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Cablegate: Economic Issues Chip Away at Ethnic Loyalty of Latvian

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1. (SBU) Summary: Economic and social issues, particularly
unemployment, will be foremost in voters' minds in the coming
election. Some observers note that even though voters will remain
conscious of tensions between traditionally ethnic-Russian and
ethnic-Latvian parties, the role of ethnicity is diminishing. Some
parties, notably Latvia's First Party (LPP) and the predominately
Russian Harmony Center (SC) are attempting to capitalize on voters'
willingness to support a party identified with the other ethnic
group. End summary.

Ethnic identity less critical at the ballot box
--------------------------------------------- --

2. (SBU) Ethnic identity has long been the key determining factor in
Latvians' voting patterns. However, analysts are reaching a
consensus that the Latvian economy, mired in a years-long recession,
may catalyze some voters to look beyond ethnic divisions. Viktors
Makarovs, Director of Eurocivitas policy center, notes that ethnic
allegiance is no longer the most important issue anymore for either
Latvian-speaking or Russian-speaking voters.

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3. (SBU) Over recent years, the attitudes of the left-leaning,
Russian-speaking parties, as well as their traditional base, have
become more moderate. Generational change has driven this
moderation, but integration policies - including Latvian-language
instruction in classrooms and some encouragement of naturalization -
may also have contributed. Today Latvia has a functioning
multi-cultural society, and ethnicity does not cause extensive
friction in day-to-day affairs.

4. (SBU) Two trends have appeared in the last five years - first, an
"ethnic equilibrium"" has appeared, a state which neither of the
groups enjoys but neither dislikes enough to change. Ethnically
charged topics are losing their effectiveness as political fuel:
voters have begun to dismiss parties that blatantly attempt to play
the ethnic card. Makarovs believes that voters will increasingly
consider voting outside their ethnic bloc, accepting a coalition
with a party from the other bloc, or including a candidate with a
different ethnic background in their party list. A 2009
Eurocivitas study concluded that close to 20% of Russian speakers
would vote for a predominantly ethnic Latvian party if they thought
it would consider the interests of Russian speakers.

But there are limits to progress

5. (SBU) Although diminished, a real divide continues to affect
voters' attitudes and choices. To some extent this is due to the
parties themselves, which have used ethnic concerns to rally their
base. Negative stereotypes remain, along with differences in
opinion about specific policies - particularly surrounding language
requirements in schools and workplaces. As a result, only a small
portion of voters have crossed the ethnic line so far.

6. (SBU) Neither the ethnic-Russian nor the ethnic-Latvian parties
market themselves with the opposite ethnic group, and remain largely
concerned with their own audiences and communicate through media in
their own language. Among the major Latvian parties, all generally
considered right-of-center, Latvia's First Party/Latvia's Way
(LPP/LC) is the only party that has announced that it will
purposefully add prominent Russian speakers to its list in hopes of
attracting Russian voters. Some observers see the Latvian parties'
resistance as stubborn. However, LPP/LC's multi-ethnic marketing in
last year's local elections yielded disappointing results.

An opportunity for Harmony Center?

7. (SBU) Harmony Center (SC) is the most prominent party associated
with Russian-speaking voters. A significant percentage of
Russian-speaking voters will either vote only for Harmony Center or
not at all. Analysts see potential for SC voters to support a more
""ethnically moderate" Latvian party, although at the moment most of
the Latvian parties are unpopular even among ethnic Latvians, let
alone ethnic Russians.

8. (SBU) For their part, SC has tried to capitalize on this more
agreeable tone. Attempts by Harmony Center to reconcile with
Latvian voters (such as the visit of the Riga mayor Nils Usakovs to
the Occupation Museum, which documents Latvia's 50-year Soviet
period) have not been met with the kind of resentment from
Russian-speakers as they might have been several years ago. Arnis
Kaktins, from SKDS research center, notes that Harmony Center could
attract more Latvian votes, but only if it exploits the issues of
unemployment and the economic ailments of the country. The only
explicitly left-wing ethnic Latvian party, the Social Democratic
Worker's party, has been plagued Qpoor leadership, low morale and
lagging poll numbers.

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9. (SBU) Many analysts note, however, that Harmony Center is still
largely perceived as an agent of Russian interests in Latvia and not
a European-style social democratic party. A cooperation agreement
signed in November 2009 between the Russia-based United Russia party
and SC reinforced this perception. This identification will limit
their appeal among ethnic Latvians, despite economic problems and
SC's generous social platform. SC has frequently trumpeted its
multicultural character, but the proportion of ethnic Latvians
voting for them has not increased visibly - SC claim that up to 30%
of their voters are of Latvian ethnicity, while according to
pollster Latvijas Fakti, it is actually less than 10%. Others, such
as Kaktins, offer estimates of as low as five percent.

Space for Fringe Parties to Exploit?

10. (SBU) One cause for concern is the continued possibility of
fringe parties stoking ethnic confrontations. March 16 (a day used
to commemorate largely-conscripted Latvian units that fought with
the Nazis against Soviets in World War II) and May 9 (commemorating
the Soviet victory over the Nazis) have typically been used by some
groups to escalate ethnic tension and raise their profile. In early
February an anonymous website published the names and personal codes
(similar to Social Security numbers) of the "Occupiers" who had used
Russian national symbols to decorate their vehicles. The incident
sparked a wide reaction in the Russian language media, and fear of a
backlash from the Russian community. Such incidents could stir
ethnic tensions, political observers believe. The
second-most-popular Russian speakers' party, PCTVL, is prone to
using the "ethnic card" to draw a hard-core of Russian speakers'
votes away from Harmony Center. While these attempts may stir up
some trouble, they are unlikely to prove politically decisive.

11. (SBU) COMMENT: There are few positive results arising from
Latvia's disastrous economic decline over the last two years.
However, the experience may drive both residents on both sides to
begin to look beyond their ethnic identity and vote on the basis of
economic policy. While we do not see the problem evaporating
overnight, current circumstances may provide an opportunity to break
down some barriers. If SC does a creditable job of exploiting this
opportunity, expressing alternate policies well, or even adopting a
non-ethnic Russian as a Prime Ministerial candidate, it could find
itself in a governing coalition.


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