Russia’s invasion of Ukraine sets backdrop for Latvia elections

VILNIUS, Oct. 1 (Reuters) – Latvians voted in a parliamentary election on Saturday, with opinion polls predicting Prime Minister Krisjanis Karins’ centre-right New Unity party will win the most votes, allowing him to continue his coalition with the conservative National Alliance.

A victory for Karins could widen a growing rift between Latvia’s majority and Latvia’s Russian-speaking minority over their place in society after the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

“I’m ready to remain prime minister, if that’s what people are saying,” Karins told reporters in Riga on Saturday.

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Polling stations close at 8pm (1700 GMT), with an exit poll immediately after. The results were expected by midnight (2100 GMT).

As the first Latvian head of government to survive a full four-year term, research shows Karins is benefiting from the country’s aggressive stance against Russia amid widespread national anger over Ukraine’s invasion.

The election campaign was dominated by questions of national identity and security concerns, while pressing issues such as rising energy costs and high inflation were largely brushed aside.

Karins told Reuters on Tuesday that he believes the war in Ukraine has consolidated his NATO and EU nation of 1.9 million. He said that if he were re-elected, he would integrate the Russian minority – a quarter of the population – by letting the country raise its children in the Latvian language.

“We focus all our attention on the youth, to ensure that no matter what language is spoken at home, the child grows up with all the benefits of knowing our language and culture,” he said.

Before Moscow invaded Ukraine on February 24, tens of thousands of Russian speakers in Latvia gathered around a monument in Riga every May 9 to commemorate the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany in World War II.

Their gatherings were banned after the invasion and the 84-meter-tall structure in the center of the capital was demolished by order of the government – which is dominated by ethnic Latvians and who would rather bury the memories of the land it contains from the former Soviet Union until 1991.

Popular TV broadcasts from Russia have been banned and the state language commission has proposed to rename a central street in Riga in memory of Russian poet Alexander Pushkin. Karins’ government has put forward plans to switch all education to Latvian and to quickly abolish education in Russian.

The social-democratic Harmony Party, traditionally supported by Latvia’s Russian-speaking minority, received 19.8% of the vote in the 2018 elections, becoming the largest opposition party in parliament. However, the latest polls showed 7.3% support for Harmony.

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Reporting by Andrius Sytas in Vilnius and Janis Laizans in Riga Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky and Frances Kerry

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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