Russian Party Latvian Winner
Russian Ethnic Party Tops Latvia Vote but Can't Form Government

The party representing the Russian minority in Latvia was the major winner in a low turnout election but cannot form a government.

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Amiel Ungar,

Riga, Latvia
Riga, Latvia

Although it emerged with a third of the votes, far outdistancing its closest rivals in the Latvian elections of Saturday, the pro-Russian Harmony Center Party still faces an uphill battle to get into government.

The Latvian parties are expected to make an effort to keep the party of ethnic Russians out of a share of government.

Harmony Center politician Andrejs Klementjevs claimed that the votes provided a mandate for a share in power. "It would be disrespectful towards our voters -- because each third of Latvian citizens supported and voted for us," he told Reuters. "To spit in our face and not involve us in the work of the cabinet would be disrespectful to us."

Harmony Center was aided by a low turnout of 58% as compared with a 90% turnout in 1991 when the country's first free election following the demise of Soviet rule took place.

Latvia gained independence in 1991 with the breakup of the Soviet Union and at first applied a harsh policy towards the ethnic Russians, many of whom had been encouraged to settle in Latvia by the Soviet authorities. Others were lured to this Baltic country as well as to Estonia by the comparably higher living standards as opposed to other Soviet republics.

Citizenship quotas were imposed after independence, and proficiency in the native language became a test for acquiring citizenship. Over 300,000 ethnic Russians, primarily the elderly who never bothered to learn the local tongue, are still not citizens.

As Russian immigration to Latvia waned after independence, the policy became more tolerant. Intermarriage between the communities has also reduced tension.

The Latvian Russian party is willing to accept that the Soviet takeover of Latvia in 1940 as an occupation, but it refuses to brand the Russians who immigrated to Latvia as occupants.

What does the Harmony Center Party stand for?

Harmony Center appeals to Russians by calling for the recognition of Russian as a minority language. It has also criticized the austerity program that has led to the firing of 40% of the country's teachers and the sharp slashing of salaries and pension benefits for those who remained employed.

As opposed to the Ukraine's ruling Party of Regions, Harmony Center outwardly accepts Latvia's membership in NATO and the EU. The party suffices with a call for "more constructive relations with Russia". 

The party's critics have noted that during the brief war between Russia and Georgia in 2008 Harmony Center refused to condemn Russia. Some of the party's leaders are accused of maintaining ties to Vladimir Putin and seeking to promote Russian economic penetration.

As the European Union tries to find a way out of its economic travails, there is little sympathy for enhancing the EU budget. Many former communist countries entered the EU with the expectation that they would encounter generosity similar to that lavished upon Greece, Spain and Portugal after these fledgling or problematic democracies were accepted into the union.

As Western European investment dries up, one alternative is to look to Russia for assistance. Even countries such as Poland, long suspicious of the Russians, opposition to Russian investment is declining faced with the alternative of feeble growth and unemployment.