EADaily has interviewed Co-Chairman of the Russian Union of Latvia party Miroslav Mitrofanov, who has shared his views of Latvia’s domestic and foreign policies, the Baltics’ relations with the United States and the social-economic prospects of the region.
Speaking about the current political situation in Latvia, what would you like to point out?
Latvia’s political history is cyclic. From time to time, the Latvians appear with a new project “to save the nation” – a party that first gains popularity and power but then degrades and passes into history. We all remember People’s Front, Latvian Way, People’s Party and New Time. In 2010, power went to Unity but now that party is on decline and will hardly be able to win the municipal elections in big cities. It will certainly live till the next year’s parliamentary elections but I can’t say what will happen then…
And who will come to replace Unity as the leading coalition party?
In the past, we always had a substitute. In its time, Unity was already there when New Time was dying. Unity’s leaders were mostly cynics aptly combining neoliberalism with pro-western orientation. Their voters were mostly successful officials and elite by profession, that is, the people who feel quite well in present-day Latvia and who have enough capacities for pushing into power the party they like. But today we have no substitute for Unity. It is not clear if the Union of Greens and Farmers will be able to take its place. Their voters are mostly from the country and have little to do with municipal elites.
And what do you think about the chances of the national conservative For Fatherland and Freedom/LNNK?
That party will preserve its positions but will hardly strengthen them. They have established a kind of a modus vivendi with Nils Usakovs’s Harmony and Andris Ameriks’s Honor to Serve Riga even though their ideology is different. At the level of Riga self-government, the far-rights sometimes collaborate with Usakovs and even get access to various resources. As for Latvian society in general, its radicalization does not result in new more radical parties. On the other hand, almost all of Latvia’s parties have radical members and their number is growing. This is already causing some negative consequences.
What consequences do you mean?
Our President Raimonds Vejonis has recently tried to do at least something to solve the problem of mass non-citizenship in Latvia. He is really a good president for this country. And we expected that at least, his party, the Union of Greens and Farmers, would support his initiative to be softer to non-citizens but they joined the radicals and rejected the idea. They even dismissed Vejonis’s proposal to grant citizenship to the children of non-citizens. He meant just several dozens of people a year – that would change nothing but the ruling elite was unyielding.
Why is Latvia’s ruling regime so uncompromising towards the Russian community?
Perhaps, because the West is in conflict with Russia. Donald Trump’s election has just put off the war but has not cancelled it. In this light, any concession to the Russian community is regarded in Latvia as a move against the West’s anti-Russian policy. For the Latvian elite, there is no difference between the Latvian Russians and Russia. They think that any concession to them will foster Russia’s political victory.
But even the Americans advise the Balts to make concessions to their Russian communities, don’t they? One example is RAND’s recommendations…
When Russian political analysts claim that the Americans control everything in the Baltics, they are mistaken. In reality, the Americans are closing their eyes on the tricks of the local elites in exchange for their loyalty. Just one example. Last year, the U.S. Embassy in Riga said that it was going to communicate with local Russians with Russian. The Latvian authorities were indignant and forced the Americans to revise their plans. The Latvian tweeter was boiling with fury. The Americans gave in… Concerning RAND’s recommendation to be more tolerant towards Russians, it should be noted that such recommendations had been made regularly since the times of Bill Clinton. But the Latvian authorities ignored them.
How will the Baltic governments develop their relations with Trump? It is not a secret that the local elites hoped for Clinton’s victory and insulted Trump lots of times during the race…
Much depends on how efficient Trump will be in taming the American elite. His opposition seems to be too strong for him for the time being. His last appointments do not inspire optimism. It seems that Trump is backed to the wall and is unable to implement the program he was going to implement. If he succeeds in its efforts to stabilize the U.S. economy, he will gain more foothold and will gain the upper hand over his opponents. But this will hardly happen soon. For the time being, the Baltics are facing a status quo and NATO does not seem to be going to withdraw more troops from that region.
Even more, the Baltic governments were the first to respond to Trump’s words that the Americans would not defend those who did not care for their own defense and unlike many other European states, began raising their military budgets to the level required by NATO. In fact, they are showing the rest of Europe how to be loyal to the new president. So, I don’t expect any serious changes in U.S.-Baltic relations under Trump. Even more, we all believe that Trump’s victory was a big success for whole humanity as it is a chance that there will be peace in the world.
Concerning Latvia, we would like to know what prospects Harmony has. That party has a mostly Russian electorate, doesn’t it?
