RIGA: Latvians voted on Saturday in a general election expected to yield a ruling coalition of pro-Kremlin and populist parties and tarnished by a hacker attack on a popular social network.

Hackers targeted the Draugiem.lv network, second in popularity only to Facebook in the Baltic state, with a pro-Russian message.

“Comrades Latvians, this concerns you. The borders of Russia have no end,” it said in Russian, followed by images of unmarked Russian soldiers in green uniforms annexing Crimea, Russian tanks parading in Moscow and a smirking Vladimir Putin.

Polls have suggested the governing centre-right coalition has lost ground desp­ite righting the economy after the 2008 financial crisis.

After casting his ballot, President Raimonds Vejonis called on fellow Latvians to come to the polls, pointing to the Brexit vote as an example of what might happen if they didn’t. “It shows us that we should not stay at home and that we should express our opinions,” he said.

But with three hours to go, turnout was low at 39.06 per cent, according to the election website.

Latvia is a member of both the eurozone and Nato, having joined the military alliance in 2004.

Latvia’s ethnic Russian minority makes up about a quarter of the country’s 1.9 million population and the pro-Kremlin Harmony party, which was formerly allied with Putin’s United Russia party, is popular with them.

The party has won the largest number of votes in the last three elections, and did not enter government only because it failed to attract coalition partners.

But this time could be different.

After the last election in 2014, the centre-right Greens and Farmers Union, the right-wing National Alliance and the centre-right Unity formed a three-party coalition to run the country.

But polls suggest that voters are abandoning the ruling coalition.

“Voters want new faces: the current ministers cannot offer anything entertaining,” said political scientist Filips Rajevskis.

The established parties tried to bring in fresh blood, but that tactic did not appear to have worked, he said. “Therefore there’s the possibility of a Russia-oriented coalition after the election.”

Polls suggest the Greens and Farmers Union, which currently holds the posts of both president and prime minister, will win no more than 15 seats in the 100-seat parliament.

The National Alliance is expected to win 13 and Unity, now rebranded as New Unity, might not even meet the five-per-cent election threshold.

Harmony meanwhile has signed on some high-profile ethnic Latvians as their frontrunners, and is on track to come out ahead with at least 28 seats. And this time, after a decade of trying, the party may finally manage to form a government by joining forces with newcomer populists.

A total of 16 parties are on the ballot.


  1. A hundred years

Dominated for centuries by Prussian knights, Polish and Swedish kings and Russian Tsars, Latvia declared independence in 1918. But its sovereignty was short-lived — in 1940, it was invaded by the Soviet Union following its deal with Germany, which in turn took control of the country in 1941. The Red Army returned in 1944 and Latvia spent nearly half a century as part of the Soviet Union, going under the name of the Latvian Socialist Soviet Republic. It only regained independence in 1991 when the Soviet Union crumbled.

  1. Summer solstice

Rediscovering their nati­o­nal identity — alongside Bal­­tic peers Estonia and Lithuania — Latvians revel in old pagan feasts, the most notable being the summer solstice. On the longest day of the year, thousands of Latvians sing and dance around fires in parks and forests. Tradition also allows free, unprotected love on this night which, some say, caters to the need to boost the nation’s poor birth rate.

Another remarkable Latvian tradition sees thousands of people of all ages sing at massive choir gatherings. The Unesco-listed Latvian Song and Dance Festival draws tens of thousands of singers and dancers to a park in the capital Riga every summer.

  1. In Russia’s shadow

As part of the Russian empire and the Soviet Union, Latvia had spells of Russianisation and immigration. One in four Lat­v­ia­­ns is an ethnic Russian and people in mixed families often communicate in Rus­sian rather than Latvian.

The Harmony party is popular with the Russian minority, as is another left-wing party, the Latvian Russian Union, which has set out to defend the interests of ethnic Russians and holds rallies to keep Russian lessons at schools, which have been jeopardised by a reform promoting the Latvian language.

Even though Latvians and ethnic Russians get on well in everyday life, the Kremlin’s shadow still hangs over the country. The Harmony party has backed out of its cooperation deal with Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party, but it never condemned the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.

  1. Simple cooking

Even Latvians acknowledge that their potato-based national cuisine is “simple” and not much to boast about. “Let’s make this clear, it’s worse than German cuisine and our cheese has nothing in common with French cheese,” says a man living in Riga. Still, the national dish called “rosols” has its fans — it’s a mixture of small potatoes, marinated peas, pickles, pieces of sausages and meat with sour cream and mustard.

  1. Riga, multi-cultural capital

Riga is the largest city in the Baltic states. More than 650,000 of 1.9 million Latvians officially live there, but the real population is likely much bigger as many residents are registered elsewhere.

Ethnic Russians make up a considerable part of Riga’s population and Russian seems dominant in the streets and shops, where Ukrainian, Belarussian and Polish can also be heard.

However the streets and monuments evoke the days when Riga was ruled by the German-Baltic elite. The city’s Central Market, one of the largest in Europe, is housed in former Zeppelin hangars. Riga’s once large Jewish community was almost wiped out by the Nazis. Only one synagogue survived Nazi and Soviet occupation.

Published in Dawn, October 7th, 2018