On April 4, shortly before midnight, the Latvian government announced its decision to remove Nils Ušakovs, the longtime mayor of Riga from his position. According to Minister for Environmental Protection and Regional Development Juris Pūce of the liberal Development/For! party, Ušakovs was sacked for mismanagement of the city, which has led to a loss of around €28 million in municipal finances. According to the ministry, the mayor had violated several laws, including the “Law on Prevention of Squandering of the Financial Resources and Property of a Public Person” and the “Law Local Governments Budgets,” among others. Ušakovs, who is the leader of the political party Harmony, the largest Russian-speakers’ party in Latvia, rejects the accusations as politically motivated. The suspension of the mayor is part of a long and complicated story in which ethnic identities serve as a tool that politicians use to mobilize voters and shift attention away from corruption scandals.
The Rise of the Harmony Party
Harmony emerged on the Latvian political scene in 2010 after a fusion of three smaller political parties: National Harmony Party (TSP), New Centre (JC), and Social Democratic Party (SDP). While most TSP and JC members came from a Russian-speaking background, SDP was mostly ethnically Latvian.
A year before the merger, these parties ran a joint list in Riga’s municipal elections and won 26 of 60 seats. Then, they teamed up with Latvian oligarch Ainārs Šlesers’ party to elect Nils Ušakovs as mayor of Riga. Harmony repeated this success in the 2013 and 2017 municipal elections. Each of Harmony’s victories was possible thanks to help from its ethnic Latvian political partners. When Šlesers’ influence declined after the 2010 parliamentary elections and his party dissolved in 2011, its former members in Riga formed the party Honor to Serve Riga (GKR). Since 2013, the Harmony/GKR alliance has run together in Riga’s municipal elections and shared power in the city. The fact that Harmony retains power with support of an ethnic Latvian party is often ignored by those who celebrate that the mayor of Latvia’s largest city is of Russian descent and by those who criticize him.
In 2010, when Harmony won its first victory in Riga, it took 29 of 100 total seats in national elections. In snap national elections a year later, it received the highest number of votes, winning 31 seats out of 100. At that time, some claimed that 20% of Harmony’s supporters were ethnic Latvians. Other parties discussed including Harmony in the government coalition, but the negotiations failed and was excluded from government. After the 2011 victory, Nils Ušakovs tried to rebrand Harmony as a social democratic party that could attract votes from all Latvians, rather than being solely a Russian-speakers’ party. However, these efforts have failed, and in the 2018 national elections, Harmony lost around 92 000 votes and acquired eight fewer seats, compared to 2011.
This failure is due to serval factors. In 2012, Ušakovs and other members of his party alienated ethnic Latvians by voting to establish Russian as Latvia’s second official language. In a referendum, the idea was rejected by 74.8% of voters, with a participation rate of 71.13%. Then, in 2014, Ušakovs failed to rally behind Latvia’s official position on Russian aggression in Ukraine. He criticized sanctions imposed by the government, visited Moscow just after the annexation of Crimea, and attacked Latvia’s foreign minister for banning several Russian citizens from visiting Latvia. Until 2017, Harmony had a cooperation agreement with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s political party, United Russia. Harmony’s attempt to brand itself as a modern European social democratic party clashed with its conservative rhetoric regarding same-sex civil unions and support for Russia-inspired “family values.”
Corruption in Riga
Even as Harmony struggled to expand its support base, the Riga City Council, which the party controls, has been plagued by multiple corruption scandals. Important corruption scandals that have taken place during Ušakovs’ tenure include attempts to influence journalists, bribery cases in various departments of the Riga City Council, alleged mismanagement of municipal finances, alleged payments to non-existent employees, and use of municipal resources to boost Ušakovs’ popularity.
Ušakovs’ most recent troubles started in December, 2018 when Latvia’s anti-graft police (KNAB) searched the offices of the Riga municipal transportation company and Riga’s City Council. The ride was part of a large ongoing investigation that KNAB was carrying out in cooperation with law enforcement authorities from other European countries. In 2013 and 2016, Riga City Council had made three large purchases of trams, trolleybuses, and buses from Czech and Polish companies. KNAB and Polish Central Anticorruption Bureau are now investigating bribery and money laundering in connection with these purchases.
By mid-December, Riga Deputy Mayor Andris Ameriks resigned. A couple of days later, Latvian media reported that the government-owned Riga Transportation Company had accumulated a massive debt of €200 million. On January 30, 2019, KNAB searched the office and home of Ušakovs himself. Three weeks later, Ušakovs and Ameriks suddenly announced that they would run in the 2019 European Parliament elections. This unexpected decision reversed Harmony’s previously announced European Parliament election strategy that had placed Vjačeslavs Dombrovskis, a former liberal finance minister (not related to former Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis), as the lead candidate of this self-proclaimed social democratic party.
