The Soviet Roots of Democratic Crisis in Latvia


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November 20, 2018

The Soviet Roots of Democratic Crisis in Latvia

As the country falls under populist rule is it a change — or an old story?

By Maija Spurina

  • Democracy
  • Europe
  • History
  • Latvia
  • Politics
  • Populism
  • Russia

This essay was originally posted on November 20 2018.

A New York Times article by Andrew Higgins paints a troubling picture of Latvia falling under populist rule. Higgins’ concern is based on the results of the recent elections that makes possible a coalition between what he calls a “pro-Russian” and anti-establishment parties. Although his summary of the election results is accurate, the article paints a simplistic and misleading picture of the situation in the Baltic States.

True, the future looks bleak in Latvia, but it is no worse than it has always been since the end of the Soviet era. One could say that Latvian civil society is more vivid than before, and shows progress towards diversification and liberalization. People are not optimistic about the future, but their concerns stem mostly from troublesome developments in the United States, Russia, and Europe that have, in turn, imperiled their own democratic public sphere.

The election of Donald Trump and the populist turn of American politics, as well as rising right-wing extremism in Western Europe, has seriously undermined the arguments of the small but increasing number of progressive liberals in Latvia. It is becoming even harder to stand for liberal values and norms of liberal in a country where democracy is predominantly performative, where the majority states that it doesn’t know (or want to know) anything about politics, and where conspiracy theories ring true for many.

For years advocates of liberal democracy had to fight against the cynicism of Soviet-era bureaucrats and political technocrats in Eastern Europe and Russia. Today, the same cynicism is spread through American and Western European media. Additionally, increasing antagonism between the United States and Russia, and demonstrations of military power on the Latvian-Russian border, makes people very worried.

Nevertheless, Higgins’ statement that Latvia is doomed because pro-Russian and anti-establishment political forces are gaining power is misleading. If anything, Latvia is doomed because the United States and Russia are using it as a playing field. In addition, a more independent future is not on the horizon because there are very few Latvian companies that can compete in the global market and the education system is not efficient enough to provide knowledge and skills demanded by global economy.

What is wrong with the picture that the New York Times article is painting? First, it claims that the results of the recent elections show that populism has found ground in Latvia and thus this country is following the same pattern of political developments around Europe. If we look at populism as an inherently shallow or “thin” ideology that does not “provide a reasonably broad, if not comprehensive, range of answers to the political questions that societies generate,” I would argue that this has always been a key characteristic of Latvian politics.

Latvian post-Soviet political discourse has always been very performative, in part because the Soviet era was as well. In It Was Forever Until It Was No More (2006) Alexei Yurchak argued that in the 1950s the Soviet political language and practice became increasingly performative, while their constative dimension became open-ended and indeterminate. By the 1970s Soviet authoritarian discourse became so formulaic that it lost its relevance altogether. People who carried out Soviet political practices were aware of this, and continuously signified to each other that these were simply rituals without substantive meaning. Yurchak’s argument is that Soviet political reality was actually built on such rituals. Everybody performing, nobody taking it seriously, just getting it done for the sake of overall stability. As Yurchak shows, ironically, this formalization of authoritative discourse and practice led to change, by allowing for the development of individual agency and creative freedom within the system, without opposing or acting against it.

I would argue that a similarly performative and formulaic practice of politics has seeped into post-Soviet polities, and Latvia’s contemporary dilemma stems from that. Latvian politicians and government officials have implemented democratic political rituals and discursive formulas mostly in order to get accepted into the EU, the UN, and the NATO. Some have mastered them better, others less perfectly. But the vast majority say the right words and make the right statements without fully understanding their meaning.

In most cases, these rituals are perceived both by politicians and by the general public as necessary, but otherwise meaningless. It is consensus that debates and committee hearings in the parliament, government sessions, ministry working groups, press conferences are just for show. And it is no secret that political negotiations actually take place and decisions are made in private formal and informal meetings, some of which are held in cabinets and conference rooms, others in hotel rooms, hunting trips, or birthday parties. A fine example of this is the corruption scandal that evolved after recordings of a hotel room conversations between Latvian business and political figures were released to public in 2017.

Although populism has been the key characteristic of Latvian politics since the early 1990s, overall, populism has actually diminished over the past decade. The rise of social networks has provided an opportunity to create some kind of critical public, or rather a range of small critical public circles. An increasing knowledge of foreign languages – English, German, French – gives Latvian general public access to critical media in other parts of the world as well. Sadly, however, even those public officials who strive to take public communication seriously get discouraged by the general public’s lack of knowledge and skill in public argumentation and debate. Internet as a medium for debate is populated by “trolls” who are paid to sabotage public discourse or to destroy public reputations. Consequently, politicians and public officials are reluctant to express their views on any matter publicly, leaving it to public relations specialists — a professional group that is trained not to inquire and reason, but to manipulate the audience and to form a certain public opinion. This makes Latvian political discourse overwhelmingly populist in its orientation, regardless of what is being discussed.

Because of this, the Latvian “Trump”, Artuss Kaimins, fits well in the general tradition of Latvian performative populism. His only innovation and thereby the key to his success is the simplification of formulaic communication. He has replaced the imitation of European democratic terminology with a simpler everyday language that seems more accessible to those who do not pretend to be well-versed in political lingo. In contrast with Donald Trump, Kaimins does not have any political views. He is neither leftist or rightist, neither conservative or liberal. Instead, he is a professional actor and a dedicated performer. He entered the political stage as a member of the Parliament with a very simple project—to expose what goes on in the Parliament on an everyday basis. He used a small camcorder to record every minute of his day and made unedited footage available in his online blog. His initiative was creative and even somewhat refreshing for those who believe in the importance of public political discourse. At the same time, he is used as a “face” by political players whose true preferences and interests are as hard to decipher as those of almost every other party in Latvia.

The New York Times article presents the possibility that Harmony, labeled as a Pro-Russian and Moscow-friendly party that garnered the largest proportion (20%) of votes and will become the part of the government coalition, as worrisome. This concern is shared by many Latvians and exploited by Latvian ethnonationalists. Many Latvians urged others to be active and to take part in the election just to make sure that Russians do not take over. And some Latvian parties used a declaration that they would not form a coalition with Harmony to boost their popularity among Latvians sympathetic to ethnonationalist politics.

Yet the same rhetoric has been used to reinforce ethnic antagonism by Latvian ethnonationalists since the 1990s, and it is based on two misleading assumptions. One is that to be pro-Russian is necessarily anti-Latvian. There is nothing wrong with being pro-Russian, if by this we understand that the interests of the local Russian minority are represented. Russians constitute about 30% of the Latvian population, and it is shame that so-called Latvian parties do not care to reach out to them. Any party that represent 30% of the population should be in the coalition.

The other assumption is that to be pro-Russian is to be Moscow-friendly, and thus, anti-Western. It is true that Russian-Latvians are more eager to develop friendly relations between Latvia and Russia, usually due to family and cultural ties, but this does not mean that all Latvian-Russians necessarily support Putin or, even more importantly, are disloyal to Latvia and Latvia’s orientation to the West. Harmony had an agreement with United Russia that it ended when joined the Party of European Socialists last year. Other than that, Harmony unites politicians with very disparate views. For example, one of the leaders — Julia Stepanenko — is a hardline advocate of traditional family values and state censorship of information related to gender and homosexuality in public education.

Others – such as the chairman Nils Usakovs and the candidate for the Prime Minister Vladislavs Dombrovskis — are clearly loyal to Latvia, are well educated in liberal economics and skilled to take part in Western politics. Both are fluent in Latvian and English, while English (or any other foreign language skills) of both the current ethnic Latvian President and Prime Minister is far from perfect. The fact that the party presents itself as Social Democratic, but has both economic liberals and extreme conservatives among its leaders, is another fine illustration of the performative character of Latvian political culture. This means that we can tell very little from its political rhetoric. We should instead look at actual policies it proposes and implements once it is a member of the coalition.

My reaction to the results of the recent election in Latvia is thus neither surprise or outrage. As comedian Trevor Noah said in one of the Late Shows with Stephen Colbert, if one comes from a developing nation, leaders like Trump are very familiar: “the policies, the rhetoric, not having a decent grasp of English, these are all the things that we are familiar with.” Artuss Kaimins’ Trump-like populism is nothing new. The rise of his party does not help to build a critical public discourse.

But, in contrast with the United States, Latvia did not have it to start with.

Maija Spurina PhD in Sociology, Post-doctoral Associate at Yale University.


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