Peer-reviewed articles The Communist Past. Party Formation and Elites in the Baltic States
Political development in the three Baltic countries has not been equal. The development of democracy and the degree of corruption depends, among other things – it is argued here – on how the resistance against the Soviet Union was organized.
Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds page 29-36, Vol II: III-IV, 2009
Published on balticworlds.com on februari 12, 2010
The three Baltic States are shining stars among the post-Soviet countries.1
Even though they are in the midst of severe economic crises, their record has been impressive. Credible observers have judged them democratically consolidated. Before 2008, their rate of economic growth exceeded six percent; they became EU and NATO members in 2004. The three states are thus exceptional among the Soviet Union’s successor states. The Baltic States are also exceptional when compared to the more exclusive, well-performing category of post-Communist states, such as Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic, all of which have recently suffered severe political crises. (Tallberg et al., 2009, chapter four) But this bright picture conceals a more dismal reality. There is a large gap, even abyss, between the three Baltic States, one that often goes unnoticed because of an exaggerated focus on democratic performance and economic growth. I am referring to the overly close ties between politics and business that exist in Latvia, and their negative effects on the Latvian state. Whereas Estonia, in particular, has managed to build state structures that are among the least corrupt — that is, least “exploited” (Grzymala–Busse, 2007) or “captured” (Kaufmann & Hellmann, 2003) — in the entire post-Communist group, Latvia’s state rates as both highly exploited and captured. In terms of exploitation, Lithuania, the third Baltic State, is much closer to Estonia than to Latvia, although the country has recently been plagued by several spectacular, high-level political scandals. Why has the Latvian state, in particular, developed such problematic features?
The purpose of this essay is to provide an answer. In my argument, I will try to show empirically that the advantageous formation of state and society during recent Communist decades (1960s–1980s) affected the identities of the political parties that dominated two of the three Baltic States’ early, formative governments. These identities, established in the first half of the 1990s, distinctly influenced these two republics’ choice of state-building strategies. Most importantly for the dynamics discussed here, two parties — Pro
Patria Union, which was the leading Estonian party during the early transition years of 1992–1995, and its Lithuanian counterpart, the reformed Communists in the Democratic Labor Party (LDLP/LDDP) — were clearly characterized by an identity as nationalistically oriented political actors. In this, they differed from Latvia’s leading party, Latvia’s Way (Latvijas Cels or LC), and in particular its predecessor Club 21, both of which had an identity as actors belonging to an all-embracing, progressive elite with integrative visions. To use terminology developed by Linz and Stepan (1996), Estonia and Lithuania harbored a well-developed vision of a distinct and separate political society. In Latvia, by contrast, the boundaries between political, economic and civil societies remained blurred (a token of a more post-totalitarian mentality). These divergent visions influenced choices concerning whether to separate or integrate political and economic power spheres in Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania, and had consequences for all three republics’ post-Communist state-building and political culture.
After the introduction of democratic institutions in the beginning of the 1990s, a widening gap has appeared in the quality of governance within the post-Communist region. This has had a grave impact on legitimacy, welfare and prosperity. (Ekiert & Hanson, 2003; Kornai, Rothstein & Rose–Ackerman, 2004) Most post-Soviet nations, but also post-Yugoslav ones, are characterized by weak states riddled with systematic and widespread corruption and low levels of rule-of-law. These problems have been explained in terms of particular historical experiences, cultural legacies, constitutional designs and policy choices.
It is not easy, however, to explain Latvia’s divergence from the other two Baltic States. The three have a good deal in common. All three share a history of once having enjoyed independent statehood (although Lithuania’s independence had lasted a good deal longer). All three have, after their independence in 1991, proven capable of sufficient democratization and reforms to qualify for admission to the European Union. Furthermore, all three harbor dominant traditions, derived from the Western cultural legacy, of Christianity and pluralism. During their transition phase, popular mobilization played a central role in all three, and they underwent similar development into parliamentary democracies (based, for the most part, on proportional representation; Lithuania being the exception, having opted for a mixed system). They are, consequently, characterized by multi-party systems.2 Politically, it is worth mentioning that all three strongly favor a liberal economy,3 an economy imposed during the political elites’ determined efforts to qualify for EU membership; membership was granted in May 2004. This cultural, structural and political resemblance between the three States makes the comparison all the more intriguing. Clearly, the particular problems that characterize Latvian state-building have been determined by specific factors not yet fully understood.
