Estonia's southern neighbors in Latvia voted in a parliamentary election on Saturday, for which the issue of relations with giant neighbor Russia was at the fore. But despite a few false starts on election night, the net result is that the current ruling coalition is set to continue with only minor personnel changes, which will have little effect on bilateral relations.
Exit polls initially suggested the Unity party of Prime Minister Laimdota Straujuma had scored a notable victory, overhauling the pro-Russia Harmony party of Riga Mayor Nils Usakovs which usually comes in first but is then condemned to opposition. Whoops of delight were heard at the Unity election night party before the first results started rolling in showing that actually Harmony would top the poll as usual.
The final result was effectively a three-way split. Unity, Harmony and the populist Greens and Farmers Union (ZZS) picked up roughly equal support and ZZS can with some legitimacy claim to be the real winner in the election – despite the fact that its official Prime Ministerial candidate Aivars Lembergs is seen by many as a clownish figure, on trial for fraud and unfriendly towards NATO. But with the election over he will return to the port city of Ventspils of which he has been mayor for more than 20 years.
The 100 seats of the next Saeima which is due to sit on November 4 will be distributed in the following fashion: Harmony 24 seats, Unity 23 seats, Greens and Farmers Union 21 seats, National Alliance 17 seats, Regional Alliance 8 seats, Latvia From the Heart 7 seats.
The current coalition consisting of Unity, ZZS and the right-wing National Alliance will control 61 seats with the likelihood that the Regional Alliance may also climb on board to create a dominant 68 seat bloc.
The most notable election night victory was scored by the Regional Alliance's celebrity candidate Artuss Kaimins, an actor who has become a national figure via his 'Sunu Buda' (Dog House) YouTube videocast in which he brutally and hilariously lambasts politicians for an hour. It's unlike anything the Latvian media has ever seen, and has given him thousands of fans who spectacularly catapulted him from the bottom to the top of his party list. Incidentally he has exhibited virtually no interest in his party at all, instead threatening to video everything he sees in parliament to expose how rotten and ineffective it is. If nothing else it should be entertaining.
“I think it's business as usual. The outcome is what most of us expected which is a broad majority for the Latvian parties. The current government will continue in office and Harmony will continue in opposition. It's a pattern we've had for a quarter of a century and I would say nothing has substantially changed,” University of Latvia professor Daunis Auers told ERR.
“Over the coming days it's possible the National Alliance will ask for another ministerial post and certainly the Greens and Farmer Union might also ask for another one. Once you open up Pandora's box it will be very difficult. Eventually what we'll find after a lot of posturing is the current government broadly back in office with maybe a couple of ministerial seats redistributed.”
The ball is now in the court of President Andris Berzins, who has given the parties a week to cobble together a coalition before he names a prime ministerial candidate. It seems unlikely the incumbent Laimdota Straujuma will continue in the post after her election campaign and even her ability to speak coherently disintegrated during the election campaign. It's even more unlikely that Berzins will turn to Usakovs, which would be a highly controversial move.
The Riga rumor mill is mentioning outgoing Euro-commissioner Andris Piebalgs, nationalist MEP Roberts Zile and ZZS defense minister Raimonds Vejonis (who luckily does like NATO) as possible alternatives.
As far as Estonia is concerned, the Latvian election shouldn't change much. When Andrus Ansip and Valdis Dombrovskis were at the helm of their respective countries there was palpable “chemistry” between them that accelerated the pace of cooperation. With both of them now cosily installed in adjoining rooms in Brussels as EU vice presidents, that pace has slackened and is likely to drop off more as Latvia's politicians jostle for position.
It's hard to say if it will have any effect on the headline Rail Baltica project, if only because it has already slipped so far behind schedule that more delays would not be unexpected.
Estonia didn't feature much in the election campaign discussion. It was occasionally cited as an example of how Latvia should be spending 2 percent on defense, rather than the 1 percent likely in the next budget. Latvian nationalists in particular spoke admiringly of Estonia's no-compromise attitude towards Russia and the notion that any Baltic “little green men” should be shot on sight.
And in a post-election discussion about whether Russian-language TV channels should be banned, Daunis Auers, an associate professor at University of Latvia, passionately defended Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves' stance on the matter, which contrasts with broadcast bans adopted by both Latvia and Lithuania.
“Ilves has clearly said that freedom of speech should be protected at all costs. We may not like what these channels say and they may be outright lies in many cases, but if we start removing the right to say things we are taking the first step in the same direction as those channels themselves,” Auers said.
Mike Collier is a freelance journalist in Latvia, and is the chief editor of Latvian Public Media's English language service, LSM.LV.