On Saturday, Latvians will vote in legislative elections, with surveys showing that Prime Minister Krisjanis Karins’s center-right New Unity party would gain the most votes, allowing him to extend his coalition with the conservative National Alliance.
A Karins victory might exacerbate a growing schism between Latvia’s majority and its Russian-speaking minority over their role in society.
The first Latvian head of government to survive a full four-year term, Karins is benefitting from driving the country’s hawkish stance against Russia, its amid widespread national anger over Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.
The election campaign has been dominated by questions of national identity and security concerns, while urgent issues including soaring energy costs and high inflation were largely pushed aside.
Before Moscow invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24 in what it terms a “special military operation”, tens of thousands of Russian speakers in Latvia used to gather every May 9 around a monument in Riga to commemorate the Soviet victory in World War Two.
Their gatherings were banned after the invasion and the 84-metre structure in the center of the capital was crushed with a bulldozer on orders from the government – which is dominated by ethnic Latvians and would prefer to bury the memories of being part of the former Soviet Union up to 1991.
Popular Russian television broadcasts have been outlawed, and the state language board has recommended renaming a key Riga thoroughfare after Russian poet Alexander Pushkin. Karins’ administration has proposed changing all education to Latvian and gradually phase out instruction in Russian.
The social democrat Harmony party, which has traditionally been supported by Latvia’s Russian-speaking minority, gained 19.8% of the vote in the 2018 elections, making it the largest opposition party in parliament. However, according to the most recent poll, Harmony has 7.3% support.