#BalticBrief: Leading “Russian” Party In Latvia Shifts Away From Kremlin

Concord political party stops political agreement with Putin’s United Russia, draws criticism

(Source: Lenta.ru)

Since 2010, the “Concord” party remained the largest party in Latvia to represent Russian minority rights and promote the importance of good Latvian relations with Russia. While Concord has never held a political majority, it was represented both in the national parliament and Riga municipality. Its current leader, Nils Ushakovs, has been Riga Mayor since 2009. In June 2017, he was re-elected for a third time.

In the past, Ushakovs was called “Moscow’s hand”, accused by Latvian nationalists of representing Kremlin interests. Now, the situation is changing.

Divorce with Putin’s party

On October 8, Latvian public television station LTV confirmed Ushakovs’ statement that “Concord” would no longer continue cooperation with Russia’s leading political party, “United Russia.” At that time, “United Russia” was still the party of Russian President Vladimir Putin, although he announced in December that he would not identify with a party during Russia’s 2018 elections.

Anchor: One topic, as we are closing up our conversation: we want to ask you about information we received that the “Concord” party does not have a political agreement with the party “United Russia.”

Ushakovs: Very precise information. Since 2015, “Concord” has applied to become a member of Party of European Socialists (PES) — a party that unites all social democrats and socialists from Germany to Southern and Eastern Europe. Traditionally, all member parties need to create and sustain relationships with political parties from third countries in a centralized way. In this situation, I have informed “United Russia” that the political agreement that had been signed in 2017 has expired.

Anchor: When did it expire?

Ushakovs: As soon as I sent the letter. I have informed the board of the party, I have informed the members of the parliament, municipality and the party that we no longer have the political agreement, because we are a PES member party. We are planning to finish the process of joining next summer. It is an absolutely logical step, because of our choice to become a member of the PES and develop relationships with our colleagues in Germany, Sweden, Denmark who are our closest allies. It is our ideological choice. Also, I would like to stress that we have used this political agreement with “United Russia” as a very efficient tool to sustain as pragmatic relations with Russia as it was possible. We will stick to our position that both Europe and Latvia will benefit from good relationships with Russia, and we will work to build it as PES member party.

Anchor: Your very recently former party member Ivars Zarins said that the collaboration with “United Russia” is a success story and a tool to unite society. Is it not a big loss?

Ushakovs: It was indeed the tool that helped us to develop better relationships with the Russian Federation, or at least with separate regions in Russia, if we talk about Riga municipality. But it’s clear that since 2014 when mutual sanctions were enforced there is no such tool any more, just no such tool. So on one hand it was a realization of the fact, on the other hand parties that are members of PES are building relationships with parties from third countries in a centralized way. We will carry on doing it in the future.

Member of the European Parliament (MEP) Andrey Mamikins, who was elected from “Concord” party’s list, was not impressed with Ushakovs’ announcement on public television. He wrote a public letter, which was published by Russian media outlet “EurAsia Daily” on October 12.

In the letter, Mamikins suggested the real reason for the political agreement termination with “United Russia” was Ushakovs’ ambition to be elected to the Latvian parliament, as there is no centralized collaboration with parties from countries outside of the European Union, as far as he knows.

I and many members of the “Concord” party can only guess about the motives for such actions. Therefore, I want to express my position. Thinking about the true motives of what happened, I come only to one conclusion: this was done in order to become “acceptable” for ruling in the country, so that they [Latvian parties — ed.] could accept “Concord” into the ruling coalition after the elections to the parliament next year.

[..]

Nils, there is no need to neutralize a truly European democracy in PES to the level of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union or the North Korean Labor Party: PES will always ask to renounce friendship with neighbors. There is also no “common centralized foreign policy of PES”: there are different opinions that are usually respected.

According to article 15 of PES statutes, all members of PES member parties are automatically members of the PES. Those who wish to be active in the PES can register as PES activists. It is hard to tell if the political agreement with United Russia counts as a membership in the eyes of PES. If so, Ushakovs’ claims are correct.

