Ethnolinguistic diversity and the 2019 European election in Latvia

Ethnolinguistic diversity and the 2019 European election in Latvia

Aleksandr Kuzmin *


According to the most recent census of 2011, 62.1  percent of the population speak Latvian at home and 37.2 percent speak Russian.  Thus, the minority issue in Latvia is largely about the country’s Russian-speaking community. However, there are two huge obstacles to its representation in decision-making.

The first is statelessness imposed on those who came to Latvia under the USSR period and their children. As of 2019, this category comprises 13 percent of the adult population or over 200,000 people. The naturalization process is stagnating.  Over 99 percent of these so-called “non-citizens of Latvia” (Latvijas nepilsoņi) are not ethnic Latvians.

The second obstacle is the cordon sanitaire against minority-supported parties in national politics. They have never been a part of the coalition since 1990. Currently, there are two notable parties of this kind in Latvia. The Social Democratic Party Harmony (Согласие / Saskaņa, PES member) does not identify itself as a minority party. A Greens European Free Alliance member, the Latvian Russian Union (LRU, Русский союз Латвии / Latvijas Krievu savienība) does identify itself as a minority party.

In the European Parliament elections, Latvia is a single eight-seat constituency that uses the Sainte-Laguë method to count the MEP mandates (dividing the number of votes received by 1, 3, 5, etc.). Additionally, a 5 percent electoral threshold applies. Thus, meeting this requirement does not ensure MEP seats, but failing it excludes the list from the seat distribution. There is an opportunity for preferential voting. Hence, the voters can demonstrate their support or opposition to the specific candidates in the list they vote for.


As usual, the turnout at European elections (33 percent in 2019 which is slightly more than 30 percent in 2014) was lower than in the parliamentary ones (55 percent in 2018). As for minority voters, there were many similarities with 2018. The turnout in Riga, where the biggest number of minority voters live, was in both cases higher than the average. In the South-East, second Latvia’s region traditionally populated by the minorities, it was lower.  This might be explained by the fact that Eastern Latvia (Latgale) is the region with the worst economic situation.

A social scientist Andrey Solopenko estimates that the turnout among Latvia’s Russian-speakers in 2019 was lower than that among ethnic Latvians. In any case, one can certainly confirm that it was not higher. For example in the electoral precinct No. 8 (located in the most Russian-speaking neighborhood of Riga), the turnout was just 30 percent.

Minority-supported parties

The Harmony received 83 thousand votes (17.45 percent) and two MEP seats. The Latvian Russian Union got 30 thousand (6.24 percent) and one MEP seat. These results contrast with the 2018 parliamentary election when the Harmony obtained six times as many votes as the LRU (19.8 percent and 167 thousand votes vs. 3.2 percent and 27 thousand votes). In the 2019 European election, the difference is 2.8 times in favor of the Harmony. The comparison with the 2014 European election (the Harmony got 58 thousand and 13.0 percent while the LRU received 28 thousand and 6.4 percent), however, shows that the LRU performance remained almost the same, while the Harmony increased its result.

What are the reasons behind these changes, differences, and similarities?

One common feature is that in 2019 both these lists were led by the most popular leaders of these parties.  83.7 percent of the Harmony’s voters gave Nil Ushakov their preferential vote. The same applies to the popularity of Tatyana Zdanok among the LRU electorate (61.3 percent). However, there is a difference behind this common feature. Due to her membership in the Communist Party audit commission in 1991, Tatyana Zdanok can run only for the European elections. Hence, she was elected to the European Parliament in 2004, 2009 and 2014 (in 2018, she was replaced there by Miroslav Mitrofanov). Nil Ushakov had never run for an MEP seat and served as a mayor of Riga since 2009 until his suspension by Latvia’s government in April 2019.

The LRU was one of the three lists (there were 16 electoral lists in total)  that got more votes in absolute numbers than in the 2018 parliamentary election. A partial explanation of this is that the LRU electorate is more reliable to vote, as it was also in 2014 when the LRU was more successful in the European election with low turnout than in the parliamentary one.

