Latvia’s nationalists gain from refugee concerns, suspicion of EU

Juris Kaža
Oct 19, 2015 · 6 min read
Latvians marching on September 22 against admitting asylum seekers to their country (photo by Juris Kaža)

Riga, Latvia — Like right-wing parties in other East European countries, Latvia’s National Alliance, a partnership of two right of center nationalist parties that is a member of Prime Minister Laimdota Straujuma’s three party coalition government, is gaining influence on public concern about the resettlement of refugees from other European Union (EU) countries and suspicion that EU institutions are acting without regard to Latvia’s interests.

The National Alliance, with 17 seats in the 100 member parliament or Saeima, has little hope of leading a government in Riga like Hungary’s right of center Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who came to power in 2010 and was re-elected in 2014. While the National Alliance’s popularity in polls has fluctuated in recent months, it has has managed to advance its agenda of restricting immigration to Latvia by asylum seekers from the current refugee crisis and has sharply cut the number of prosperous Russians getting residence permits in return for investments in real estate, finance and Latvian businesses.

The nationalists have both played on fears of non-European people with an “alien” Islamic faith coming to Latvia — a concern echoed in other East European countries — and suspicion of Russians and “Russian money” harking back to the Soviet Union’s 50 years of domination of the small Baltic country. Last fall, the Saeima adopted legislation backed by the National Alliance that tightened requirements for residence permits to non-EU nationals, which, combined with a sharp fall in the exchange rate of the ruble, resulted in a sharp drop in applications and permits granted to Russian citizens.

Some Latvians have even said that Brussels, by allocating refugee quotas to EU countries, is acting like the Soviet Union did when the government in Moscow sent tens of thousands of Russian-speaking labor migrants to Latvia and Estonia. Resentment of Western Europe’s development and prosperity while Latvia was ruled by the Soviet Union has also led to feelings in Latvia and other former Communist countries that the older parts of the EU still owe them something for their suffering.

“It seems that the large financing from European funds that these countries have received is seen as ‘damages’, not as an investment in a common future,” says Olga Procevska, a former researcher of “collective trauma” at the University of Latvia. “It is hard for East European countries to refocus from those, who feel they are owed, to being those, who have an obligation to give,” she said, referring to many Latvians opposition to taking in asylum seekers.

Recent rallies in Riga against admitting asylum seekers have seen Soviet-era dissidents, who protested labor migration in the late 1980s come to the forefront of the recent protest actions

Former anti-Soviet activist, Jānis Rožkalns, imprisoned by the Soviet authorities for clandestine religious and pro-independence activities in the mid-1980s, spoke against admitting Muslim immigrants to Latvia and denounced plans by the EU to assign a refugee quota to the small Baltic country at a late September anti-immigrant protest march and rally in Riga.

“There Islamic migrants forcing their way into Europe and our little Latvia are more dangerous for the Latvian nation, our culture and our religion than the threat from the occupation by the USSR in the recent past. Back then, the Russians were a related culture and of the same religion,” he said.

Soviet era activist and political prisoner Jānis Rožkalns at an anti-migrant rally in Riga on August 4 (photo by Juris Kaža)

Released from a prison camp in 1987, Mr. Rožkalns became one of the movers behind the first large protests to be tolerated by the Soviet authorities in Latvia that same year. He was pressured to emigrate to Germany by the Soviet authorities shortly after mass protests in Riga in June and August 1987 and returned to Latvia with his family in 2000.

The September 22 march and rally against Latvia’s decision to take in refugees from other EU countries drew, by various estimates, between 500 and 1000 people, a moderate-sized crowd by Latvian standards and far from the tens of thousands drawn to pro-independence rallies in the late 1980s. The event, like an earlier rally in August, was organized by a martial arts and military sports club and a small, radical nationalist organization.

At the first demonstration August 4 in front of the Cabinet of Ministers building in Riga some persons carried placards accusing the EU of “white genocide” and mocking the female figure atop Latvia’s Freedom Monument in a poster showing her with African features.