In early April, the newly appointed Minister for Regional Development, Juris Pūce, suspended Ušakovs for non-fulfillment of statutory obligations and violations of regulatory enactments.
Business as Usual?
Pūces’ decision in the short term will paradoxically benefit both Harmony and Ušakovs. If Pūce had not fired Ušakovs, it might have been difficult for the mayor to explain to voters why he suddenly decided to leave Riga for Brussels. Now, since he is suspended from the office, Ušakovs can argue his case much better by saying that removal from the office has left him no other option then to seek a seat in the European parliament.
At the same time, Pūce’s decision might also increase his own popularity. The calls to remove Ušakovs emerged months before Juris Pūce assumed office, but his predecessor, Kaspars Gerhards, from the right-wing National Alliance, resisted them. As the scandal in Riga City Council and pressure from his own party increased, Gerhards proposed dissolving the City Council and calling for new elections, but the project was not backed by the government. The contrast between the perceived incapacity of a nationalist minister to influence the situation and the seemingly decisive action of the new liberal minister might help his party to gain some extra votes in the upcoming European elections.
The suspension of Ušakovs should improve accountability in Latvian municipalities in the long run, but it will not change much in Riga immediately. Two close associates from Harmony have already assumed Ušakovs and Ameriks’ positions. Ušakovs has pledged to contest Pūce’s decision in court, while the minister has asked the anti-graft police KNAB to assess whether Ušakovs can be accused of fraud. The court proceedings are likely to take years.
Ethnizing a Corruption Scandal?
Ušakovs has been accused of both influencing the content of Russian-language media and spending public resources to increase his popularity. The long-term results of these practices will take time to fade away. In other words, his reputation may not be shaken by corruption allegations or removal from office. Another controversial mayor, Aivars Lembergs, from the seaport city of Ventspils, maintained high approval ratings for years despite criminal investigations and removal from office by using his influence in national and regional media.
For now, however, Harmony’s base in Riga is strong. After Ušakovs’ offices and home were searched, a 3,000-strong demonstration in Riga took place in his support. Demonstrators carried Latvian flags and posters in Latvian language, but some of them told journalists that in their view Ušakovs had been persecuted because he was Russian. In Bolderāja, one of the poorest neighborhoods of Riga, signs were posted depicting Ušakovs in a prisoner’s suit being taken away by two Nazi officers with the inscription “Because he is Russian.” Ušakovs himself has added fuel to the fire by calling the leader of the opposition a crazy nationalist.
These attempts to ethnicize the corruption scandal are dangerous in a country as ethnically diverse as Latvia. Yet, the mayor was not suspended by a minister from the nationalist party, but by a minister from the liberal Development/For! party, which has one of the most inclusive programs regarding the Russian-speaking minority. Nevertheless, the older generation of Harmony’s Russian-speaking voters trusts Ušakovs “as one of their own.”
If Ušakovs is serious about gaining a seat in the European Parliament, then he will have to compete not only with the so-called Latvian parties, but also with a smaller and more radical Russian-speakers’ party, the Latvian Russian Union. Its leader, Tatjana Ždanoka, has been barred for running in national elections for her activities in the Latvian Communist party after the attempted Soviet coup in Latvia and Lithuania in January 1991. As a result, her party has focused efforts on securing for her one of Latvia’s eight seats in the European Parliament. If Harmony wants to send both Ušakovs and Ameriks to Brussels, then the two will have to engage in a fierce competition with Ždanoka’s party, which could encourage them to adopt more radical, ethnically divisive programs.
The Future of Harmony and Latvia’s Democracy
For Ušakovs, a seat in the European Parliament might be the best option in the current situation, but his absence in municipal and national politics will complicate things for his party. As a young and eloquent former journalist who is married to an ethnic Latvian, he has been his party’s most significant asset for many years. In the 2018 national elections, in which Ušakovs was not running, the party placed him on almost every single campaign poster alongside actual candidates. This fusion between the man and the party could be costly for Harmony when he gets a job in Brussels.
Harmony’s attempts to transition from being a “Russian party” towards a social democratic party have veered off course. Now, the party is associated with large-scale corruption scandals. This opens a space in Latvian politics for a new force on the left. It also challenges other parties to reach out to Harmony’s voters. While there are members of Russian descent in some of the so-called “Latvian parties,” only two of them have placed ethnic inclusion at the top of their priority list. One of them is a small left party, Progressives, that is not currently represented in the parliament. The other is the liberal Development/For! party that is a member of the governing coalition. These two parties are the best placed to connect with Harmony’s voters who might be looking for new options and to end the ethnic voting in Latvian politics.