Another year is heading for an end. The last post of this year will be review of events that took place in Latvia during 2014. In past I called the 2011 as the year or troubles, the 2012 the year of quarrels, the 2013 the year of struggles. What I choose for this year will be the Year of Peril. It was the peril of the aggression coming from our eastern borders, it was the peril of the new economic backslide and peril of perpetual troubles and struggles that started on 2009. Yet to start reviewing this year we must go back to November 21 2013. First it was the start of the protests in Kyiv, Ukraine that later affected our country and the Maxima supermarket roof collapse that took away 54 people’s lives and lead to the collapse of the long-standing Valdis Dombrovskis government. Both these events that took place on the same time affected the Latvian inter and foreign policy. Around these two events the story of the perilous 2014 year will be told.
Latvia and the Ukrainian Conflict
Last September I had chance to listen to the famous journalist and author Anne Apelbaum. The author of Gulag A History and The Iron Curtain was no rushing to finish the book about the Golodomor the Great Ukrainian famine on 1932-1933. The book was delayed for many years because the publisher considered Ukraine as unimportant topic as nothing ever happens there that would boost the sales. So it seems that suddenly 2014 became actually the year of Ukraine. But, what started in Ukraine was no coincidence nor it was unexpected. The signs of brewing revolution and conflict were visible on summer 2013 when nation was discussing the coming EU Association agreement that the pro-Moscow president Viktor Yanukovych had promised to sign. At same time some publications were suggesting of possible conflict between Russia and Ukraine in case of moving towards west. One publication was called “Russia could blow up the situation in Crimea”.
The initial protests in Ukraine echoed in Latvian media and social circles. First support actions took place on December near the Ukrainian embassy. They were attended by 20-30 people, mostly the members of the Latvian Ukrainian Congress and the members of the National Alliance that expressed the support to the Ukrainian revolution. Yet the National Alliance is pro-EU only for geopolitical reasons and their members like to play hockey with the Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko. Yet, every further Ukrainian support action gathered more people from all kinds of political parties and social circles. For the starting slogans of the Euromaidan were for joining EU, saying no to corruption and adapting the western values of democracy were appealing to Latvia. We had our barricades on 1991 were we stood against communism and destroyed the communist symbols. While Kyiv was celebrating the demolition of the Lenin monument in Kyiv we are wondering what happened to most Lenin monuments that were taken down on 1991. Yet it was not just about monuments and agreement signing it was a fight for independence and sovereignty. What the 2004 Orange revolution failed to achieve the Euromaidan struggled with blood – full freedom from the yoke of Moscow. Something that every Russian neighbor strives for and for Ukrainians it is matter of historical honor the original Kievan Rus against the Grand Duchy of Moscow – the remnant of the Golden Horde.
The Latvian official policy towards the Ukrainian revolution was supportive and it welcomed the new government that formed in the outcome of February 24 events. Yet what followed next – the Russian invasion and annexation of Crimea and further invasion in Eastern Ukraine started the year of Peril. Many call this ongoing situation as the “New Cold War”, originally this therm was coined by British journalist Edward Lucas on 2008. When Russia provoked Georgia in to war and occupied two of its regions. Later both Russian leaders Vladimir Putin and Dmitri Medvedev later admitted that they planned this war to prevent Georgia from joining EU and NATO. Yet back then the Western leaders swallowed this event with shame. Soon the worldwide economic crisis shadowed the events that took place during summer. Yet the warning was given but not heard – Russia is always in for confrontation towards west no matter the costs. For the Cold War thinking was never given up for the Kremlin rulers.
To explain why Russia in confronting the west right now and has did for last 20 years is to tell the metaphor or the bear and octopus. Russia likes to portray herself as angry bear. Yet, the bear mostly sticks to own territory and himself. He only goes outside his territory when he runs out of food. Otherwise he is mostly peaceful if not attacked or disturbed. That is not Russia. Russia is an octopus. Its head and main body is within Moscow but its testicles stretches all around the Eastern Europe and Asia. It tries to hold all its neighboring countries within its grasp. Any attempt of trying to break free is met with hostility and anger. The octopus is also afraid of others trying to cut of his testicles and reach for its head. Without all of its captured assets the Moscow would be powerless and left to decay. And that’s why Russian propaganda is telling tales of encircled fortress, the hunted bear and struggle to prevent aggression. But, from the history we know that all foreign invasions in Russia from the western side started as response to Russian aggressive policy towards the west. Since the octopus is trying to hold all whats around him this the reason why Russia did not respect the sovereign independent policy of Georgia and Ukraine, while open intervention in neighboring country is “brotherly help”, the involvement of the western countries in the Russia’s neighbors is viewed as aggression against Russia itself. Therefore Russia views all its border states as their sphere of interest that no other country can mingle. And it’s not like EU and NATO really wants the Ukraine, Belarus and Georgia for their sphere of interest. Ukraine needs west more than west needs Ukraine. And the reason is the claws coming from Moscow.