Organizers of the late September march and rally seemed to have pruned some of the controversial slogans and banners, but a placard comparing European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker with Hitler and Stalin slipped past them.

The harsh comparison harks back to the Hitler-Stalin pact of August 23, 1939 that ceded Latvia and the other Baltic countries of Lithuania and Estonia to the Soviet sphere of influence and led to their annexation by the USSR in the summer of 1940.

Dampening down the message at the recent protest didn’t fully hide the radical — some would say extreme — nationalist tone of speeches and slogans at the event, which seem to fit with the views of some former anti-Soviet activists.

Banner displayed at the first anti-asylum-seeker rally in front of Latvia's government house in Riga, August 4 (photo by Juris Kaža)

Mr. Rožkalns, who won Latvia’s highest civilian honor, the Order of the Three Stars, has grown increasingly critical of Latvian governments and their policies. A conservative Christian, he has called homosexuality a major threat to European civilization. He opposes abortion and claims a harmful, immoral “liberal” agenda is being forced on Latvia by some EU institutions and various projects financed by the Hungarian-born US philanthropist George Soros. His views may alienate him from many younger liberal-minded Latvians.

It remains to be seen whether the 1980s protestors like Mr. Rožkalns will take leadership of the movement to stop Latvia from taking in refugees or merely remain an icon and opinion leader recognized by older, conservative Latvians.

However, the far right — such as the small “National Power — Justice” movement, an organizer of both anti-migrant protests in Latvia — appears to have significant indirect influence on the more moderate nationalists in Latvia’s three party coalition government.

The early August protest, though marred by racist slogans, seems to have helped the National Alliance to get concessions from Ms. Straujuma, a member of the centrist Unity party. In order to avoid a rift that could bring down her three-party government, Ms. Straujuma promised to consult with Latvia’s 100-member parliament or Saeima before increasing the number of refugees above the 250 country was initially willing to take in.

When Mr. Juncker proposed a mandatory scheme that would distribute some 120 000 refugees from southern Europe to other EU countries, tensions in the coalition flared up again. It appeared Latvia would have to take an additional 526 asylum seekers.

This seemed to confirm the nationalists’ suspicions that 250 refugees were just opening a gap in the sluice gates that would pour thousands of migrants into a country of barely two million. The National Alliance refused to back Ms. Straujuma’s proposal that Latvia agree to voluntarily accept the additional refugees. Latvia was unable to present a position on the refugee issue at the September 14 meeting of EU justice and home affairs ministers.

Latvia’s President Raimonds Vējonis then intervened to pressure political parties to back Latvia’s national position — “voluntary” acceptance of an additional 526 asylum seekers — at the September 22 meeting of EU ministerial meeting. The ministers cut Latvia’s quota to a total of 531 persons.

Mr. Vējonis also handed the National Alliance a kind of victory with a September 16 executive order asking the government to draw up a plan for accommodating refugees in consultation with political parties, Latvian municipalities and non-governmental organizations and present it by the end of September. On September 29, government spokesmen told journalists that accommodating and “integrating” 531 asylum seekers would cost at least EUR 16 million.

In early July, Ms. Straujuma’s party and the third coalition member, the Green/Farmer’s Union, walked out of an extraordinary Saeima session called by the National Alliance and three opposition parties to ask that the government prepare and present a similar plan.

The National Alliance has also pushed ahead with legislation that would cede all authority to set asylum seeker quotas to the Saeima, removing it from the Cabinet of Ministers or executive branch of Latvia’s government. Latvia’s nationalists may still be a minority with single-digit support in voter opinion polls (the next parliamentary elections are in 2018) but they have so far successfully advanced their agenda of sealing Latvia off from “threatening” foreign inflows.

Juris Kaža

Written by

A freelance journalist based in Riga, Latvia who has covered the country and region for 20 years. Speak native Latvian and English, fluent Swedish and German.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade