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Out of Harmony: Pro-Russian Parties Are Consolidating Support in the Baltic States, but Have Yet to Prove They Can Work in Coalition

Unofficial results from Latvia's parliamentary elections held on September 17 indicate that the Harmony Center Party won 31 of 100 seats ­ the first time a pro-Russian party has topped the polls in Latvia since its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. But experts believe this party is unlikely to form part of a ruling coalition in Latvia, a country battling to maintain tough austerity measures and clampdown on corruption.

Harmony Center's strong performance is based on a number of factors, including its ability to win the support of the vast majority of Russians in Latvia, estimated by the Latvian Institute to comprise 27.6 percent of Latvia's 2.25 million population. "In the 1990s, this vote was split between a few different parties, but now most Russian voters in Latvia are united around Harmony Center," said Andres Kasekamp, director of the Estonian Foreign Policy Institute, adding that the party has been gaining support for a few years and many expected it to perform well last weekend.

Harmony Center's Leader Nils Usakovs has also played an important role. A Russian journalist by background, Usakovs was first elected to Parliament in 2006 and was chosen as mayor of Riga in 2009 ­ the first person of Russian descent to fill the post since independence. With the capital accounting for more than one third of the Latvian population, this raised his profile among a significant proportion of the country's electorate.

After Saturday's vote, Usakovs spoke to the BBC about his hopes that Harmony Center will form part of a coalition government: "I think it will be a historic breakthrough for Latvia, because on the one hand, politicians sharing left and social-democratic values will be in charge, and on the other hand, the Russian-speaking part of the population will be supporting those politicians," he said.

These left and social-democratic values are key to explaining the party's support among the Latvian electorate. "Ethnic Latvian parties are almost exclusively center-right. So, any leftist Latvians don't have too many choices," said Kasekamp, who estimated that ethnic Latvians make up only around ten percent of Harmony Center's supporters. But the Russian dimension is only one aspect of this weekend's elections, which were triggered by then-President Valdis Zatlers' dissolution of Parliament in July following a corruption scandal, a move supported by 95 percent of referendum voters.

Zatlers, whose newly formed Zatlers' Reform Party (ZRF) came in second in Saturday's vote (wining 22 seats), was attempting to stamp out the influence of three powerful oligarchs in Latvian politics. "Zatlers' rationale was that the Parliament was beholden to oligarchs, three in particular who are deeply involved in politics," said Kasekamp. The oligarchs include: Andris Skele, the founder of the People's Party, which did not run in these elections after incurring a massive fine over financial irregularities in a previous campaign; Ainars Slesers a former transport minister who has been linked to shady dealings with Air Baltic; and Aivars Lembergs ­ the longtime mayor of Ventspils, a transit town for Russian oil. Following Saturday's election, only Lembergs' party, the Union of Greens and Farmers, passed the threshold required to secure seats in Parliament. "So, the president's gamble, which was to get rid of the oligarchs, partly succeeded, and most Latvians see the elections as a positive result," Kasekamp commented.

In addition to voter concerns that a small circle of oligarchs is infiltrating the government, broader economic issues were also a key element in these elections. Latvia was among the countries worst affected by the international financial crisis, and was forced to turn to the IMF for a $2.4 billion loan in 2008. Under Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis, the Latvian government has so far followed IMF guidelines, but this has proved unpopular with voters. Dombrovskis' Unity Party saw its support drop from more than 30 percent to 20 percent, though he is still expected to remain prime minister and, according to Kasekamp, he retains an image of a figure able to reconcile a coalition government.

Austerity measures could also thwart Harmony Center's attempts to be included as part of a ruling coalition, Kasekamp explained. "Harmony Center's line is that we don't need to follow the IMF, but should follow the needs of the people," but while this obviously appealed to voters, it directly contradicts the former government's approach. "So, although Harmony Center is on the verge of a breakthrough, it doesn't have the coalition partner to get it into the government," Kasekamp said. He sees Unity, ZRF and the Latvian nationalist party, the National Alliance, as most likely forming the new coalition. The nationalists, who were not part of the previous government and are therefore free of either the disrepute of corruption or anger over austerity measures, won 14 seats this weekend.

Latvia leads the way in terms of pro-Russian politics among the Baltic states, although gains have also been made in Estonia, where Russian voters now seem to be uniting behind the Center Party. Despite suffering similar setbacks to Latvia's pro-Russian parties, the Center Party now controls the capital, Tallinn, where the percentage of ethnic Russians and Estonians is approximately equal. In contrast to Harmony Center, however, the Center Party is an ethnic Estonian party that has attracted more Russian members. But with both parties in partnership with United Russia, the Russian angle can be a mixed blessing. "I cannot see any big benefits to them from this, maybe it does add some credibility to Russian voters, but it scares off all the Latvian and Estonian voters," said Kasekamp.

And fears of Russian influence continue to play a role in the politics in the two Baltic States. In Estonia, the Center Party allegedly asked Russian Railways Head Vladimir Yakunin for a €1.5 million donation, and the recent election campaign in Latvia saw local television running footage of PR consultants from Moscow training Harmony Center candidates, raising questions about the parties' resources. Lithuania's ethnic Russian population, meanwhile, is too small to play a meaningful role in national politics.

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