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Progresīvie and Gen Z: A leftward shift for Latvia?

Source: Meduza

By Will Mawhood for The Beet. Edited by Eilish Hart.

Last December, three Latvian political parties came together to form a new government. The coalition negotiations had dragged on for more than two months. During the elections in October, incumbent Prime Minister Krišjānis Kariņš’s center-right New Unity party came out on top with 19 percent of the vote. Analysts argued that Latvians sought continuity amid the fallout from Russia’s war against Ukraine. Support for some parties espousing Euroskeptic and anti-NATO platforms simply collapsed, and Russian-speakers scattered their votes among various political groupings, leaving the once-popular Harmony — a purportedly center-left party representing Latvia’s Russian-speaking minority — out in the cold. As it happened, right-of-center parties weren’t the only beneficiaries of these shifts: the Progressives, a social-democratic green party, passed the five-percent electoral threshold for the first time and scooped up 10 parliamentary seats. For the Beet, Deep Baltic editor Will Mawhood recounts how the Progressives’ slow but steady rise has shaken up Latvia’s long-standing political divisions.

This article first appeared in The Beet, a weekly email dispatch from Meduza covering Central and Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. Sign up here to get the next issue delivered directly to your inbox.

“We are polar bears and the Progressives are penguins — in the wild their paths essentially don’t cross,” Rihards Kols, a parliamentarian from the National Alliance party told Latvian television the morning after the country’s parliamentary elections last October. Seemingly pleased with his party’s fourth-place showing and his zoological metaphor (repeated from the night before), Kols was setting out a series of “red lines.” Namely, the political forces with which the nationalist party would refuse to form a governing coalition. In addition to the anti-sanctions party For Stability! and two groupings backed by oligarchs with questionable business and political ties, Kols listed newcomers the Progressives (Progresīvie, in Latvian). 

The red lines Kols referred to have been a constant feature of post-election chatter in Latvia in recent decades. Principles such as Latvian as the sole state language and a Western-aligned geopolitical orientation (and, more recently, unambiguous support for Ukraine) are non-negotiable for many, if not most, Latvian voters. As such, parties with a hostile or ambiguous stance on these issues, including most parties popular with the country’s russophone minority, have been excluded from coalition talks. Coalitions are typically cobbled together from so-called “Latvian” parties, but they’re often stretched and conceptually loose.     

Kols’ National Alliance is an umbrella party that can trace its roots back to the late 1980s and more radical, exclusionary sections of the movement to restore Latvia’s independence, supplemented by newer nationalist contenders. Reliably hostile to the Kremlin, it has been part of every coalition government since 2011. Describing the National Alliance as a “radical right populist” party, Latvian political scientist Daunis Auers observes that they have proved a surprisingly undemanding coalition partner for their more mainstream colleagues on many issues, while carving out a fiefdom in the Culture Ministry and frustrating Latvia’s ratification of the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence, better known as the Istanbul Convention. 

A torchlight procession in Riga in celebration of Latvia’s Independence Day. This is an annual event organized by the National Alliance.
Artūrs Matuzals / Alamy / Vida Press

Shortly after Kols, Progressives prime ministerial candidate Kaspars Briškens gave an interview in the same verdant park just outside of Riga’s Old Town. He set out almost identical red lines, although he didn’t rule out working with the National Alliance. It was difficult not to notice, as a parallel feed showed scenes of celebration from the night before at the respective parties’ HQs, that the crowd carousing along with the Progressives looked quite a bit younger.  

‘Something liberal and leftist’ 

The Progressives’ blurb on all of their social media accounts declares, “For justice, freedom, equality, and solidarity in an environmentally friendly Latvia.” Founded as a social-democratic NGO in 2011, it registered as a political party six years later, attempting to bring socially liberal arguments to a political landscape that at that time looked singularly unwelcoming (in 2017, this author penned a lengthy article titled simply “What Became of Latvia’s Left?”). In 2020, the Progressives were the largest entity in an alliance of left and liberal forces that took power in municipal elections in Riga, replacing scandal-hit Harmony, traditionally the most popular party with Latvia’s russophone minority by far.  

Una Bergmane, a Latvian historian based at the University of Helsinki, describes the Progressives as “the first modern, green, left-wing party” to be elected to parliament (the Saeima) since the restoration of Latvia’s independence in 1990. (Harmony, although primarily seen in Latvia as an advocate for the interests of Russian-speakers, also describes itself as a social democratic party. Bergmane, however, refers to its record during its decade in government in Riga as being only sporadically and opportunistically left-wing).