State exploitation and state capture
In 2000, the World Bank published “Anticorruption in Transition”. In this work, which focused on the former Communist states in particular, the Bank introduced an index measuring “state capture”. The index was based on a survey carried out among thousands of businesses and companies active in the region. The index was used to assess the degree to which companies believed that their country’s business sector ought, in general, to influence political institutions, using more or less corrupt practices to conduct their affairs. The Bank defined state capture as the illicit infiltration, by economic actors, of the heart of legislation, regulation, and political decision-making. These were broken down into six dimensions: parliaments, ministries, presidential offices, political parties, courts of law, and constitutional courts. Their infiltration by economic interests leads to biased agendas and inequality in influence. (Hellman & Kaufmann, 2002) The report showed that not only bribes but other methods, such as party financing and the purchase of parliamentary seats, were widely used by businesses in order to gain influence and control over politics. Furthermore, it showed that Estonia and Lithuania demonstrated relatively low levels of state capture. Latvia, by contrast, scored much higher, almost on par with Russia. In recent years, recurrent scandals in or close to the Lithuanian government and president’s office have shaken both the political elite and the Lithuanian public. The former president Rolandas Paskas was impeached and forced to leave office due to accusations of illegal connections with Russian business groups, connections channeled through his close adviser, the businessman Yurij Borisov. In 2006, Viktor Uspaskich, the leader of the most popular
Lithuanian party, was forced to step down due to accusations of illegalities in connection with EU funds, as well as dubious connections to Russia and questions concerning his own university credits. Even so, none of this led to systemic changes in, for example, party financing or the practices of business lobbyist. None-theless, the Bank’s report considered Latvia’s political institutions, and in particular Latvia’s parliament, ministries and political parties, to be still more thoroughly “captured” by economic interests. This report was followed by another one in 2002. (Hellman & Kaufmann)
Gryzmala-Busse (2007) has written an important book on the EU’s post-Communist states, in which she addresses another, interrelated aspect of state-building. Her index measures what she terms state exploitation, that is, the degree to which weakly developed control mechanisms and regulations allow ruling political parties to use state assets for their party’s benefit. This index measures three dimensions: (1) the timing of the establishment of state institutions for monitoring and oversight (audit offices, civil service laws, independent anti-corruption agencies), (2) the size of the state administration, and (3) the extent of party finance regulation. Among the nine post-Communist EU member states investigated (Romania is omitted as non-democratic), the index shows Hungary, Estonia and Slovenia to be the least exploited in terms of state exploitation (1.4–2.1 where 1 is the best), followed closely by Lithuania (2.4). At the other end of the scale we find Latvia (8.7), which has the highest score of any in the group — higher even than Bulgaria’s (8.3). (Gryzmala–Busse, 2007, p. 5) While the World Bank’s index of state capture measures the degree to which economic actors can use political parties to gain illegitimate influence over the state, the index of state exploitation shows how political parties can, once in power, use the state not for private gain but in order to strengthen their own party. Both indexes, finally, draw a sharp line between positive examples such as Estonia and Lithuania, on the one hand, and the negative development in Latvia, on the other.
Central in both indexes is the role played by political parties and party financing. It thus comes as no surprise that there has, for many years, been sharp concern in Latvian politics concerning overly close ties between major economic interests and political parties, as well as the profound problems that have arisen in relation to political parties’ financing. Studies have been done which show that Latvian politicians and government ministers themselves believe that public positions are being abused, and that in consequence external actors exercise a considerable, and problematic, influence over Latvian political institutions. (Nørgaard & Hersted Hansen, 2000, p. 36)
Latvia is, today, the only new post-Communist EU-member state that lacks legislation on state subsidies to political parties; its regulation of party finances is minimal. (Kopecky, 2008, p. 11) This is in contrast to Estonia, which introduced state subsidies in 1994 “with the aim of limiting the undue influence of other sources of financing”. (Sikk, 2008, p. 97) In Estonia, political parties have been increasingly regarded as public institutions; such is not the case in Latvia. There, private or corporate donations constitute over 85 percent of party finances (IDEA), and even though regulations regarding donations have been tightened, watchdogs such as Transparency International report that they are constantly bent, broken, or ignored. The Global Corruption Report pointed this out, again, in its 2008 report.
