The results of Latvia’s election this month will not alter the country’s foreign policy or its staunch commitment to NATO. But the defeat of the biggest opposition party, Harmony, previously the first choice for Russian-speaking Latvians, has revealed a widespread sense of political confusion among this minority.
About a quarter of Latvia’s population has Russian as their mother tongue. This includes more than half of the inhabitants in the capital, Riga. Most see themselves as Europeans with strong ties to the country, but also value their Russian cultural identity.
When Russia invaded Ukraine, the polling company SKDS found overwhelming support for Ukraine in Latvia, but a different picture among Russian speakers: 21% supported Russia, and 47% backed neither side. In the weeks that followed, Latvia banned Russian state TV channels (even before a European Union (EU) decision), which may have helped decrease support for Russia two months later: in April, only 13% of Latvia’s Russian speakers said they supported Russia (as opposed to 30% supporting Ukraine). The share of those undecided, however, remained almost the same.
Harmony’s fate illustrates the problems facing Russian speakers in Latvia. For years, it was shunned by other parties which condemned its former ties with Putin’s United Russia, until it drew closer to the Latvian mainstream by condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But this wasn’t popular among its supporters and its vote slumped to below 5% from 20% in the 2018 election. It lost all 23 of its seats. Some voters migrated to a more extreme rival, a breakaway party called For Stability!
A one-man show built around the former Harmony politician Aleksejs Roslikovs, For Stability! is more radical in its rejection of NATO and the EU, and labels Latvia’s extensive support for Ukraine (Latvia is the second biggest contributor in the world as a proportion of national wealth, sending aid equivalent to 0.8% of GDP) as a waste of public funds. Social media savviness and protest appeal helped Roslikovs build a following during the Covid restriction measures, when he fiercely criticized the government’s vaccination policy. In public media, Roslikovs refused to say whether he supported Ukraine. “Why should my attitude towards another country serve as a measure of my patriotism?” he asked on TV. His Russian-speaking followers agree, giving him 10 seats in Latvia’s 100-seat parliament, with 6.8% of votes.
Their disenchantment is not rooted only in resentment. Perceptions of social inequality have grown during the Covid years. Roslikovs, whose campaign addressed social issues, made particularly striking gains in the city of Daugavpils and the eastern region of Latgale. This area directly neighbors Russia and has been suffering acute economic pain for many years. Latvian nationalist rhetoric sparked by the war, and symbolic but heartfelt battles over Soviet monuments have also played a role in alienating elements of the Russian-speaking population.
A third party, the Russian Union of Latvia, led by the openly pro-Russian MEP Tatjana Ždanoka, took 3.6% of votes but no parliamentary seats. Taken together, all three parties’ results yielded fewer votes than Harmony alone had gathered in 2018, but the trend is nonetheless clear — toward a more radical pro-Russian voice in Latvian politics.
There are nonetheless some positive signals. Approval of Latvia’s EU and NATO membership is much higher among young Russian speakers than among their parents and grandparents. They also tend to favor liberal freedoms more often. Polls shortly before the election indicated that their political choices have much in common with their Latvian-speaking peers, especially when it comes to socially progressive and green issues. However, waiting for their generation (and younger) to become the majority is far from imminent, given immediate geopolitical pressures and rampant disinformation peddled by Kremlin allies.
The next government’s job will be to overcome the social and economic consequences of the war and the energy crisis, and to bolster national security. But the strategic importance of preventing deeper cleavages based on identity should not be underestimated and must also be addressed.
Marija Golubeva, PhD was a Member of the Latvian Parliament from 2018-2022. She was Minister of the Interior from 2021-2022, Marija has a PhD in History from the University of Cambridge, has taught Politics at Riga Stradins University, and briefly worked for the Latvian government before joining the think-tank PROVIDUS. She also worked for the consultancy company ICF in Brussels.