2016 is heading for closure and it’s time to set the record what happened this year and what to expect of next 12 months. Many has called 2016 as one of the worst years in the decades. It was time of rather unexpected events, sad events and tragic events. While Latvia overall had mostly peaceful year it all can change basing on all the events that happened abroad. The country is planning to spend 60 million euros on 100th anniversary on independence on 2018. Two years are still in wait for that. But, these two years are could be the most crucial for our country and might as well determine will Latvia be able to mark its 100 years of independence at all. For there is a danger that in 2-3 years Latvia might lose its independence and sovereignty. In this review it will be explained why this can happen and what could we do to prevent it.
The weakening of the West and its impact on Latvia
Two most crucial events that will go down in history of 2016 will be the Brexit and US Presidential election. Both events weakened UK, EU and US on political and economic scale. It revealed a wide fraction of society in US and EU that is not satisfied with politics of the liberal and leftist elites that had ruled for last 20 years and has given their votes for populism, far right clinging politics and authoritarian style of politics. Their dissatisfaction with current so called establishment is both rational and irrational and is based on their personal experiences and misfortunes. Despite the obvious Russian meddling and support for these movements it’s clear that they have strong support base and these movements have managed to strike on both of UK and US and that is bad news for our country. Firstly as UK has yet to make the crucial step to leave EU there is plenty of speculation of how it will affect the thousands of Latvian guest workers in UK, how it will affect the EU market and what impact it will leave on our economy. So far UK has kept its solid position in NATO, the new foreign minister Boris Johnson is widely critical on Russian criminal foreign policy (regarding his past warm connections with Russia), but we will see how this will change after new elections 2020 that is however a long wait from now. In US the situation has become unpredictable every day. The country has been affected by Russian secret service orchestrated hacking that helped Donald J. Trump to win, who has high expectations of friendship with Russian leader Vladimir Putin and who has shown disregard to NATO and the defense of Europe. Donald Trump runs his politics as reality show, every day feeding twitter with his outlandish tweets and load announcements and claims. He has made US unpredictable just as Russia has been for years. From words to actions he has appointed an oil cooperation CEO Rex Tillerson as State Secretary who of no doubt is in unfavor of Russian containment policy that means sanctions against his business partners and low oil prices. Judging by the logic of business not politics his and Trumps decision in 2017 would be full or partial removal of sanctions against Russia.
For Latvia this means a dangerous return to diplomatic situation of 1938-1940. Back then Latvia had no real allies. UK and France was distant and skeptical about their support for Baltic States against Nazi Germany and Soviet Union. In the end the fate of Latvia was determined by Nazi Germany and Soviet Union, both of whom Latvia had signed non-aggression pacts. Left without support from outside it was forced to choose between bloody war of survival or shameful silent submission. It choose the second option and we still bear the bitter fruits of that. Russia is aiming to repeat this once again. We really cannot predict Trump’s politics – will he remove sanctions, minimize US involvement in NATO and drop pledge to defend every each of them? Or the Trumps expectations of Putin and Putin of Trump would end in mutual disappointment and confrontation would again increase? Then there is more hardly calculable factors in Europe that threaten to create this situation – first its elections in France that would bring right-wing leader Marine le Pen or François Fillon to power. Both has shown their open sympathy to Russia and suggesting the ease of relations on expense of Ukraine and Baltic States. Then there is Germany – Angela Merkel has been in power for 11 years and her leadership is fading in light of integration failure, refugee failure and recent terrorist act. In 2017 she faces Federal Elections. Again her competitors is making criticism on relations with Russia. If both of these countries drop the Russian containment policy the diplomatic and security position of Latvia would severely weaken.
Let’s be clear however, while Germany and France can be still called reliable allies for the Baltic States they are certainly no friends for Ukraine. The so-called Minsk ceasefire that has not been in effect since its implementation, brokered both by Holland and Merkel has made Eastern Ukraine into active frozen conflict where lives are lost almost daily on both sides without much achievements or changes. “No change on the Eastern Ukrainian Front” one would say. The constant bleed out of Ukraine only serves the Russia. US and EU is giving Ukraine both carrot and stick. A carrot of some humanitarian or non-lethal military support on basis of not breaking ceasefire and stick of continuing criticism and pushover for lack of reforms in the country that is not entirely unjustified. But such situation cannot last forever, Ukraine has to strike back and regain villages and cities used as bases for constant attacks on Ukrainian positions. And who to judge Ukraine for doing so – it’s their land, that has been captured by foreign country disguised as separatists. The ones who will judge will be wealthy European countries who does not have an open border with Russia – yet.