Latvian parties still rely on close connections with large economic interests to survive financially. Ideological positions or the size of the party’s parliamentary group do less to attract donations than does the party’s hold on governmental power positions or presidential office. (Ikstens, 2003, p. 148) Lobbying is quite unrestricted, and often depends on informal ties and pre-existing connections, or the “readiness to give bribes or illegal donations for political campaigns”. (Kalnins, 2004, p. 2) Kalnins’ investigation on lobbying in Latvia reveals, further, that both the lobbyists themselves and the parliamentary delegates sometimes talk about parties as if they were businesses. “The parties are compared to business, in which a certain level of profitability has to be maintained.” (p. 32)
It is of interest how this sponsorship is played out. Major business conglomerates and groups are closely intertwined with Latvian politics. There is, for instance, the oil-transit business centered in the port city of Ventspils, a city ruled, for many years, by the infamous and powerful mayor Aivars Lembergs (now standing trial for embezzlement, bribery, etc.); the Avelat food-processing industries, for many years associated with the politician and entrepreneur Andris Skele (the man who founded the People’s Party or TP); and the Skonto business group, which is controlled by a former KGB officer and which runs restaurants,
radio stations, and oil transit. The country’s three major political contributors consist of financial institutions such as banks and insurance companies, companies in the oil and chemical sector, and concerns within the food-processing industry. (Ikstens, 2003, p. 148) Many of these contribute to many different parties, thus “ensuring” themselves of political influence regardless of election outcomes.4 “In fact”, writes Nissinen, “all the strongest groupings, such as transit, give some money to everybody, even when they are primarily attached to one particular party”. (1999, p. 203)
This pattern was established early, and made all major parties dependent on business sponsors. This, in turn, discouraged the establishment of state subsidies for parties, for subsidies would diminish the political influence of business groups. It also weakened incentives for establishing monitoring institutions. “A majority of party leaders in fact confirmed the assumption that sponsors seek certain ‘interests’ from their investments in political parties. Eight out of eleven respondents admitted that potential sponsors frequently put forward suggestions or even demands of political and/or economic character.” (Ikstens, 2003) Party elites have come to regard themselves more as a political class, united in the defense of common interests, than as political rivals whose democratic duty it is to demand transparency and mutual criticism. Observers have, accordingly, characterized Latvian political parties as lobby groups for economic interests; “such claims are exaggerated, although they contain grains of truth and disclose something essential about the nature of the Latvian politics” (Nissinen, 1999, p. 203); or as “enmeshed in corrupt practices (of which the
public is well aware)”. (Pridham 2008, p. 378) The key to Latvia’s poor aggregate ratings is, it seems, clearly — whether one terms the problem state capture or state exploitation — the far too close, informal and unregulated connections existing between parties and business, a form of private party-financing which has produced a strong dependency on sponsors.
Latvia stands out as the “bad guy”. The rest of this essay will to try to understand why. This investigation will first take us back to the decades of Communist rule, a period many prefer to forget, and then to the first, formative, years of independence, when the three Baltic states had governments dominated by very different political parties, something which shaped their future trajectories.
Communist Past: State and Society Formation
Experiences of the Communist period varied considerably between the three Baltic States. To be sure, Soviet occupation put its mark on each in decisive and sometimes similar ways, transforming them from independent states with private-property regimes into Soviet Union republics with planned economies. But while the surface might have shown policies promoting convergence, the reality was characterized by major dissimilarities. The three local (republican) Communist parties developed in different directions during the important decades following the first ten years after the second occupation by the Red Army in 1944.
