The otherwise cool tempered Balts erupted into street protests this Sunday in Riga. The reason was a cynical move by Latvia’s ruling coalition in parliament to convene an early morning weekend vote on the fate of Latvia’s chief anti-corruption director, the ethnic Russian, Aleksejs Loskutovs. It was hoped that selection of this irregular vote on the Sabbath following the mid-summer holiday when most are either in the countryside, sleeping off a weekend bust, or both, would represent a stealth strategy that would go undetected by an apathetic electorate that has long since been instructed in the limits of “really existing democracy.”
Indeed, foreign commentators have both rhapsodized and vilified Latvia, often unfairly, or for the wrong reasons. The financial press and Western commentators have praised Latvia’s democracy for its adoption of democratic structures, along with selecting EU and NATO membership. Indeed, EU accession in 2004 delivered regulatory structures that made the unelected bureaucracy run more efficiently, while inspiring European confidence that brought more foreign investment, which in turn provided further fodder for corruption by elected elites and their patrons to feed on. Democracy has left the public dubious on the system’s merits. Frustrated by the inability of democracy since 1991 to deliver more equitable distribution of wealth, prosperity more approaching West European standards, or clean government, many have maintained a bitter introversion reminiscent of Soviet times when people confronted the daily realities of engaging rude civil servants.
Indeed, Latvians, like most peoples of the USSR, as the system imploded, overwhelmingly expressed their desire for Scandinavian social democracy, but instead saw a corrupt kleptocracy emerge that deftly took advantage of an American-introduced neoliberalism, resulting in ever greater levels of pessimism. In post-modern fashion Latvia’s political parties have normal sounding names, such as the “Green and Farmers Party,” but in reality these mask the true constituency, such as in this case being a front for powerful port authority oligarchs. Other political parties, such as the “national” or “ people’s” party, merely reflect other oligarchic interests. With over 20 political parties in a nation of only 2.3 million people, many of whom are disenfranchised because they are ethnic Russians refusing to display sufficient fealty to the state, political life revolves around ever changing constellations of oligarchs forming into new alliances as they try to advance their interests in this nation of well under 2 million voters. The system has its advantages, however. It prevents the outbreak of open inter-oligarchic violence, mostly, but it requires stretching flubber beyond the limits of its elasticity to even remotely see it as “democracy.” However, from the perspective of oligarchs, the system is flawed. Procedural democratic structures are in place and can be used by the public to “hijack” power.
The response to these unmet expectations has often been reactionary sentiments expressed against Latvia’s Russian population. The unfortunate outcome of the “age of extremes” marking the first half of the 20th century, was the occupation of Latvia as its geography placed it squarely in the cross hairs of then coming titanic German-Soviet struggle. The war is still alive in Latvia, as the ethnic tensions it spawned remain. Reminiscent of America’s politicians that distracted the public from the avarice of its highly corrupt Gilded Age Robber Barons in the half century after the Civil War, the Latvians too “wave the “bloody shirt,” Latvia’s kleptocracy waves the bloody shirt of the Soviet occupation to divert the attention of its public from the real problems facing the country, just as the north and its plutocrats in the US used the Civil War to ensure its political domination over the south decades after the war’s conclusion.
But, even the normally staid Balts with their long tradition of occupation under German nobles as serfs, Soviet occupiers after WW II, and their own kleptocracy, have their limits when it comes to tolerating our current “age of corruption.” The spirit of the “singing revolution” re-emerged last October when thousands poured into the streets to demand dissolution of Latvia’s denizen of thieves sequestering themselves in the seat of government at the Saeima (Parliament). This should have been a warning to Latvia’s political class to either reform, or at the very least, to act less brazenly in their flouting of any ethical standards of governance.
