Zhdanoka Candidacy Polarizes Latvian Election

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 1 Issue: 16

Tatyana Zhdanoka, a leftist opponent of Latvian national statehood, is the candidate of the largest Russian political bloc in Latvia in European Parliament elections. She is frontrunner for that seat, campaigning amidst unprecedented political activity by Russian radical groups in Latvia.

Zhdanoka is a veteran leader of the pro-Soviet movement that resisted the restoration of Latvia’s independence in 1989-1991. According to the most authoritative Western account of that period, Zhdanoka was a “leading Soviet loyalist deputy,” one of those activists who equated national rights with protection under Soviet law. (Anatol Lieven, The Baltic Revolution: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and the Path to Independence, Yale University Press 1994, pp. 140, 442).

During the final Soviet years, opponents of national movements in the three occupied Baltic states and Moldova were drawn to organizations known as “internationalist fronts” (Interfronts), which specifically resisted “nationalist” demands for conferring official status to native languages and for citizenship to be based on residency qualifications. The Interfronts and their allies tried to argue that aspirations to national statehood ran counter to equality and human rights.

From that time, Zhdanoka has led the political group Ravnopraviye [Equality Rights], allied with the Socialist Party (SP), the successor to the hardline wing of the defunct Communist Party in Latvia. Until recently, SP kingpin and former Communist leader Alfreds Rubiks was one of the convicted organizers of the 1991 Soviet crackdown in Latvia. Both organizations are components of the bloc For Human Rights in a United Latvia (FHRUL), which usually garners a majority share of the “Russian vote” in Latvia’s elections. FHRUL’s other component, the People’s Harmony Party (PHP), recently withdrew from that hardline bloc. PHP leaders had long differed with Zhdanoka’s confrontational tactics. PHP supports a more moderate local Russian candidate, Igor Pimenov (see below), for election to the European Parliament.

Radical Russian factions are apparently not being undercut by Latvia’s rapid economic growth and its entry into NATO and the European Union (officially on April 2 and May 1, respectively). Local Russian activists managed in recent weeks to organize the largest protest demonstrations seen in Riga since 1992. Three factors have contributed to this turn of events: First, a reform plan for the state school system, requiring secondary schools where Russian is the main language of instruction to increase the proportion of classes taught in Latvian to 60 percent of all classes as of September 2004. Second, an apparent decision in Moscow to make the EU believe that new member Latvia is undemocratic and potentially unstable. Russia injected this issue into the May 21 EU-Russia summit and follow-up meetings, thus setting a precedent for Russia’s intrusion into what are now EU internal matters. The third factor is FHRUL’s move to polarize the European Parliament election by launching Zhdanoka’s candidacy to outbid more moderate figures.

Zhdanoka says that she intends to work with leftist parties in the Europarliament and to facilitate cooperation between the EU and Russia. (Chas, May 16). However, her understanding of cooperation between the EU and Latvia has long seemed to focus on the notion that Latvia falls short of EU standards on democracy and human rights.

The school issue is energizing Zhdanoka’s election campaign and other efforts to polarize Latvia’s politics along ethnic-linguistic lines. The recently formed Headquarters for the Defense of Russian Schools, lacks legal status. But the group coordinates not only protests related to the language issue, but also organizational efforts among Russians. The group is trying to launch tries to launch what activist groups refer to as a “national revival” of Russians in Latvia. (Latvijas Avize, May 18). The “Headquarters” organization is apparently making headway against the officially registered Latvian Association for the Support of Schools with Russian Language of Instruction, which has operated since 1993 and which has recently taken a harder line. The group’s founding leader Pimenov (see above) resigned his post in order to run for the European Parliament for the People’s Harmony Party, competing with Zhdanoka for Russian votes. (Chas, May 18).

Ironically, PHP leader Janis Jurkans now seems moderate and even constructive by comparison to Russian radicals. Jurkans had been Moscow’s favorite politician in Latvia for at least a decade. He opposed Latvia’s goal to join NATO, and could count on being received in the Kremlin to impress Russian voters in Latvia at election time. For years, he headed the large parliamentary group of the permanent opposition bloc For Human Rights in a United Latvia. As Latvia successfully joined NATO and the EU, Jurkans’ party quit the opposition bloc and moved toward limited cooperation with the government. The recently formed coalition government of Indulis Emsis, with only 46 seats in the 100-seat parliament, survives thus far with the support of Jurkans’ party from outside coalition ranks. (BNS, May 17, 18; Latvijas Avize, May 19). While careful to maintain his standing with Russian voters — even to the extent of polemicizing with President Vaira Vike-Freiberga in the Russian-language press (Diena, May 15, citing Chas) — Jurkans seems content to operate within the system now and watch Zhdanoka agitate outside.