(cf. Kaplan, 1988)
After Stalin’s death in 1953, there began a slow and cautious re-emergence of national cultures. This affected the internal organization of local Communist parties. “In this”, Misiunas and Taagepera write, “the Latvian regime proved least successful” (1993, p. 131) — that is, least able to incorporate nationalist elements. The environmental protests that began in 1986/87 are often taken as a point of departure in discussions on the role played by the Baltic States’ civil societies in bringing an end to the Soviet empire. (Misiunas & Taagepera, 1993) But differences between the three states regarding the extent to which unofficial groups and networks had however mildly or unsuccessfully — challenged the regime before the 1980s, are also significant. In the late 1960s, in particular, national dissent that had been “largely dormant in the 1950s and first half of the 1960s was soon to intensify“. (Parming, 1977, p. 24) There were occasional protests, demonstrations and manifestations in all three republics; the most well-known are the Kaunas riots in 1972, the 1979 protests among Estonian and Lithuanian students against what was perceived as the Russification of education, and the protests inspired by Polish events in 1980 and 1981 in Tallinn, Tartu, and Vilnius. It has been calculated that between 1966 and 1977, nineteen percent of protests in the Soviet Union as a whole were located in the Baltic States (most of these in Estonia and Lithuania), although the Baltic republics made up less than two percent of the total population. (Alexiev, 1983, p. 34) It is also well known that Lithuania’s Catholic Church was the most widespread, active underground movement in the entire Soviet Union, articulating resistance in religious terms.
However, I would argue that of the three Baltic States, only Estonia evolved a civil (and civic) society — that is, clearly organized networks with overt cultural, historical, and nationalistic aims, formed in, and surviving, the 1960s. (cf. Ruutsoo, 2002, pp. 110–116) In Estonia, as in the Soviet Union’s more open, Central European satellite states (e.g., Hungary, Poland, and Slovenia), a stubborn social network evolved, constituted by a society of elite clubs and loose groups formed around cultural and nationalistic ambitions. This was to be tremendously important during transition. One indicator of intense cultural — not just religious — resistance to occupation and Russification is the level of Russian-language proficiency in the three republics. Between 1970 and 1979, fluency decreased in Estonia from an already low rate of 27.8 percent to 23.3 percent, while in both Latvia and Lithuania the development was reversed. Fluency increased in Latvia from 46.2 to 59.6 percent and in Lithuania from 35 to 52.4 percent. (Misiunas, 1990, p. 209)
One can trace the beginnings of Latvia’s unfortunate divergence to the 1950s. The experiences of the 1950s would affect Latvia for decades to come. Towards the end of the decade, the Latvian Communist Party, under the leadership of homegrown Communist Eduards Berklãvs, attempted to transform itself into a more nationalistically oriented party. This strategy involved including more native Latvians in top party positions and increasing the use of the Latvian language. (Levits, 1990, pp. 60–61) This, however, brought on a severe, far-reaching purge in 1959. (Levits, 1990, p. 61; Silde, 1990, p. 73; but cf. Prigge, 2004) Berklãvs was imprisoned, and the purge, which continued until 1962, marked the definite end of a Latvian Communist party with local roots. Signs of Latvian nationalism were usually severely repressed. (cf. Karklins, 1990, p. 49; Misiunas, 1990; Misiunas & Taagepera, 1993, p. 146; Steen, 1997)5. The new wave of anti-nationalism initiated from Moscow in the beginning of the 1960s was “most severe by far in Latvia”. In Riga, for instance, 5,000 students were forced to stay on in school for an extra year because they showed unsatisfactory knowledge of Russian. (Misiunas, 1990, p. 208) The period of political and social stagnation lasted from the early 1960s to the mid-1980s — a period Levits characterizes with the term “immobilism”. Until 1986 and the opening-up of the party structures in accordance with centrally initiated perestroika policies, the Latvian Communist Party remained tightly controlled, closed, and repressive.