So both for Ukraine and the Baltic States a situation can be possible in next two years when they have no allies. One ally could still be Poland. While it’s rigged with inner political struggle between nationalistic government and liberal opposition, its shows a stiff opposition to Russia and calls for militarization and tough response. If Finland or Sweden would join the NATO, with their proximity to Russia they may show reliance to Baltic States. But, if UK, Germany and France would drop out of collective security policy and most important the US than Latvia as well as Poland is in danger. The very aim of Russia is to defeat the NATO adversary without a fight. A direct conflict could end in bitter destructive defeat. So the proper aim for Russia is the break up the collective security, contribute to the election of Russia friendly candidates that may allow another Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. A pact that would give Russia a free hand on Ukraine and Baltic States. Our political and military leaders have vowed to not repeat the mistake of 1939-1940 and resist, but will this wove would be kept knowing of low or confused support from other countries. In the end Europe again could divert to situation of 5th-19th century when it was a collection of warring rivaling countries and brief alliances. In such situation for a country with less than 1 million people and weak economy and army has no place for existence. Latvia can only exist with strong united friendly Europe and strong supportive US. And weak Russia. It’s doubtful Russia and Latvia would ever achieve mutual friendship. So if Latvia cannot attain a concrete support from its western partners it’s doomed to lose at least its sovereignty to Russia. This will be the challenge for this country for next two years.
Latvian inner political and economic weakening
Last year when talking about year 2015 I predicted the rise of nationalistic-isolationist populist government forming in Latvia itself. In result a government lead by Māris Kučinskis from Green Party and Latvian Farmers Party alliance was formed in early 2016. Māris Kučinskis with his lack of English skills keeps low profile in foreign gatherings, but his profile as Prime Minister is also very low profile. While he can be praised for being calm of steel nerves he also quite lethargic and has lead his government into flow of scandals and mishaps without affecting much of himself. The main points of conflicts in Latvian interior policy was grand issues with State Revenue Service and raise of taxes for small enterprises. In the spotlight of this is Daina Reizniece-Ozola a Finance minister a chess champion and a flashy talker. All year we saw her battling the corruption in State Revenue Service and taking sharp criticism for poorly managed raise for taxing the small enterprises. The latter issue brought to a bitter conflict with coalition partner liberal Unity (Vienotība) and even brought to a danger of collapse of government. So far the danger was averted and how long this inept government continues to exist remains to be seen.
On political ratings scale (as much of these ratings reflects the real political opinion is always a question) it has been successful for pro-Kremlin Harmony party (Saskaņa) Green Farmers and National Alliance and misfortune for liberal Unity. Unity lost its leading position gained since 2008, after poorly managed inner party coup that lead to collapse of Laimdota Straujuma government. Unity ratings went downhill and its long standing leader Solvita Āboltiņa had to resign from party leadership. Ex EU commissar Andris Piebalgs the new party leader tries to restore the parties fading image and power. Right now Unity’s poll rating is above 5% that would make a miserable fraction in newly elected parliament. Harmony party rating is 17%, Green Party about the same and National Alliance 7%. Plus the eccentric MP’s Artuss Kaimiņš party KPV and two elected small parties Latvian Regional Alliance and To Latvia from Heart is lagging behind 5% looking to take Unities votes.
If this continues there is a great chance of future Latvian government without a liberal party. Either its share of power would be minimal or it won’t be represented at all. There is a small chance that another liberal party called “For Prosperity of Latvia” (Latvijas Attīstībai) might take Unities place but that depends how its leader Juris Pūce would fair in Riga municipal election against incumbent Harmony party mayor Nils Ušakovs. Ušakovs who leads the capital city with scandals, failed street restoration projects and future projects facing major protests, who still has large support base mainly from Russian speakers, however his image is tainted by his offensive remarks towards Latvians and open support for Kremlin policy. But, knowing the population base in Riga he still has high chance to get clear third term as mayor of Riga. Harmony party meanwhile in parliament functions as opposition party and supports the coalition when it’s bargained. Green Farmers and National Alliance as for now would not consider them in government at least for now.