Vladimir Putin may have prevented Georgia from fully joining NATO and made the same harder for Ukraine. However, his most crucial failure was to prevent the Baltic States from joining the Western block. The Baltic States joined NATO and EU on 2004 leaving Russia frustrated and trying to bring their claws back ever since. The Russian aggression in Ukraine suddenly raised the question of the Latvian security. The Latvian political games had managed to remove the influential minister of defense Artis Pabriks from the main political scene. The often hawkish politician for years called for boosting up the neglected Latvian defense budget. It never reached the NATO 2% of the state budget standard. After collapse of the Valdis Dombrovskis Pabriks was called as one of the potential candidates for the Prime Minister. However, the President of Latvia Andris Bērziņš rejected him. Later he was elected as member of EU parliament. The current minister of defense Raimonds Vējonis is a leader of the Green Party. A seemingly unusual choice for such post yet nothing is its seems in the Latvian politics. Vējonis has taken his job seriously and taken steps to boost our military budget. He has brought more NATO troops in Latvia, even tanks from US. However, the army itself needs capable army. The lack of armed vehicles is compensated by buying used ones from UK. The army needs new anti air radars to intercept low flying Russian KA-50 attack helicopters that were stationed near the Latvian borders. Even more crucial is the training of the new servicemen, the support for the National Guard and so on. As Latvia just cannot relay on Estonia that has barely reached 2% defense budget requirement and slightly more equipped Lithuanian army. Furthest neighbor Poland is boosting up military while Sweden is just waking from confusion of the Russian submarine within its waters. Russia is constantly testing the Baltic security by doing almost daily air force flights near the Latvian air space. With their transponders off they force the NATO Baltic patrol planes to take off to intercept them. Recently even the old but majestic TU-95 strategic bombers took flights within the Baltic Sea. Recently Russia has brought Iskander missiles to its Kaliningrad enclave for “drills”. All this has made opposite effect – NATO is bringing even more resources to ensure the Baltic security.
The Latvian inner security is also under question. The underfunded police force and seemingly slow and invisible special services raised doubts. The Security Police had change in leadership – the ongoing general Jānis Reiniks was replaced by Normunds Mežveits. Trough out the year there were various attempts by locals to support terrorists in Eastern Ukraine. From raising donations to sending actual recruits. While Estonian security service had exposed many Russian agents, the Security Service and Constitutional Defense Bureau had found none. The other important question was the Residence Permits in exchange for real state property program for Russian citizens. By buying real estate in Latvia the Russian, Chinese or other non-EU citizen could gain residence permit within EU countries. The National Alliance had campaigned to close it down for years, sparking concerns of danger to the state security. The defenders of this policy says its helps the crisis hurt real estate to survive and that some of the residents from Russia are opponents of the Putin’s policy. True that small portion of Russian dissidents has left Russia for Latvia, for it’s a country with high use of Russian language and that the former Lenta.ru banned by Putin is now working in Riga as Meduza.ru. But its only a small number. One part of the Russian investors only buy the real estate but is not living there, renting or selling to others and giving no other investments to Latvian economy. Russia a country with official anti-western policy but with tons of investments and property within EU and US is a danger to Latvian economic and inner security. So far this residence permit security has not fully abolished.
