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1 April, 2011

Europe’s minority parties: What manner of beast?

The surge of ethnically-based political parties in Latvia and even more so Lithuania requires our attention and a look at the reasons that might be behind this phenomenon

The first might be based on conventional reasoning and draw our attention to the Kremlin and its strategies. And why not?

That Russia has repeatedly launched massive media and psychological attacks against the various Baltic States is a public secret. Just take a closer look at the Lithuanian media and their sources of financing for a reality check. This is a wake-up call to remind us of how Russian capital took over some of the most influential dailies and magazines in one EU country.

Yet it would be simplistic to refer to Russia’s financial and economic clout as the only factor to explain—or explain away—the rise of Russian and Polish minority parties in Lithuania’s last municipal elections. In fact, this trend signals the arrival of a new phase in Baltic politics. Indeed, this tendency can be seen throughout the EU: the EU is increasingly becoming a new political battleground among major, mainstream and—especially— marginal political parties.

A combination of waning political interest in the European Parliament and low turnout among national voters during EP elections is the best sign that small and marginal political parties could increase their chances to join the European club, gaining a new arena and a new playground for settling their national accounts and finishing their unfinished business at home.

The easiest way to confirm this is to recall some Members of the European Parliament from the Baltic States who do not hesitate to overtly lobby Russia’s strategic interests by organizing political seminars together with the Russian Embassy in Brussels or to advocate Russia’s human rights record—which is currently neck-and-neck with that of China and Iran over who is second to North Korea as a hell on earth for human rights defenders, dissenters, and conscientious citizens.

I’ll never forget a telling episode from the European Parliament that best exposes the contrast between Russia’s human rights defenders and the Kremlin’s advocates from the Baltic States. I participated in hearings on Russia’s human rights abuse record, to which the great, incomparable Sergei Kovalev was invited. After the official hearings, we had a seminar where we continued our discussions, focusing on a number of well-known individual cases. What happened then was an intervention that deserves to be quoted and thoroughly analyzed by posterity.

A colleague from Latvia expressed her dissatisfaction with the hearings, suggesting that Russia should not be singled out on the grounds of its violations of human rights, and that the participants needed to pay more attention to violations of human rights in the Baltic States, especially in Latvia where, according to this MEP, the Russian-speaking minority was increasingly being persecuted, offended and deprived of its dignity.

Mr. Kovalev rose immediately in response. He commented on this pearl of political wisdom in his usual calm, deep voice. “No state on earth is ever going to be perfect,” he said. “But to compare and even equate a normal, albeit imperfect, state with present-day Russia is profoundly immoral.” I could hardly have added anything to his words.

This could shed more light on what is happening in Latvia and Lithuania now, which has recently had a new surge in ethnically-based, mean-minded political parties. True, nobody is perfect—and this applies to all sides. I’ve said many times that I deeply deplore the fact that something like parallel societies or at least political communities exist in Latvia and Estonia because of the political alienation of some portion of the Russian-speaking minorities in these countries.

But whatever the faults of Latvian and Estonian politicians in integrating and including minorities in mainstream national politics and culture, this is not a reason to immediately start cooperating with forces deeply hostile to the Baltic States and their elites. It does not take much wisdom or political maturity to serve as the Kremlin’s Trojan horse in the Baltics because of local conflicts and animosities—especially when the “holy simplicity” of some of my West European colleagues in the EP leads them to portray the fifth column in the Baltic States as human rights activists.

On the other hand, it would be ludicrous to blame everything on the revival of ethnic parties. I will repeat myself on this: Yes, I regard the existence of ethnically-based political parties in EU countries as a profound misunderstanding, if not a political oddity, but the truth never entirely belongs to one side, either.

The success of the Polish-Russian alliance in Lithuania’s recent municipality elections—and the success of the Polish Elective Alliance in particular—can be partly explained by silly debates over whether or not Lithuanian Poles can use specific Polish characters to write their names in their passports, and partly by the narrow-mindedness and provincialism of certain Lithuanian politicians and MPs. Nobody’s perfect.

Whatever the case, the EU and its political institutions can and should become something incomparably more than just an extension of local clashes and partisan politics projected onto the European arena. Otherwise, Europe will find itself in a no-win situation.


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