Nevertheless, Mamikins stressed the importance of the formal relationships with “United Russia”.

One should not be ashamed of its advantages. “Concord” has always emphasized the importance of dialogue with Russia. This was our strength. You can talk with Zhirinovsky, Zyuganov and even with Navalny. But the decisions today in Russia at different levels are taken by “United Russia”. It is short-sighted to cut this channel of influence for the benefit of Latvia. “Concord” in previous elections was repeatedly supported by voters for its position on Russia. They are against the construction of a new Berlin Wall on the eastern border of Latvia. From the party “Concord” they need a clear and consistent position. The termination of the political agreement with the “United Russia” sends them a wrong signal.

No harmony in the “Concord” party

On December 9, the “Concord” party held its congress and broadcasted the event live on Facebook.

https://www.facebook.com/NilsUsakovs/videos/1704553089575602/

On the day of the “Concord” party’s congress Mamikins posted another open letter, this time responding to Ushakovs from his Facebook account.

https://www.facebook.com/andrejs.mamikins/posts/10210688231554379

The post started with a slogan in caps lock that translates to “DO NOT LEAVE YOUR MATES BEHIND!”

In the beginning of the post, Mamikins explained that he asked to speak at the party congress about the EP Social Democrat working group, but his request was ignored. Later he learned that the party’s leadership forbid him from entering the congress at all.

In the public letter, he mostly spoke about the defense of the so-called “Russian schools” — the schools in which 60 percent of the curriculum is taught in Latvian and 40 percent in Russian or other languages of national minorities.

Mamikins’ post read:

Lately, it seems that the leaders of the party are shy of their voters. This can be seen, among other things, by the sluggish response to the initiative of the Minister of Education about the transition of Russian schools to the Latvian language of education.

The reform of national minority schools aims to destroy them. We will not pretend that we do not understand it. But so far it looks like our voters are about to be spat at in the face, and the Party leadership promises them a napkin so that they can wipe itoff. But from a Guarantor the voter does not expect sympathy, but protection!

Minority school reform

As @DFRLab reported before, Mamikins is one of the most visible opponents of the minority school reform. What he referred to as a napkin to wipe voters’ faces is Ushakovs’ idea to provide additional after-school tutoring in minority languages for schoolchildren in Riga. Ushakovs presented this idea during a press conference on November 30.

https://www.facebook.com/NilsUsakovs/videos/1695123800518531/

Another Russian political party in Latvia, the Russian Union in Latvia (RUL), strongly criticized this idea. In a publication on the party’s home page, they called to ignore the initiative of “a Kind Tsar,” meaning Ushakovs, and join a protest on December 14.

According to Latvian media reports, Latvian Minister of Education Karlis Shadurskis neither opposed nor supported Ushakovs’ idea, whereas Latvian Prime Minister Maris Kuchinskis opposed it.

Ushakovs — the “traitor”

On December 13, Russian media outlet Lenta.ru published an article titled “Chasing two rabbits: Riga Mayor Ushakovs forgot about the Russians and is looking towards the West.”

Title: “Chasing two rabbits”; subtitle: “Riga Mayor Ushakovs forgot about the Russians and is looking towards the West” (Source: Lenta.ru)

The article mentioned a few cases that allegedly demonstrated Ushakovs’ sympathies toward the United States, NATO, and the West writ large. It mentioned Ushakovs’ visit to the U.S. State Department in 2014, when, according to Russian media in Latvia, Mixnews.lv, Ushakovs said the U.S. is an important ally and a partner.

Lenta’s article also mentioned Ushakovs’ selfie with U.S. tanks being unloaded in Riga in March 2015, as well as photos from his meeting with U.S. Senator John McCain in April 2017.

Reporting from Mixnews.lv also cited previous reports from Neatkariga Rita Avize (NRA) about Ushakovs seeking a meeting with the NATO Secretary General to talk about collaboration between NATO forces and the Riga municipality. According to NRA, Ushakovs’ idea was to invite NATO soldiers to the so-called “Russian schools” to bring schoolchildren closer to Western values and create trust in the alliance. NATO rejected the idea.

