Thursday, November 11, 2010

Window on Eurasia: In the Baltics, Moscow Turns from Supporting Ethnic Russian Parties to Backing Broader but Still Sympathetic Ones, Russian Commentator Says

Paul Goble

Staunton, November 11 – Moscow is no longer placing its bets on the often-marginal ethnic Russian parties in the three Baltic countries, preferring instead to support broad-based political parties which are sympathetic to the Russian Federation and have a real chance to come to power, according to a Moscow historian and publicist.
In an essay in “Russky zhurnal” today, Boris Sokolov says that the parties Moscow is now most interested in are Edgar Savisaar’s Center Party in Estonia, Nil Ushakov’s Center of Accord in Latvia, and, until quite recently, Victor Uspaskis’ Labor Party in Lithuania (
And as a result of Moscow’s support for these groups, he continues, Russia’s backing of Russian-language parties who “openly were focused on Russia and dreaming about the rebirth of the Union in one or another form” has reduced these often marginal parties still further, something Sokolov says is obvious “to the unaided eye.”
Thus in Estonia, the ethnic Russian Night Patrol has faded into insignificance since the period of protests around the Bronze Soldier in Tallinn, and the Russian-language party ZaPChEL garnered only 1.4 percent of the vote in the recent Latvian elections, with most of its former electorate choosing instead to back Ushakov.
The situation in Lithuania is different, n large part because there has never been a single Russian party or organization. There are three reasons for this, Sokolov says. First, Lithuania adopted a more liberal citizenship law so many ethnic Russians became citizens and voted for Lithuanian parties.
Second, the share of Russian speakers in Lithuania is only “a little more than 16 percent,” far smaller than in Estonia and especially in Latvia. And third, the Russian language community is extremely diverse, with almost half of it consisting of ethnic Poles who look toward Poland rather than the Russian Federation.
For all those reasons, Sokolov continues, Moscow “from the very beginning” sought to support parties and politicians of “an all-Lithuanian direction,” people like Rolandas Paksas and Victor Uspaskis. But because those people and their parties are now viewed as “belonging to the past rather than the future,” Moscow is “searching for new political partners.”
By cutting back its support for openly pro-Russian parties, Moscow “perhaps is losing the support of the more pro-Russian inclined politicians and populations, but on the other hand, it is acquiring real, albeit not very obvious from the outside, influence on real political processes in the Baltic countries.”
“The elections in Latvia just like the elections in Estonia have shown,” Sokolov says, “that today the majority of the Russian-language voters are voting for all-national parties” which the Russian speakers perceive as representing their interests and having a real chance to win some share of power.
Ultimately, the Russian analyst suggests, “particularly in the case of the evolution of the Latvian political system toward a two-party system,” the Center of Accord Party “could become one of the two main parties” of the country. And while Russian voter supporter would be critical, the level of the party’s “pro-Russianness” would probably decline to make that happen.
Nonetheless, the Russian voter in Latvia will matter both because the number of Russian speakers who become citizens and thus gain the right to vote is growing and because the Center of Accord also is winning support among ethnic Latvians who do not view it as “an ethnic Russian-language party.”
Moscow is clearly betting on the left and center-left parties, a strategy that appears to have the best chance of success in Latvia. In Estonia and Lithuania, in contrast, “the positions of the pro-Russian forces are not so strong,” as a result of the smaller share of ethnic Russians in the population and electorate, better economic conditions, and the personalities of party leaders.
Sokolov says in conclusion that “the transition from support in the Baltic countries of forces oriented to the restoration of the USSR to support of all-national parties which do not put under doubt the political independence of their countries and reflect Western democratic values is a step toward … civilized relations” between Russia and the Baltic countries.
But he adds that the Kremlin may encounter problems as a result of choosing this path, especially because the parties it backs because they are pro-Russian at some level will almost certainly have to become less so if they are to win power in any one of the three Baltic countries let alone more than that.

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