A deeper analysis brings us to the most urgent problem of the Russian-speaking community, i.e. the Latvianization of Russian schools adopted by the parliament in 2018 and scheduled to start in 2019. In its judgment of 23 April 2019, the Constitutional Court upheld the reform of public schools. It also demonstrated that the court-based strategy of the Harmony did not prove to be fruitful. Thus, the only viable way that remains now is non-violent resistance which gave some results in a similar situation back in 2003-2004. This strategy was offered by the LRU which organized a mass rally on 1 May 2019 in Riga.

Besides, the Harmony demonstrates a long-term decreasing trend with regard to the number of votes it attracts. It gained the first place in the parliamentary elections of 2011 (260 thousand votes), 2014 (210 thousand) and 2018 (167 thousand), but it never became a part of the government coalition despite stressing its moderate approach.

As for the short-term factors, memory politics and criminal cases should be addressed.

In March 2019, a collective petition to demolish the monument to the Liberators of Riga gained much attention. It took more than a year to gather more than 10,000 verified signatures. The LRU leader Tatyana Zdanok then became the leader of the opposition to that initiative. She created and paid for the opposite one. Within a few days, the counter-petition gathered more than 20,000 verified signatures, including over 16,500 signatures of the citizens.

Meanwhile, both the minority-supported parties found themselves under pressure. The pressure on the LRU is stronger, as Tatyana Zdanok is named in a criminal case for her criticism of Russophobia and its comparison with the interwar Antisemitism. Zdanok has experienced much of both, as she comes from a mixed Jewish-Russian family.

Moreover, all the banks of Latvia refuse to open an account for the LRU. This fact was used as a pretext in order not to pay the state funding for the party is entitled as received more than two percent of the votes in the 2018 election.

The criminal cases around the Harmony are not so directly related to the leaders of its electoral list. While offices of Ushakov and his deputy Ameriks were searched, none of them was given any status in the criminal cases. However, the problem of the “Harmony” is that most investigations related its members are about corruption; they are strangely congruent with the election but are not purely politicized.

In fact, one criminal case involving  Alexei Roslikov, a Harmony councilor, is obviously politicized. Like in Zdanok’s case, it is rooted in his criticism of Russophobia. The bribe conviction of a former vice-mayor of the second-largest city of Daugavpils does not look that good, though.

Moreover, Nil Ushakov suddenly replaced Vyacheslav Dombrovsky in the Harmony’s list at the 2019 European elections. His behavior was widely interpreted by journalists as “running away” and breach of his own promises. Finally, Ushakov’s suspension from the mayor office in April 2019 was not in line with his image of a strongman.

Finally, the personal distribution of seats, defined by voters’ preferences, is important for minorities. The Harmony’s MEP seats predictably go to Ushakov and to Andris Ameriks, the leader of the Harmony’s junior partner party “Honoured to serve Riga” (Gods kalpot Rīgai). The latter supports switching minority education to Latvian,  although  Ameriks did not stress this position in the current campaign. The LRU seat goes to Tatyana Zdanok.

The first Harmony’s candidate below the preferential vote line (and a possible replacement in case of eventual resignations) is Regina Lochmele-Lunyova, a former radio, and TV personality. Boris Tsilevitch, a well-known minority rights expert, was originally the third in the list but got the fourth place. In the LRU list, the first below the line is a journalist Andrey Mamykin. In 2014, he was elected as an MEP from the Harmony’s list, but in 2017 he left the party.

Minority-focused spoilers

The coalition “For Alternative” (Par Alternatīvuwas renamed “New Harmony” (Jaunā Saskaņa) just before the election. The approval of the new name raises doubts about the impartiality of the Register of Enterprises. However, this attempt to get the Harmony’s electorate failed. The New Harmony received only 0.18 percent, which is even lower than “For Alternative” got in 2018 (0.34 percent).

