Submitted by Olga Springe, Latvian political analyst…
On may 25th EU citizens will elect their representatives to the European Parliament (EP) in Brussels for the next five years.
From the perspective of Latvian society, EP elections don’t hold any significant value, but they are seen as a valuable public relations tool for Latvia’s many political parties. Most of Latvian parties are dedicated to get at least one member in to the EP, but for one specific party this year’s election seems to be not just a simple PR tool, but rather a matter of life and death.
Latvia’s most popular political power “Concord” (previously known as “Harmony”) has gotten in to some serious legal trouble and the fate of their leaders is at stake. For “Concord’s” leadership this year’s EP elections will be not just about their political wellbeing – but also physical.
For the last 9 years Latvia’s capital and largest city in the Baltic States – Riga – was in the hands of “Concords” most popular politician Nils Usakovs. The Party was extremely popular among Riga’s predominantly Russian speaking population, as they saw no alternatives in Latvia’s political scene which is dominated by ethnic Latvian nationalists.
In fact “Concord” would have secured their power in Riga for at least 2 more years, but unfortunately for them, last couple of months has been a total PR disaster for Usakovs and his team. The Party’s political leadership has been involved in a massive corruption scandal and is losing their followers day by day. At this point “Concords” future is hazy, to say the least.
Firstly, the previously pro-russian party started to dabble with Latvian nationalists and advocated for a more close relations with the United States (which was quite unpopular decision among ethnic Russians). In fact Nils Usakovs had visited Washington in 2017 where he met with anti-russian senator and a well know “American hawk” John McCain. Furthermore Usakovs and his team dismissed Latvia’s Russian population’s protests against the school reform and assimilation of Russian children, calling it a “circus”. “Concord’s” core electorate saw it as a betrayal of their interests and party slowly began to lose its popularity.
Secondly, Anti-corruption Agency of Latvia (KNAB) in this year alone has started “a sea” of investigations aimed at the top politicians and civil servants connected to Usakovs and his party “Concord”. Many of Riga’s municipal enterprises which were controlled by people affiliated with “Concord” (such as “Rigas Satiksme” – main public transportation service in the capital city or Riga’s Tourism Development Agency, which was used to finance “Concords” election campaign in 2018) are suspected in heavy cases of corruption and squandering.
Thirdly, Riga’s infrastructure, especially streets and bridges, in the beginning of the year were revealed to be in a dire condition. As frantic renovation work started, traffic jams became an unpleasant part for everyday life of Riga’s residents. In most cases locals were assured – cities troubles lay on its corrupt mayors and ruling party’s shoulders. The ground under “Concords” feet is shaking and party’s leaders fear for the worst – actual charges and arrests for their crimes of corruption.
As “Concords” positions weaken, the political status quo in Latvia is changing. There is no doubt, that the ruling nationalists will use every possibility to further sway Riga’s population against Usakovs and pull legal strings to get him behind the bars.
Knowing that, Usakovs decided to step down from his office and announced that he will be running for the upcoming EP elections in May. The Party’s previous candidate – a well known politician Vyaceslavs Dombrovskis – was put aside and Usakovs confidently took his place.
It seems that at this point Usakovs is left with only two options for his political career – either to stay in Riga and be imprisoned for his part in various corruption schemes, or run off to the Brussels and hide behind the immunity that is given to EU’s Members of Parliament. It is clear that Riga’s former mayor has chosen wisely and is most likely packing his bags for Brussels at this very moment.