Bergmane attributes the Progressives’ steady rise to a younger generation in Latvia increasingly reaching voting age. “It’s a generation that has grown up completely immersed in Western European [and] American culture, media, [and] discussions — and so they are very different from people who lived in the Soviet times or even from ‘millennials,’” she tells The Beet. “[Many] issues, such as the environment, such as LGBT rights, such as a more inclusive society — these for them are questions that it’s not even necessary for them to discuss, it’s obvious.” 

Polls taken in the month leading up to the election showed the Progressives as the second most popular party among Latvian-speakers between the ages of 18 and 29, and the first choice among 18- to 29-year-olds whose native language is Russian. One exemplar of the Progressives’ young voter base is Selma Levrence, who decided to run on their ticket in 2022. At 22 years old, she only became legally eligible to stand for parliament a year earlier. Primarily known in Latvia for her activism for LGBTQ+ causes and her active social media presence, Levrence says she joined the Progressives’ youth wing several years ago. “I was happy that there was something for young people — something liberal and leftist,” she recalls. 

Selma Levrence at a Progressives march. Summer 2022.
Selma Levrence on Facebook

Levrence attributes the left’s lack of appeal among Latvian-speakers to history and says that if policies aren’t explicitly flagged as left-wing, they’re often popular with the public. “Before the Soviet occupation and before the war [World War II], Latvia was quite a left-wing place — in terms of social democrats and democratic socialists. But now people associate ‘left-wing’ with the Soviet Union, and of course that’s a very bad association for most people,” she explains. “So I think it’s also about a new generation of people who are kind of breaking the stigma.”

‘Latvian’ parties 

Before and immediately after its establishment in 1918, the Republic of Latvia was indeed known for its radicalism. In the subsequent elections in 1920, the Latvian Social Democratic Workers Party (LSDSP) won a sweeping victory with almost 40 percent of the vote. Social democrats also exerted considerable influence on the writing of the Latvian constitution (Satversme), which was drawn up two years later and remains in force.

Compared to the LSDSP’s electoral exploits in the interwar period, topping the poll in every election held, the Progressives’ achievements last year — finishing seventh and just passing the electoral threshold with six percent of the vote — seem modest. But they’re operating in a very different context, in a country with very different demographics. And they appear to be making some progress in breaking down one of the Soviet Union’s most enduring legacies in Latvia: the existence of two parallel communities split not only by preferred language but to a large extent by worldview. 

Moscow’s illegal annexation of Latvia in 1940 was followed by decades of high immigration from other Soviet republics to this relatively prosperous corner of the USSR. By 1989, ethnic Latvians made up only slightly more than half of the population, and anxiety about Russification and the potential disappearance of the Latvian language was a cultural constant. The years after the restoration of independence saw bitter battles over citizenship, education, and language policies, which tended to pit “Latvian” parties against “Russian” ones.

The Soviet Red Army in Riga, 1940
Fine Art Images / Heritage Images / Getty Images

Prominent Russian-speakers are rare among “Latvian” political parties to this day. One recent exception, Marija Golubeva from the centrist liberal party Development/For! was forced to resign from her post as interior minister last May, after an event that shocked much of the country and revealed the depths of divides that still persist in some sections of Latvian society. The day after May 9 (Soviet Victory Day), arrests ensued at a towering Soviet monument in Riga after crowds spontaneously gathered to lay flowers and sing songs, and some participants began loudly voicing pro-Russian sentiments and confronting police, journalists, and members of the public supporting Ukraine. Several parties blamed the interior minister for the alleged failures of policing that enabled the unrest, and the National Alliance threatened to leave the governing coalition unless Golubeva stepped down. 

Police detain a protester near the Soviet monument in Riga’s Victory Park. May 10, 2022.
Andrejs Strokins

While voting patterns and attitudes remain quite heavily polarized by native language, the Progressives have proved a partial exception, especially among younger voters. Statistics show that 27 percent of their supporters in the 2022 elections communicate in Russian at home, more than double the proportion supporting any of the current governing parties. 

In addition, Antoņina Ņenaševa, the party’s current co-leader together with Atis Švinka, is ethnically Russian. She grew up in the heavily russophone Riga suburb of Zolitūde and has faced considerable media scrutiny for her early work as a parliamentary assistant for a deputy from Harmony — a party that refused to condemn Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and let a cooperation agreement with United Russia lapse only in 2017. In a recent interview, Ņenaševa said that when she worked as an activist for Harmony during the 2010 election, she believed it was the only force in Latvian politics that supported social-democratic ideas and could bring society together — but she later became disillusioned and concluded that they weren’t real social democrats. 

