Baltic States’ Political Landscape And European Elections

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 1 Issue: 32

Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania held on June 13 their first-ever elections for the Brussels-based European Parliament, the legislative body of the European Union (EU). Fortuitously but fittingly, the election date coincided with the annual observances of the Day of Memory and Hope (June 14), when the three Baltic peoples commemorate victims of mass deportations to Siberia and the Russian Arctic. This coincidence dramatized the success of the Baltic States in completing the transition from Soviet occupation to EU membership in only 13 years.

The three states, with the highest GDP growth rates among market economies on the European continent, joined the EU officially on May 1, four weeks after their official accession to NATO. Such successes notwithstanding, Baltic voters heavily favored candidates of opposition parties for the European Parliament: they favored establishment parties currently out of power in Estonia and Latvia, and anti-establishment parties in Lithuania. Although balloting was by party slates (with a 5 percent threshold), voters focused on personalities, rather than the complex economic issues posed by EU membership. Voter turnout of 27 percent in Estonia, 41 percent in Latvia, and 39 percent in Lithuania, was considerably higher on average, compared to turnout in “old” EU countries.


In Estonia, the opposition Social-Democrats captured three of the country’s six Europarliament mandates, owing to the personal appeal of party leader Toomas H. Ilves, an Estonian-American. Candidate Ilves garnered one-third of the total number of votes cast in Estonia, carrying two others Social-Democrats to Brussels on his coattails. A former ambassador in Washington, then long-serving foreign affairs minister promoting Estonia’s candidacy for the EU, Ilves impressed a rather skeptical electorate with his detailed knowledge of EU affairs and ability to explain the implications of membership.

The right-wing opposition Pro Patria Union garnered one mandate, that going to Tunne Kelam, one of the founding leaders of the national independence movement in the 1980s. The Reform Party, right-liberal component of the governing coalition, also obtained one seat, likely to be held by former Parliament Chairman Toomas Saavi. The Pro Patria Union and Reform Parties, along with Ilves’ party — previously known as the Moderates — in government for the better part of a decade, carried out the radical reforms that made Estonia a frontrunner candidate for NATO and the EU.

Former Prime Minister Edgar Savisaar’s Center Party obtained one seat in the European Parliament. The party is left-leaning and increasingly reliant on Russian voters. This divided the overall Russian vote and held the joint list of Russian organizations below the threshold of 5 percent of votes cast. That list’s leader Georgii Bystrov, recently a co-founder of the “Russian Party of the EU,” has a long and continuous record of violating Estonia’s language legislation as mayor of a Tallinn suburb.

Prime Minister Juhan Parts’ right-of-center Res Publica and its ally in government, the centrist People’s Union, failed to win any Europarliament seats. Estonia’s government has designated the Reform Party’s leader Siim Kallas to be EU Commissioner in Brussels. Kallas is a former National Bank governor, foreign affairs minister and prime minister who successfully pursued monetarist policies while in office.


In Latvia, right-wing opposition parties Fatherland and Freedom (FF), and New Era (NE) gained four seats and two seats, respectively, in the European Parliament. Right-wing parties in the Latvian, and generally the Baltic States, are pro-business, staunchly western-oriented, and pro-nation-state. NE and FF governed Latvia until March of this year, but are now in opposition to a minority government. FF’s top three winning candidates for the European Parliament were selected for their expertise on EU affairs. Guntars Krasts and Roberts Zile held top government posts and parliamentary commission chairmanships, where they handled economic and financial aspects of Latvia’s EU candidacy. Girts Valdis Kristovskis, long-serving defense minister until March 2004, led the creation of Latvia’s armed forces, bringing them to NATO standards.

New Era’s Liene Liepina, until now an observer to the European Parliament, drafted a resolution on behalf of Latvian conservative parties, calling on the EU to issue an official condemnation of communist totalitarianism and its atrocities. NE’s leader, former prime minister, and prior to that, long-serving Central Bank chief, Einars Repse declined to run for the European parliament. The party aims to return to power in a center-right or rightist coalition. Repse has a personal connection to the June 14 Day of Memory and Hope: on that day in 1987 he led the first-ever protest demonstration in occupied Riga.