Latvia joined the EU and US joint sanctions against Russia. The Russian response – to ban the import of EU food products, meat, fish and dairy products affected some of the Latvian companies. Not only that the Lithuanian and Polish apple importers were forced to send their production to Latvia alarming the local apple sellers. But, the local apple harvest was poor this year anyway. While most Latvian traders accepted this and tried to compensate the losses others openly protested therefore boosting the Russian propaganda. One of the most prominent complainers was Major of Riga Nils Ušakovs. Leader of the mainly Russian speaking voters party left unreasonable rants about the sanctions in twitter and said that he is going to Moscow to “beg” to allow at least some of the Latvian products. His main concern was his special Rishij Dvorik Latvian food stand that grew empty after sanctions. Despite his visit to Moscow were he met Dmitri Medvedev and Grand Patriarch of the Moscow Orthodox Church Kirill his Rizhkij Dvorik remained empty and went to rock bottom after Russian currency crisis.
Ušakovs also sent apologies to the blacklisted Russian singers and actors who expressed support for the Russian aggression. Among them Josif Kobzon, Valeria and others. In the end International Music festival “New Wave” hosted by the Russian television decided to leave Jurmala resort and move somewhere else presumably Crimea. The Ušakovs rants about sanctions and blacklists raised another issue- the issue of the pro-Moscow parties within Latvia. The Harmony Center now known simply as socialdemocratic party “Harmony” found itself unconformable with the Ukrainian issue. While confirming they support the Ukrainian territorial integrity, they were reluctant to denounce the Russian invasion and broke the association agreement with the United Russia party – the leading party in Russia. While Harmony balanced as usual the other one the Latvian Russian Union openly supported the Crimean annexation. Their leader Tatjana Ždanoka – the communist orthodox from the 1989-1991 came to Crimean “referendum” as EU observer. Despite the condemnations Ždanoka was re-elected as member of EU parliament openly pushing the Kremlin interests within Brussels. Her party however failed to reach any success in the parliament elections. The other more radical forces the movement “Zarya” (The Awakening) run by far right Ilarions Girss and Jevgēņijs Osipovs were preaching that Latvia should become another Donbass. Throughout the year various Russian ideologues entered Latvia as part of the organization Media club “A-3” and expressed the ideas of Russian world and Euroasian state. Also the newly elected member of the parliament Ingūna Sudraba raised doubts about her connections with the Russian secret service and Kremlin elite. More bizarre was here connections with bogus religious group “Urantia” that believes in reptilian conspiracy against Russia and Putin as the holy savior. The invisible yet so visible reach of the Moscow octopus takes many passages to be described but this is a short glimpse.
The Collapsed Roof of the Latvian politics
The Maxima disaster left great shock to the Latvian society. The radicals wanted heads to roll immediately. However, the Latvian old saying of responsibility – Everyone is responsible, therefore no one is responsible again worked. The president Andris Bērziņš who called disaster as major mass murder had to approve his rhetoric. After harsh talk with prime minister Valdis Dombrovskis, the latter resigned. Dombrovskis who had been Prime minister of several governments since 2008, lead the country trough the crisis and pawed Latvia to Eurozone had to resign ending an era. A question yet remains who stands behind his resignation that seemed unintended, – the president, parliamentary speaker Solvita Āboltiņa or the oligarch Aivars Lenmbergs or all of them together will not be answered now. It will take time to answer what happened on late November 2013. Right now Dombrovskis serves as European Commissioner for the Euro and Social Dialogue.
What was left after Dombrovskis was political vacuum before 2014 October general election. As mentioned Artis Pabriks was turned down by the president or he was let down by his own party. The leader of the Unity party Solvita Aboltiņa refused to take PM office. The grey cardinal was growing unpopular within the voters so placed forward a compromise figure – the non party minister of Agriculture Laimdota Straujuma. A discrete careful woman the Straujuma became the first female PM in Latvia. As the anti-lemberg Reform Party went into decay, the Lembergs lead Green Party Union returned to coalition and took over many important sectors such as Defense. Straujuma firstly considered herself only as temporarily Prime Minister until elections in October.
However, the power gap in Unity party was clearly visible. Two most prominent leaders Dombrovskis and Pabriks were elected to Brussels. The other members were not strong and influential to lead the country. So Straujuma remained as PM candidate for the elections and now serves her second therm. The elections became nightmare for the party leadership. The party chairman also the chairman of the parliament (Saeima) Solvita Āboltiņa was not elected. The ongoing red-haired speaker has grown infamous for here arrogance and schemes. However, let’s be honest – the Latvian society dislikes strong powerful woman in office. But, Āboltiņa did not surrender. Jānis Junkurs the member of the Reform Party separatists, rather quiet and mysterious young man, now turned to Unity to run in elections. With his self funded election campaign he gained more points than the Grey Cardinal with Red hair and made in to parliament above here. But he was absent from the public scene after the election. Then on the day when the new parliament was called he announced his resignation from the parliament. In such matter according to election laws the Solvita Āboltiņa replaced him. Leaving no comment the Junkurs left the scene and founded new company in Hong Kong. Many obviously pointed that he was forced to give his seat to Āboltiņa. She soon took the seat of the National Security Parliamentary Commission showing that foxes never give up.
