The Other Presidential Election

Article excerpt

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. …