To complicate matters for Latvia’s plutocrats, a most unlikely gadfly emerged on the scene. Loskutovs, an ethnic Russian, was assumed to be a safe, sufficiently ignorant, or at the very least, “smart” enough candidate to not aggressively pursue his duties as head of the nation’s anti-corruption bureau. One of only a few high-placed ethnic Russians in appointed government in a nation where Russians constitute over 30 per cent of the population, he had the temerity to pursue the true national interest as defined by the Latvian constitution, which defined rights for all “people” in Latvia, and not for privileges for any national group. Unfortunately for Latvia’s ruling coalition, nobody informed Loskutovs of how political life in Latvia is played, and he vigorously embraced the duties under the constitution’s mandate. This led to what appears to be a clumsy and poorly executed effort to discredit him by the strange orchestration of the disappearance of, then return of, funds under the control of functionaries lower down the food chain of the anti-corruption bureau. Latvia’s ruling coalition then proceeded to blame Loskutovs and move to remove him.
Latvia’s ruling coalition reckoned it could safely assume the dominant majority would not defend an ethnic Russian. Yet, this is precisely what happened. Credit is due to both the Latvian people, of all ethnicities, and the editorial-page director, Pauls Raudseps, of Latvia’s premier national newspaper, Diena (Daily), who ensured the sunshine of transparency brightly highlighted Loskutovs’, and the nation’s, plight.
Latvia’s ruling coalition decided to make its “night of the long knives” move before the situation escalated beyond its control. In the spirit of the original singing revolution of the late 1980s, however, ethnic Latvians and Russians united, as they had twenty years ago. This time ethnic Latvians came out to defend Loskutovs as the government moved in for the kill. The public created a corridor of shame to the Saeima in which they heaped invective on Latvia’s ruling political coalition as they entered parliament during their Sunday morning session. Pensioners, professionals, and students, grew increasingly vocal as Latvian police, sporting the global fashion of cops everywhere, in their Saddam Hussein mustaches, provided a passage for Latvia’s politicians into parliament, clearly reluctant to to intimidate anyone. The crowd grew to around a thousand by mid-day, and it was clear the ruling coalition had badly miscalculated. The crowd was orderly, as one would expect of Balts, but with the demands for Loskutovs to remain audibly increasing with each passing hour. People spontaneously emerged from the crowd to voice their support for Loskutovs, and ending their remarks with “Atstatu Loskutovu” (“keep Loskutovs”). This continued over several hours, with each round growing louder than the last. Latvia’s ruling coalition was roundly booed and hissed when they appeared. Their arrogance, at times, flouted all conventions of responsibility and prudence. Ruling coalition politicians sporting political party names reminiscent of the 1930s, such as the “Fatherland and Freedom” party, had representatives, such as Juris Dobelis, patrol the crowds displaying a fool’s smile and the contemptuous smirk of a Prussian estate baron among his peasants as he laughed while the surrounding public mocked his opposition the removal of Loskutovs. He seemed to delight in the “naïveté” of the electorate voicing their “futile” opposition and taunted the public for at least 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, in the surreal landscape of Latvia’s new politics, the ethnic Russian, Loskutovs, finally appeared and was showered with flowers and praise by the overwhelmingly ethnic Latvian crowd assembled in his defense. In the end, Latvia’s ruling coalition voted 51 to 49 to put his removal on the agenda for the day. After 10 hours, the Saeima finally voted on this Sunday session. Presumably, they hoped they could outlast the pensioners and protestors of all ages outside. The vote was for removal. But, the story does not end here. The minority set the legislative machinery in motion to amend the constitution, with a referendum scheduled for August 2 for the public to dissolve parliament. In the end, even though the government voted to remove Loskutovs a new era in Latvia’s politics may have been born, in which the original sin of the Judas betrayal of the ethnic Russians that ethnic Latvians once united with to achieve independence from the Soviets, will be washed away by ethnic Latvians and Russians uniting against the oligarchs to create a new politics in which an ethnic Russian, Loskutovs, is brought into political life as a member of parliament with the support of Latvians. This could herald a new period in which the “bloody shirt” of the Soviet occupation is finally buried, and with it, the cynical post-Soviet neoliberal democracy is interned along with it. While it is too early to tell, today a new political revolution may have emerged in Latvia: Atstatu Loskutovu!
JEFF SOMMERS is a former Fulbrighter to, and current visiting professor in, Latvia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.