Some 1.5 years ago, the Latvian government ordered a poll to see then moods of the Russian community. The poll revealed a huge gap existing between the Latvian state and the Russians living there, no matter if they are citizens or not. The Latvian Russians have no more hopes that something will change and consequently are showing no more interest in what is going on around. This is both good and bad for Harmony. Many Russians continue supporting the party automatically without even trying to analyze its good or bad aspects. They vote for it just because they are Russians.
On the other hand, Harmony is not sure that most of the Russians will vote at all, especially as recently the party has been quite passive in defending their rights. Last spring, it did not object to the Government’s plans to criminalize the criticism of the ruling regime – a law that, if adopted, would have made lots of Latvian Russians helpless in the face of repressions. And it was mostly the effort of President Vejonis and Interior Minister Rihards Kozlovskis that the law was not approved in its initial version. The latter seems to be all but willing to see his men arresting and imprisoning people on a mass basis. The Americans must have also helped in the matter – as with the conflict in Ukraine dragging on, they would hardly like to see one more front emerging in Latvia.
And what Harmony’s passiveness may lead to?
Usakovs and his ally Ameriks may get 1-2 seats fewer and prove to be unable to form a coalition majority. The Latvian parties have already agreed not to cooperate with Usakovs-Ameriks alliance. This may even lose Usakovs his post of mayor. On the other hand, the Government continues punishing Usakovs for speaking Russian and this makes him a martyr and a friend in the eyes of the Russian voters.
There have been reports that the EU may stop subsidizing Latvia soon. Is this true?
In the economy the Baltics are facing the so-called ideal storm – a destructive mixture of two and more unrelated factors. In 2018, the EU’s funds will cut their investments. In 2020, they will stop providing any funds at all. For the time being, this money accounts for 1/5 or even 1/4 of Latvia’s budget. In other words, for each euro Latvia puts into the common European pool, it gets four euros but very soon this bonanza will come to an end. On top of this, Russia is going to stop its transit via Latvia – one more source of income for us. So, in 2020, we may face poverty.
Do the authorities have a rescue plan for this case?
The coalition parties are already discussing such a plan but they are doing this very quietly so as not to cause panic among the population. One of the solutions is simpler rules for local businesses and a taxation reform stipulating lower labor taxes. The authors of that reform hope that it will attract British companies needing to preserve their EU registration. They hope that low taxes, simple registration rules, cheap life and fast internet will attract foreign businessmen to their country. The plan is not bad but it needs a long time to be carried out. The problem is that at the initial stage, low taxes will lead to an empty budget and this may become one more factor fostering the ideal storm we mentioned above.
But before the new year, the same authorities decided to toughen taxation for micro companies and revoked their decision only when they saw lots of micro companies shut down…
It was a very unwise step. The authorities were simply unaware what would happen. It was a sensible plan as lots of big companies used the micro tax for avoiding bigger taxes – they did it by formally dividing themselves into hundreds of micro firms. But before implementing that plan, the authorities should have analyzed its possible consequences.
So, what will Latvia do to survive in the years to come?
We don’t know what the EU will do after 2020. Perhaps, it will not stop the funding short and will just transform direct infrastructural investments into long-term loans, guarantee commitments or business promotion subsidies. At worst, Latvia will face the situation of 2008 but this time it will have almost no remedies. The best way for them would be to devaluate EUR but they can’t do it, can they? They may curtail their state machinery and may cut wages in the public sector. More and more people will emigrate but this time they will have fewer chances to find jobs in Europe. In the past, Latvian emigrates would mostly settle down in the UK but now that country is close to them. The only option is the vast German market but there they will face serious rivalry and the language barrier. In other words, only real professionals – doctors or engineers – will be able to emigrate. Ordinary workers will have much fewer chances. Their only hope is the system of social benefits but the Germans are going to reform it and to give benefits only to those who have worked in their country for some time. In future Latvia and Lithuania may turn into big “social houses” – the EU will pay them a couple of hundreds of euros for just staying home and not going anywhere. Young people will hardly agree but older ones will have no alternative. I don’t expect any revolutions here. Long-term stagnation is the most probable scenario.
Why can’t Balts seek jobs in Russia?
The Russians have tough terms: if you want to work in Russia, you have to become a Russian citizen. Europe is much more open for Latvian Russians: they don’t need visas or permits to work, they don’t need to expatriate, they are free to go back whenever they want. Europe can provide temporary work and shelter. In contrast, Russia insists on permanent stay. And this is the key obstacle for those wishing and able to get jobs in Russia.