Lenta’s article was republished in two pro-Kremlin Russian media outlets with an audience in Latvia — Vesti.lv and Rubaltic.ru.

The narrative that Ushakovs is a traitor who wants to be elected to the Latvian parliament appeared in multiple other Kremlin-backed media publications in the Baltics.

On December 10, Vesti.lv published an article, which suggested that — by not opposing the language reform in minority schools — Ushakovs turned away from Kremlin supporters and won over both Latvian nationalists and radical pro-Russian parties. In short, nationalists supported the overall reform, while radicals gained the concession of extra-curricular classes in Russian language.

The journalist wrote:

After an unexpected meeting with the Prime Minister and Minister of Education, Ushakovs said that he accepts the transition of minority schools to study in the state language. He is ready to accept the reform, which the Kremlin’s ideologues call Russophobic and “the destruction of Russian history in Latvia.”

[..]

Ushakovs eventually trumps radicals from both lines. The “nationals” before the elections will have less ground to fight on, because Russian schools will switch to Latvian. He also disturbed “bees” and “LASHOR” (two Russian language community groups ed.), suggesting a new, integrated approach to the educational process, which should give children of ethnic minorities a better chance and feeling of confidence in the labor market. I do not know if there will be parents who dislike it.

On December 11, journalist Aleksandr Malnach published a report from Mamikins’ press conference on Kremlin-funded media Baltnews.lv, which is ultimately owned by the same company as Kremlin propaganda outlet Sputnik.

According to the report, Mamikins said:

I was absolutely sure that the “Concord” party, that stood for the protection of national minority rights, the issue of non-citizens, the appropriation of some status for the Russian language, hasn’t lost its commitment, and will protect its values. For me, it was very important. I can not agree with the current position of “Concord” on the issue of school reform and non-citizens.

On December 13, Sputnik Latvia published an article by a Russian language community activist, former Riga municipality MP Ruslan Pankratov. The article titled “Ushakovs’ betrayal will finally strangle the Russians in Latvia” was then published on Russian media outlets Ukraina.ru and Rambler.

In the article, Pankratov speaks mostly about minority school reform and criticized Ushakovs’ idea of additional after-school classes. His point of view is very similar to RUL’s position expressed in the publication on December 5.

Finally, on December 14, a Latvian satire blog, Kasjaks.lv, published a post titled “Nils Ushakovs is selling himself to the Americans”. The post referred to a tweet by a Latvian politician Ilze Vinkele.

On December 6, she tweeted a screenshot of Ushakovs’ CV that was allegedly attached to an invitation to a dinner in Washington, D.C.

(Source: kasjaks.lv)

What caught the blogger’s attention was the statement that Ushakovs publicly embraced the NATO forces in Latvia and was against Russian annexation of Crimea.

The blogger commented:

It turns out that Latvia’s allegedly pro-Kremlin mayor, who collects a good pile of the Russian-speaking electorate in Latvia, in fact tells to transatlantic uncles that the annexation of the Crimea was illegal, and the NATO forces in Latvia is a positive thing!

So the question arises — whether Usakov really thinks like that or is just trying to indulge Americans who have always had more money than the Kremlin.

The common theme, which was readily amplified and reported on across Russian language media in Latvia, was that Ushakovs evolving stance was a calculated flip-flop and a betrayal of his party’s previously pro-Russian roots.

Conclusion

Multiple open source evidence suggests that Russian-language activists in Latvia and pro-Kremlin media both in Latvia and Russia have turned on Riga Mayor Nils Ushakovs, due to his public sympathies towards the West.

Ushakovs’ response to the language reform of the minority schools in Latvia is currently the central reason for theRussian language community’s mistrust of the Riga Mayor.

The fact that one of the largest state-supported Russian online media outlets, Lenta.ru, published an article that portrays Ushakovs as a traitor, does not make it clear if the Kremlin may also have noticed turbulence in pro-Russian politics in Latvia, or is playing along with Ushakovs’ public relations strategy.


Nika Aleksejeva is a Digital Forensic Research Associate at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab).

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