Prime Minister Indulis Emsis’ party Greens’ and Farmers’ Union and its ally in government, the First Party, both failed to win any mandate to the European Parliament. Foreign Affairs Minister Rihard Piks’ People’s Party, right-wing partner to those two centrist parties in the governing coalition, obtained one seat. The main governing party of the 1990s, right-of-center Latvian Way, which failed to enter Parliament in 2002, seems set for a comeback and has obtained one Europarliament mandate. It will go to Georgs Andrejevs, former minister of foreign affairs, currently Latvia’s envoy to the Council of Europe.

In sum, right-wing parties garnered seven Europarliament seats, with another seat going to a center-right party. The election confirmed the absence of a viable Social-Democrat party in Latvia. Only one mandate went to a governing party, compared to eight won by opposition parties.

The eighth mandate went, as expected, to Tatyana Zhdanoka, former Soviet activist, turned Russian nationalist opponent of Latvian national statehood. The list she headed, “For Human Rights in a United Latvia” (FHRUL), polled 10.7 of votes cast, more than double the 4.8 percent score of the People’s Harmony Party, which appeals to more moderate Russian/Russian-speaking voters, and which always kept some distance from Zhdanoka. During this election, Zhdanoka and FHRUL campaigned vociferously against a planned increase in the proportion of Latvian-language classes in those state secondary schools where Russian is still the main language of instruction. Zhdanoka’s campaign tactic proved effective in undercutting the moderates. Most of Latvia’s Russian voters had opposed Latvia’s EU membership in last year’s referendum on the issue. That constituency has now sent Zhdanoka to the European Parliament. This month, she also became the most prominent co-founder of the Russian Party of the EU.

Latvia’s government designated Sandra Kalniete, minister of foreign affairs until March, and previously ambassador to France, to be EU commissioner in Brussels. Kalniete was born to a family of Latvian deportees in the Siberian Gulag.


In Lithuania, the left-leaning upstart Labor Party (LP) stunningly won five mandates to the European Parliament. Veteran U.S. Democratic Party campaign consultant Joe Napolitano helped advise LP’s campaign. The country’s wealthiest businessman, Viktor Uspaskikh, who moved to Lithuania from Russia, created the LP as his personal vehicle, and is the party’s lone parliamentary deputy. However, recent surveys indicate that the party can place first with a score of almost 30 percent in Lithuania’s September 2004 parliamentary elections — a forecast seemingly borne out by LP’s 30 percent score in elections for the European Parliament. The party’s message is typically populist on socioeconomic issues, targeting the protest vote, which makes up a relatively stable 25 percent in Lithuania’s elections.

The LP now seems to be inheriting the protest-vote constituencies of the self-styled Liberal-Democratic Party. LDP’s fortunes have fallen because of its close association with the recently impeached and removed head of state Rolandas Paksas. The LDP has obtained only one Europarliament seat, for left-leaning academic Rolandas Pavilionis, who had opposed NATO membership for Lithuania citing budgetary reasons. The small, left-of-center Farmers’ Union/New Democracy also obtained one Europarliament mandate. The party’s leader, former Prime Minister Kazimira Prunskiene, is facing former President Valdas Adamkus, a Lithuanian-American, who seeks to regain the presidency in the June 28 election runoff.

Thus, anti-establishment left-leaning parties won seven mandates to the European Parliament, compared to six obtained by Lithuania’s traditionally governing parties of the center and right. Of these parties, the Social Democrats, mainstay of the incumbent coalition government under Algirdas Brazauskas; the pro-business Liberal and Center Union; and Fatherland Union/Lithuanian Conservatives (FULC) obtained two mandates each. Representing FULC in the European Parliament will be Vytautas Landsbergis, the first head of the restored Lithuanian state from 1990 to 1992 and later chairman of Parliament, and former European Affairs Minister Laima Andrikiene. Lithuania’s government has designated Dalia Grybauskaite, free-market economist and finance minister, to be EU commissioner in Brussels (BNS, June 10-15; see EDM, May 24, 26, June 7).