Latvians vote amid fears over a resurgent Russia

Latvia’s hardline centre-right coalition is poised to return to power Saturday in an election overshadowed by alarm over a resurgent Russia and a Kremlin-allied party popular with the country’s sizeable Russian minority.

Russia’s annexation of Crimea and meddling in the eastern Ukraine conflict have sent shudders through this NATO, EU and eurozone member of two million people.

Many Latvians have vivid memories of the country’s Soviet rule that ended just a quarter century ago. Now in Europe’s worst standoff with Russia since the Cold War, there are fears that Moscow could attempt to destabilise its Soviet-era Baltic backyard.

A pragmatic technocrat, Prime Minister Laimdota Straujuma, 63, has called for more NATO troops and extra air patrols in this region bordering Russia.

Straujuma’s governing coalition appears headed for victory with its four parties scoring 33 to 61 percent support in two separate SKDS polls taken within two weeks of election day.

Support for the opposition left-wing Harmony party, mainly backed by the ethnic Russian minority which accounts for a quarter of the population, ranged from 18-24 percent in the same surveys. Undecided voters hovered at 17 percent.

Voters supporting the coalition are spooked by the Harmony party, which is allied with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s United Russia.

Questions about loyalty also surfaced after police reports about a handful of ethnic-Russian Latvian citizens joining pro-Moscow rebels in eastern Ukraine.

“If Harmony ever got in, it would be a disaster for the country. They would sell it to Russia,” Karlis Kalnins, a musician, told AFP in the capital Riga.

“Every true Latvian needs to turn out and vote,” he said, a ribbon in the national red-and-white pinned to his lapel.

The leftist Harmony topped the 2011 snap election, but without a majority or coalition partners, it was relegated to the opposition in the 100-seat parliament.

“Since independence was regained in 1991, all Latvian governments have been composed of varying (majority)… coalitions representing ethnic Latvian interests,” University of Latvia Professor Daunis Auers told AFP.

“Russophones are the permanent political opposition and are likely to remain so even after the 2014 parliamentary election.”

– Sanctions woes –

Harmony leader and Riga mayor Nils Ushakovs raised eyebrows last month when he said that given the choice of politicians in Russia, “the best thing possible right now is President Vladimir Putin.”

But business circles relished his recent trade mission to Moscow, amid concerns that a sanctions war between the EU and Russia over the Ukraine crisis could hit the Baltics hard.

“He’s the only one who can go to Moscow, to Brussels and to Washington,” Riga businessman Sergejs Pilanovs told AFP.

Latvia made a spectacular recovery from the world’s deepest recession in 2008-9, when output shrank by nearly a quarter during the global financial crisis.

A painful austerity drive then paved the way for entry into the single currency euro area in January.

The sacrifices paid off and growth in Latvia topped the 28-member EU for a third consecutive year in 2013, with a 4.0 percent expansion.

Early forecasts had pointed to nearly five percent growth this year, but the escalating sanctions war could hit Baltic trade, transit, and tourism.

“I want to see people in parliament who support economic development,” Rezekne resident Ieva Blumene, 30, told AFP.

In all 13 parties are on the ballot. Polling stations will open on Saturday from 0400 GMT to 1700 GMT.