Russia over the past half century. Born in 1939, Ulmanis is the great-nephew of the President Ulmanis who was deposed by the Russians in 1940, and who himself had been a leader of the move to Latvian independence during the First World War. This connection may have had something to do with the transportation of the Ulmanis family to Siberia in 1947, an exile that lasted five years. Guntis Ulmanis made his way, nonetheless, through the Soviet educational and employment system, rising to become a senior manager in the state service sector. An essential element of his success was membership of the Communist Party for over twenty years until leaving as soon as there was the hint of an alternative, to join the ranks of those for independence in 1989.
Ulmanis was in 1996 nominated as a presidential candidate by the Latvia Farmers' Union and the Latvia Christian Democratic Union, but these party political groupings, and all others, have been very fluid as the country has taken its recent steps towards western democratic structures. Latvia's proportional representation electoral system resulted in the Saeima's 100 seats being divided between nine political parties after the last parliamentary elections in 1995. In the immediate post-election manoeuvring for position these formed into a 'national bloc', and a 'national compromise bloc'. These were distinguishable to some extent by the more Moscow-friendly attitude of the latter, but since alliances have been made by some as much for personal advancement as for ideology, the party political scene is not notable for its clarity. The competition for political authority is nevertheless intense.
The leading party after the 1995 elections, with 18 seats, was the Democratic Party 'Saimnieks', one of three party groupings formed from the debris after the Latvian National Independence Movement was splintered by in-fighting. 'Saimnieks' nominated Ilga Kreituse for the presidency. She had a formidable track record, having been elected to chair the Saeima by 51 to 49 votes in a hotly contested fight, and she provided the stiffest opposition to Ulmanis for re-election. But the coalition that had given Kreituse parliamentary power in November 1995 was itself dissolving by the spring of 1996.
The People's Movement for Latvia was established as the creature of an ambitious German-Latvian, Joachim Siegerists, himself ineligible for election due to his poor command of the Latvian language. The party, and the antics of its flamboyant leader, caught the dejected mood of the electorate in 1995, and gained 16 Saiema seats, but the policy and coalition shifts of 'Siegerists' Party' through the campaign and in office have had an air of cynicism about them. The People's Movement nominated its own candidate for president, Imants Liepa, thereby dividing the opposition to Ulmanis. At the same time 'Siegerists' Party' was suffering its own divisions, with six deputies leaving its ranks, citing the 'undemocratic atmosphere' in the party.
Dividing opposition to Ulmanis further, and indicating the breadth of political opinion still present in Latvia, the final candidate for the presidency was former communist leader Alfreds Rubiks, nominated by the traditional hard line left within the Socialist Party. Rubiks' campaign was hindered by the shift even of mainstream left politics in Latvia away from old style communism, but also by his having to campaign from prison, given the eight year sentence for his part in the August 1991 coup. As a headline in the Baltic Times put it, 'Communist jailbird for president'.
Ulmanis received the obligatory absolute majority on the first ballot, gaining the support of 53 deputies to Kreituse's 25, with 14 for Liepa and 5 for Rubiks. With the opposition divided it was no surprise that Ulmanis led the field, but given the perception of the Saeima as a marginally left-leaning collection of party groupings a first ballot victory was more surprising for this relatively conservative and at times politically controversial incumbent. The tension between fluid coalitions on such issues as retaining elements of central economic control versus accelerated privatisation, and on the general context of whether the country should be more Europe - or more Moscow - oriented, provides the scene for constant political confrontation.
The Democratic Party 'Saimnieks' managed to place Ilga Kreituse in the parliamentary chair in the autumn of 1995 by forging a coalition behind a mixture of free-marketeering, welfare protectionism, and criticism of privatisation, stressing a comforting, secure, managerial image, and an interest in the Russian market. Ulmanis almost immediately came into conflict with this grouping, looking first to parties from the minority coalition to form a government, and when that failed, bringing in a non-elected outsider, Andris Skele, as Prime Minister. This manoeuvre, acceptable in Latvian law, resulted in a government which, while its personnel has altered, has remained in place. This stability, albeit for a few months, has a value of its own in a country subject to so much political change. The period since independence has been for many people one of economic hardship, rising unemployment, falling living standards and widespread poverty, particularly in the public sector, as the divorce with the Soviet rules and rulers has proceeded. In this atmosphere an administration with the appearance of stability, authority and direction has attractions that can overcome policy caveats.