The most extravagant approach towards the Russian-speaking electorate was demonstrated by the Action Party (Rīcības partija), formerly known as the Eurosceptics (Eiroskeptiķi), with the slogan “We shall force Europe to recognize Crimea as ours!”, in Russian. It failed as well and finished last with just 0.17 percent of the votes. Its list included several people who had previously been affiliated with the Harmony (Igor Melnikov, former MP, and Ruslan Pankratov) or the LRU (Einārs Graudiņš and Oleg Nikiforov).

Mainstream parties

All the mainstream, or “ethnically Latvian”, parties over the five percent threshold, are in favor of switching minority education to Latvian.  Their approach towards minority issues can be measured through their position on citizenship.


Two main and co-ruling parties competing for the hardliners’ votes are the far-right National Alliance (NA, Nacionālā apvienība) and the New Conservative Party (NCP, Jaunā konservatīvā partija). The latter is led by the NA splitters who speak in more polite ways. Both parties are against even the “feel-good measure” proposed by the outgoing President Vējonis – to grant citizenship automatically to all newborn children of the permanently resident stateless parents. In 2019, the NA (a part of the ECR group) succeeded by getting 16.4 percent of the votes. Thus, it received two MEP mandates instead of one. The NCP failed with 4.35 percent.

Simulation of diversity

Several parties support the said “feel-good measure” on citizenship for the newborn babies. These are the co-ruling New Unity (Jaunā Vienotība, 26.24 percent, two seats, EPP), Development/For! (Attīstībai/Par!, 12.42 percent, one seat, ALDE), KPV LV (0.92 percent), as well as the Union of Greens and Farmers (Zaļo un Zemnieku savienība, 5.34 percent) which is now in opposition.

There is a usual tendency of preferential voting in their lists when the candidates with minority-sounding names are struck out very often. This was noted by Iveta Kažoka, head of an influential think tank PROVIDUS. In fact, one of Development/For! leaders, Daniels Pavļuts, views the striking out of non-Latvian names as a problem.

Mixed record

One mid-sized party, the Progressives (Progresīvie), is also against education in minority languages.  However, it supports a serious step to integrate the stateless “non-citizens”, by allowing them to vote in local elections.  They have failed to win a seat in 2019, but the level of their support slightly increased in comparison with the 2018 parliamentary election (2.9 percent v. 2.6 percent).

Among all “ethnically Latvian” parties, the Progressives were the only group that gave the third position in its list to a candidate with a Slavic name, Antonina Nenasheva. After preferential voting, she finished fourth.

Post-election developments

On 29 May 2019, Egils Levits, the candidate proposed by the hardliners NA and NCP, was elected President by the Parliament of Latvia. This was predictable because his candidacy was supported by all the ruling coalition. What’s difficult to predict now is who will be nominated to the European Commission. The electoral success of the New Unity suggests the re-nomination of Valdis Dombrovskis. However, the NU group in the national parliament is the smallest one, and the party already controls the office of the Prime Minister.

Meanwhile, the Riga city council elected Dainis Turlais from “Honoured to serve Riga” elected the mayor of the city. He replaces Nil Ushakov who now permanently leaves for Brussels. Thus, the “Harmony” seems to be less prominent in the wake of the 2021 municipal election. Moreover, four councilors were expelled from the Harmony group for breaking party discipline over the election of vice mayors. Finally, the anti-corruption office briefly detained Maxim Tolstoy, a Riga city councilor representing the Harmony.

Disclosure: the author is an assistant to Miroslav Mitrofanovthe current MEP from the Latvian Russian Union.

Image: The 2019 European Parliament results in Latvia – first place by municipal units (green – New Unity, red – Harmony, dark yellow – National Alliance. dark red – Latvian Russian Union, dark green – Union of Greens and Farmers). © Ritvars Eglājs, secretary of the Central Election Commission of Latvia.

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