158. Dilemmas of The Political Left in Latvia

By
Andrejs Plakans

Latvia will hold its next parliamentary elections in October 1998. How will the political left fare? Given the social and economic travails of the post-Communist period (the radical drop in living standards, the plight of those on fixed incomes, the loss of status of the cultural intelligentsia), one might predict that the left would score successes. Since 1991, however, the political left has seemed almost quiescent in Latvian politics. The parties of the left in the renewed parliament (Saeima) have controlled at best only about a third of all seats, and only one of these leftist parties received a plurality in the last Saeima elections in 1995. Why is this so? The political left in Latvia has not succeeded because it has not come to grips with six dilemmas-or, better said, problems with equally unsatisfying solutions.

The first dilemma is ideological clarity. The willingness of leftist deputies to participate in governing contrasts with the great reluctance of the interwar Social Democrats, who by refusing to work with "bourgeois" parties were able to maintain ideological purity and oppositional fervor. Mindful of the recent Soviet past, the leftist parties of today do not wish to articulate a clear ideology that might link them to Communism. Accordingly, they lack a unifying political philosophy that distinguishes them from other parties.

The second is the national state. Fifty years of attacks on "bourgeois nationalism" by the Latvian Communist Party, and the memory of these attacks in the minds of the politically active generation, make it difficult for the left to articulate a position that challenges the political right, where the "national" theme is very prominent. Ever since Latvia declared independence in 1991, the parties of the right and center have claimed that the purpose of the state is to safeguard the Latvian people and Latvian culture. The left parties must demonstrate allegiance to the idea of a national state, and any effort to incorporate notions of "universal human rights," for example, can be made to appear connected to the "internationalism" (read: russification) of the past. A declaration that the left believes in the state, but not in a nationalistic interpretation of its nature, sounds like a qualified endorsement of independence. In this position, the left can not distinguish itself from the other parties sufficiently to make itself an alternative.

The third dilemma is the nature of the government. Because of Latvia's small size and its relatively uncomplicated structure, the central government has played an enormous role in the country's political and economic history. Consequently, the political left nowadays is unable to distinguish itself from other parties on the principal role of the central government because center and right parties are committed to a strong, activist, and interventionist government. Even though there is an interest in strengthening the role of municipal and local governments (pasvaldibas), the budgets of these entities are still tied to the national budget. The left can only claim that if given power it would do the same, and a bit more, than what is being done by the present power-holders. But the left cannot go too far in this direction without raising the specter of the overwhelming governmental control of the Soviet period.

The fourth is a matter of constituency. The recent past has succeeded in blocking the left from what would be a natural component of its constituency: the Slavic-speaking population. There is every indication that large segments of the Russian population in Latvia long for a society that, while not dominated by a communist party, is nonetheless a fully developed welfare state in which large proportions of the national budget are allocated to social services. Large segments of the Latvian population believe this as well, and there is no doubt that if the Russian population were given the vote, it and the welfare-minded Latvians would immediately support policies to return social services to the levels of the communist period. Yet the left cannot curry favor with the Slavic-speakers too directly without seeming to encourage the development of a "two-community" state: one in which Russians would have about one-third of the vote. The Latvians fear that this would diminish the role of Latvian culture and language, and make Latvia forever a divided country. Therefore, the Latvian population tends to support the center and the right because of their general commitment to the idea of a Latvian-dominated state. If the left, on the other hand, championed the granting of citizenship and thus the vote to all Russian speakers in order to increase its constituency, it would be accused of sacrificing the "Latvianness" of the state in exchange for political power.

The fifth dilemma is leadership. Having emerged from a long period of "mono-ideology," the leftist parties are seeking to emphasize that their approach to Latvia's problems is pragmatic and non-ideological. But the absence of a unifying ideology has given free rein to an individualism and a clash of ambitions, and consequently has produced the same kind of fragmentation that is evident all along the political spectrum. Even though the platforms of the parties of the left frequently sound very similar on key issues, these groupings have at their heads personalities who seem more interested in jockeying for leadership positions by founding, and refounding, parties of their own. This phenomenon is not limited to the left wing of the political spectrum. Historically, the center and the right made no pretense of subordinating self-interest, and indeed, in their political philosophies, self-interest was perceived as a positive value. The left, however, censured self-interest and attacked it through concerted collective action. Currently, however, the proliferation of "leaders" on the left make it appear no better or worse than other political groupings.

The final dilemma is elitism. The Latvian political elite is numerically very small. The publication, Who is Who in Latvia, lists about 8,000 names in all walks of life, but only about 460 persons in elite political positions. The activities of those listed take place in Riga, which has one-third of the country's population, virtually all of its prestigious institutions, and dominates the country's life. As far as national politics are concerned, there is no vast, outside pool of political talent from which leaders can be recruited, and it is not at all clear that the membership and electoral base of the left parties extends much beyond Riga. For the left, this means it lacks an effective way of separating itself from everyone else: the politicians of the left are already in the Latvian political elite and cannot effectively play the role of outsiders or the champion of outsiders. Riga-centered leftist politics, in other words, weakens its national appeal, but "running against Riga" (analogous to "running against Washington") would surely push the left even farther away from the center stage, which is in Riga.

Dr. Plakans spoke at an EES Noon Discussion on March 25, 1998.

Experts & Staff

  • Christian F. Ostermann // Director, History and Public Policy Program; Global Europe; Cold War International History Project; North Korea Documentation Project; Nuclear Proliferation International History Project
  • Emily R. Buss // Program Assistant