Certainly the recent notices on Latvia's economic development have been positive. In the immediate wake of independence economic changes were swift and almost always painful. A reported 8 per cent decline in national output in 1991 was followed by a 44 per cent drop the following year, and a 14.9 per cent fall in GDP in 1993, but even in the face of this the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development praised the country's achievements: low inflation, a balanced budget, and a currency approaching convertibility. Improvements have been made, and when the country's gross domestic product grew by a tiny amount (0.6 per cent) in 1994, many no doubt hoped that a period of sustained growth was about to dawn. But growth stumbled on a banking crisis, and acute monetary contraction following the collapse of the Baltija Bank, which underlay another fall of 1.6 per cent in Latvian GDP in 1995. Industrial production was also down in 1995, by 6.3 per cent, and more optimistic estimates of national growth for 1996 have been scaled down to something in the region of 1 per cent. While this is a subdued picture, the fact that a country so new to western economics, and so weakened in its infrastructure by a half-century of Soviet neglect, has been able to weather such a financial storm is taken as evidence of underlying strength.
Analysts such as the Economist Intelligence Service detect a strong and economically reliable reaction to the banking crisis. Inflation, currently around 20 per cent, is the lowest among the Baltic countries, the banks that have survived are tempered and given credibility by their experience, and the financial sector looks viable to western investors, and positively interesting to money from Russia and the CIS. Prime minister Skele is given some of the credit for the anticipated upturn, for example in his efforts to accelerate the pace of privatisation, with the state companies for gas, shipping, oil, and others planned for sale in summer 1996. Tourism is developing as a hard currency earner, with Latvian travel agents handling 33,500 incoming tourists in 1995, half of them from Finland and Germany. Riga, an attractive city with a population approaching one million, and an excellent port, is the largest city in the Baltic states, therefore proving popular with western investors wanting a foothold in the region.
The country is looking for a sense of order to go along with the anticipated progress. The Skele/Ulmanis administration has inspired some confidence that it can deliver both at grass roots level and within the unruly party formations, dissolutions and reformations of the Saiema. On the everyday level, corruption is widespread, including the routine bribing of tax and customs inspectors which loses the state a considerable amount while distorting market conditions for companies and individuals. A contract with the British Crown Agents to spend two years training Latvian customs officials is typical of a managerial solution by the administration that should result in substantial annual savings. At the parliamentary level Skele, acting promptly and unilaterally, dismissed the Agriculture Minister, Alberts Kauls of the Unity Party, in response to his accusations that government policies were destroying the farm sector. In spite of Skele's failure to consult on this action, the coalition government held firm.
There is little doubt that Ulmanis' perception in appointing Skele, and the reflection of Skele's reputation on Ulmanis, helped win the presidential election. There does seem to be a 'feel good' factor in Latvia, with the perception of a period of economic and political stability. That having been said, the problems to be surmounted remain severe, and the personal pressures on the generation that is taking the brunt of this change are deeply felt. The average Latvian wage for those in work of $180 is low even in the Baltic countries. Those on pensions are in a worse position. A proposal by Skele to remove the limit on apartment rents, currently capped at $0.15 per square metre produced vocal opposition, both from Ulmanis and from a pensioner who claimed that his $84 pension could no longer cover his food, never mind his housing and utilities costs. Almost half Riga's apartment residents cannot afford to pay their monthly rent in full. Outside the affluence of the city, in Latvia's regions, the economic situation for individuals is more difficult, and the opportunities fewer. But the political potential to progress appears to be gaining strength. Parties that only months ago were coalescing into competing and confrontational blocs of almost equal strength, and which therefore looked set for political battles that could further exhaust the country and its inhabitants, have reformed to give the current administration a firm parliamentary foundation. If this base proves secure the administration will have the opportunity to press towards its own targets, and to attract the confident interest of the outside investors who can support growth in Latvia.
[Philip John Davies is Reader in American Studies in the School of Humanities at De Montfort University, Leicester. He was the founding Director of the university's International Office, and in that capacity worked with Andrejs Valdis Ozolins, Senior Lecturer in Mathematics at De Montfort University, and Chairman of the Latvian National Council in Great Britain, to foster links with Latvia.]…
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Publication information: Article title: The Other Presidential Election. Contributors: Davies, Philip John - Author, Ozolins, Andrejs Valdis - Author. Magazine title: Contemporary Review. Volume: 269. Issue: 1568 Publication date: September 1996. Page number: 113+. © 1999 Contemporary Review Company Ltd. COPYRIGHT 1996 Gale Group.
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