In security policy Latvia seems to be doing well. The President Raimonds Vējonis an ex-minister of Defense is good negotiator with NATO so as the current Defense Minister Raimonds Bergmanis. An important step this year was the NATO’s decision to store permanent NATO’s international battalion in Baltic States and Poland. Lucky for Latvia the head of forces stored in Latvia will be Canada that has always been loyal to the principles of NATO and has taken part in many operations across the world. Of course the governments and policies can always change. Some people may say that these merely thousand troops would provoke and threaten Russia. First of all Russia has some 30 thousand troops stored in Kaliningrad region alone and these forces will be combined into 30th army next year. Russia has stored nuclear capable missiles in this region, plus the Russian forces who are constantly drilled for attack situations in Pskov and Leningrad region are in thousands. While this international battalion and all three Latvian armies would create a great losses for Russians in case of invasion in the Baltic Sates; they are useless for attacking Russia, so who these forces actually provoke Russia is what people saying these things cannot provide no explanation. While this small NATO force is no match for greater Russian armies, it serves as buffer; should one of its soldiers die from Russian hands it would provoke a conflict. However, every soldier and general serves the politician – as we talked here before – its Russian goal to defeat the West on political level before defeating it on military level. Weak politicians mean weak military in the Western world. So this rather small NATO force in Latvia by its means serves as no guarantee to our security and independence.
Latvian economy has been stagnating for last few years. While Latvia did made a tremendous recovery from 2008-2009 crisis by painful austerity policies, the continuation of these policies are rather stagnating economy that might start to enter decay next year. The overall economic and political climate is passively negative and opens door for populist political manipulations. For this reason a future without liberal party is possible. Latvia could be either ruled by alliance of populist right-wing conservatives and nationalists or it can be ruled by pro-kremlin forces. The next year’s municipal elections will show how strong are ruling parties and how strong is pro-Kremlin Harmony. Harmony could take over more cities in Eastern Latvia and the second biggest city Daugavpils that despite its Russian speaking minority has never had a Harmony mayor. For fading liberal Unity the only chance is to use the weaknesses of their conservative foes in the government and act as inner opposition that is doing now slightly successfully and try to achieve great results in Riga and other cities. Rather dangerous move is to bring down the government that again could lead to unforeseen consequences.
The challenge of 2017-2018
Some say history goes in circles and one wave replaces another. A wave of liberalism, multiculturalism in Europe and US seems to have dwindled and new wave of nationalism, isolationism and populism has taken its strength. To those who support this wave following lines are not of concern and they can stop reading this article. For those who fear this wave hear the following words. Stand your ground to this wave and don’t let it bring you down. Question, protest and resist policies made against collective security and seeking common ground with Russia. To seek a common ground with Russia as it has emerged today would be same as making common ground with Nazi Germany. It will be another Munich agreement in far worse consequences. Convince people to go to elections. Many of the populist voters are hard to convince as they vote by their emotions rather than reason. As more people avoid elections the higher chance for populists to gain upper hand. The US elections showed how crucial was the number of absent voters. Also support your army every way possible. When surrounded by militant forces calls for pacifism and unreasonable criticism of the home military brings no fruits. There are no civilians in the war for these forces. Question everything that comes from Russian or pro-Russian news outlets, as deception that turns into truth is their main instrument. Question everything that is in the social nets and even from your trustful state TV or relatives or friends. The amount of propaganda and disinformation these days would make Dr. Goebbels role in his grave. Do not give in to threats by terrorists and enemy armies by submitting to their demands or just give empty #standwithyou styled condolences. The time for that has passed. Empty words and hashtags have no power. Resilience and relentless to all the threats and dangers are the one that enemy fears off. Weakness it what it seeks and we cannot give him that weakness.
The future for Latvia and neighboring countries has become more unclear and shady more than ever. Either Latvia would continue as independent prosperous country that gives others a reason to respect it and stand for it or it will become a pariah state that would be seen as expendable to other countries in the world. The war is what we fear the most. Riga could also turn into Aleppo if enabled so. In the end the war would determine if this nation has deserved and secured its position as independent country or it will go down in the annals of history as another lost kingdom succumbed by outside forces. If we will reach November 18 2018 with this warning as not fulfilled then the words said in this in this article would had reached their purpose.