‘Occupation monuments’

Despite their appeal among minority voters, on geopolitical issues and questions of memory politics there’s no visible gap between the Progressives and the current government, which is among the most forceful international supporters of Ukraine. “There has never been a debate within the Progressives [regarding] anything about NATO that is maybe a debate for leftist parties in other countries,” says Levrence, who is herself an active member of the “North Atlantic Fellas Organization” social media movement. Following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine and the disorder in Riga last May, the Progressives also backed the parliament’s decision to mandate the demolition of all surviving Soviet monuments in Latvia. 

The dismantling of the Soviet Victory Monument in Riga. August 25, 2022.

The decision caused friction with several city councils in Latgale. The easternmost of Latvia’s four historical regions, Latgale is known for being significantly poorer, more socially conservative, and more multiethnic than the national average. Concerns have often been raised that its Russian-speaking population in particular is also more susceptible to propaganda narratives from across the border. In the recent elections, For Stability! — a radical Euroskeptic and anti-NATO party whose leader, former Harmony politician Aleksejs Rosļikovs, has threatened unspecified revenge against those allegedly responsible for the “Covid genocide” — finished first in Latgale.  

Leila Rasima, one of the 10 deputies from the Progressives elected to Latvia’s 100-member parliament last October, hails from Rēzekne, Latgale’s second-largest city. She strongly supported removing the machine-gun-wielding Red Army soldier statue, known locally as Aļoša, that stood in the city center until early November. And she lambasted the Harmony-dominated local council for its foot-dragging on the issue. Soviet monuments are “not just about the victory over Nazism,” Rasima says, “[they’re] also occupation monuments.”

At the same time, Rasima feels that “Latgale hasn’t really been listened to for a long time.” The region’s serious socio-economic problems lead to large numbers of young people leaving for Riga and abroad, which only serves to further entrench the region’s conservative bent, she explains. “We need to change the way we deal with money — not always trying just to tighten our belts to save as much money as we can,” she says, pointing to a recent Twitter thread by fellow Progressives deputy Andris Šuvajevs, who has been a prominent advocate of increased wages and large-scale government investment.  

‘More freedom to fight’

Ahead of the parliamentary vote, in June 2022, the old Latvian left seemed to be finally burying the hatchet and perhaps interring themselves along with it. The venerable LSDSP, which hadn’t been represented in the Saeima since 2002, announced that it was joining the Union of Greens and Farmers (ZZS) — an ideologically amorphous but reliably socially conservative party. The decision had a particular symbolic heft: the ZZS is the direct successor to the interwar-era Farmers’ Union, whose long-time leader Kārlis Ulmanis executed a self-coup in 1934, expelling Social Democrats from state institutions and briefly imprisoning some of their leaders.

Immediately after the elections, Prime Minister Krišjānis Kariņš — the leader of the technocratic New Unity party, which convincingly outpaced all other contenders — expressed interest in including the Progressives in a four-party coalition. Kariņš abandoned this plan after strong opposition from the other prospective coalition partners that didn’t cross his own “red lines” (namely, the National Alliance and United List, a confederation of mostly regionalist parties). 

Latvian Prime Minister Krišjānis Kariņš
Ints Kalnins / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA

The Progressives’ exclusion has resulted in a much more right-wing coalition, inaugurated last December with a fragile majority of just four seats. But Rasima says being in opposition means “we have more freedom to really express what we think, and to really fight for those things.” (The ZZS, which had selected controversial oligarch Aivars Lembergs as their prime ministerial candidate, found themselves in opposition, as well.)

Almost immediately after the new coalition was sworn in, the Saeima again refused to approve a bill granting civil partnerships to same-sex couples. While Latvia has had high-profile gay political figures, including ex-Interior Minister Marija Golubeva and long-serving Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkēvičs, it ranks poorly on LGBTQ+ rights in a European context, with the fourth-lowest rating in the EU and the worst in the Baltics. Rasima mentions the Progressives’ vocal support for LGBTQ+ rights as a particularly important component of the party’s appeal for her. However, she also notes that it’s the most frequent focus of the hostile comments the party receives online. Critics often claim that the Progressives “are a party that only thinks about that topic,” she says. 

It’s probably too early to tell whether the Progressives mark a new beginning for left-wing politics in Latvia, and being elected to the Saeima is certainly no guarantee of longevity. But the generational divides and potential for inter-ethnic solidarity their rise reveals attest to a society that is slowly but surely changing.

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By Will Mawhood for The Beet

Edited by Eilish Hart.

Cover photo: Progresīvie on Facebook

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