The National Alliance gained extra seats in the elections. Known as champions in conservative ideology they were known as champions in justice corruption. Of course nothing is proven. Only that both of their ministers for Justice and Regional Affairs were rejected to receive state secrets. So were taken out of game. Still Nationals secured the control over justice after the elections, and also gained the most valuable parliamentary speaker seat that was taken by Ināra Mūrniece.
The Green Farmers – alliance between Latvian Farmers Union and the Green Party and the Ventspils city party of Aivars Lembergs benefited the most from the Dombrovskis downfall. Their main opponents the Reform Party had went into collapse. The Green Farmers returned to coalition and secured their old sectors – agriculture and welfare and also conquered the strategically vital ministry of defense and ministry of economy. The later was taken by chess champion Daiga Reiznience-Ozola.
The Harmony party failed this year. Despite winning the election by percent, they did not gain enough seats to form coalition. Nor they were asked to because of the Ukrainian conflict. Their potential allies – For Latvia With Heart only gained 7 seats. More interesting was the new Regional Party elected member Artuss Kaimiņš. Outspoken, aggressive, often rude actor, he owned videoblog that was aired on radio for some time, where he interviewed his guest in the most bombastic way now entered politics. His main flagship was the Maxima disaster investigation on parliamentary level and exposure of the corruption and injustice. After few months he was denounced for his drunk fight in rock cafe. Its remains to be seen if he will evolve into Latvian Alexander Zhirinovsky.
Latvia so far rather successfully survived the national currency Lats transition to Euro. The patriotic nostalgia of the old beutiful currency soon was washed away by the war in Ukraine, as it was more important to be part of the strong global currency. The Russian propaganda tales of the Eurozone collapse now is dwindled away by the real collapse of the Russian ruble. Now our neighbor Lithuania will enter Eurozone on 2015 making Baltic states under single currency.
Latvia – challenges for the 2015
Latvia will become the presiding nation of the EU. The EU presidency during these turbulent times will be crucial. In both of state security and international prestige. Russia openly harassed Lithuania during its presidency this year. Informational war and military threats are potential danger. Latvia has been exposed to the Russian propaganda for years and it will grow even more. Great concern is if Russia is planning more than informational warfare but a hybrid warfare using gaps in our security. Such actions can be dangerous for both Russia and Latvia as we are the NATO member. Another danger is looming in our neighboring country Belarus. For 20 years this country has been ruled by authoritarian president Alexander Lukashenko whose semi-socialist economy is depended on Russia. As the ruble in Russia went into decay the over inflated Belarusian ruble took a hit. Lukashenko is looking to avoid maidan in Belarus, by balancing between Moscow and Europe and his people. Same as Yanukovych the Lukashenko maneuvers will end at one point leaving country in danger of either revolution or the Russian incursion. Since Belarus is our neighboring country that also should be considered as the fourth Baltic State, any major disturbance especially if its involves EU and Russia will be the prime interest for Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. Certainly the Belarus could be potential hotspot and game changer on 2015.
The economical development is at constant caution. Latvia seemingly recovered from the economic crisis on the end 2013. We entered Euro, the remnant of the 2013 crisis the Citadele bank – the former Parex Bank that state had to nationalize was sold to foreign investors this November. The economical and energy dependence on hostile Russia must be limit if not cut all together. Russian economy is collapsing because of the western sanctions and the falling oil prices. Greater economical ties and cooperation must be established with Ukraine and Belarus. Russian economic sanctions are likely to increase on Latvia during 2015. On 2015 Latvia will be on the front of the international rivalry between the West and the Moscow octopus. The 2015 will be the year of the Goat. Goat is symbol of smartness, independence and wealth. Yet Goat is also the symbol of the Devils face. The Goat year previously was 1919 and 1991 the two very crucial years for Latvia. Lets be smart and independent and also courageous on year 2015 and reach new milestone and achievements.