Did Latvia have a civil society? “No; I, at least, did not know of any. Now there are a lot of people who say that they were in such groups, which is not true. Helsinki was one such group and the Greens in 1986. And that is it.” (Author interview with Edvins Inkens) As in most Communist societies, discussions always occurred around the “kitchen table”, but this can hardly be categorized as a public space or Öffentlichkeit. Eglitis’ work on Latvian social movements refers to a “folk-lore movement“ which developed in Latvia in the late 1970s. This movement, however, seems quickly to have died out, killed by the growing repression of the early 1980s. (Eglitis, 1998, p. 12) Levits mentions a cultural elite, actively seeking to articulate national identity (1991, p. 61), but there are few traces of organized networks or friendship circles. Two organized opposition groups, emerging around 1975, should, however, be mentioned: the Latvian Independence Movement and the Latvian Democratic Youth Committee. Nevertheless, all informed scholars writing on the dissent and social opposition of the 1970s draw the conclusion that there was a distinct difference between Estonia and Latvia. Latvians are perceived as passive, “much more quiescent than people in either Estonia or Lithuania” (Alexiev, 1983, vi), even “resigned and socially demoralized” 6: “Latvians allegedly perceive further group resistance to pressures from the USSR leadership and their general Russification to be impossible.” (Parming, 1977, p. 26) The Latvian Communist Party was repressive of indigenous movements, which helps explain the absence, before the mid-1980s, of even minor attempts to mount “soft” resistance. The risks associated with such activities, however innocent they may have appeared, were — as many confess today — simply too great. “The degree of collaboration was amazing”, recalls Razuks, “it was a very dangerous thing to fight and resist Communist ideology.” (Interview with Razuks)
The repressive nature of Latvia’s Communist Party helps explain the difference between Latvian and Estonian resistance. One can also find historical and structural explanations for Estonia’s greater capacity to resist Russification and occupation. Earlier, for instance, Tartu University had served the cultural and educational needs of both Estonia and Latvia. The borders created in 1918, which defined the two as independent states, rendered Tartu University exclusively Estonian. Although Latvia established a new university in Riga, it still lost the important influence of a centuries-old humanistic academic tradition. 20th-century Estonians, by contrast, benefited from a “stronger cultural infrastructure”. (Parming, 1977, p. 43) Estonia also had the advantage of a large exile community in neighboring Sweden; it was, further, favorably placed (not least linguistically) in its proximity to Finland. As a result, Latvians’ “eponymous nationality is in a relatively weaker position than either the Estonians’ or Lithuanians’“. (Parming, 1977, p. 47) However, a further and important reason for Latvia’s relative lack of cultural infrastructure may well have been the weakness of Latvian ethnic identity. Estonians and Lithuanians are relatively homogenous ethnic groups. In Latvia, there are much stronger regionally based cultures — something that also left its traces on the republic’s interwar party politics.
With the coming of perestroika in the mid-1980s, a movement introduced by a new and more progressive Communist Party leadership, Latvia’s situation changed rapidly. In 1986, social initiatives led to the organization of a club for the protection of the environment — the Vides Aizsardzibas Klubs (VAK). (Trapans, 1991, p. 28) The club’s founders were primarily biologists, among them Indulis Emsis (who was, much later, to become one of Latvia’s many prime ministers). (Thomson, 1992, p. 175)7 This club is often cited as the first real expression of collectively organized activity outside the Communist party. “1986 was the first moment of openness here in Latvia.” (Interview with Gavars) An open-minded journal, Literatüra un Maksla, was founded in 1985. This was followed, in 1987, by additional initiatives, some of them co-ordinated with those of the other Baltic republics. These included a language festival in Riga, the first of its kind in the USSR (national languages were a very sensitive issue for the Soviet Union). (Misiunas, 1990, p. 214) The new era was most truly launched with the foundation of Tautas Fronte, the Latvian Popular Front, in October 1988. The Front brought together individuals of all convictions, almost intoxicated by their new freedom and the new opportunity for collective action.
What about the Latvian intelligentsia? Humanistic intellectuals did not play a crucial role, due, perhaps, to Latvia’s distance from Tartu University and its focus on humanities, philosophy and linguistics. The humanists’ place was taken by natural scientists, engineers and to a certain extent journalists. These were the intellectuals who were most visible in what, during the late 1980s, quickly developed into a civil arena. This is an interesting factor, and one which, as we shall see, sets Latvia apart from Estonia and Lithuania: the humanities and social sciences, which are academic disciplines less easy to control than the “harder” sciences, were underdeveloped in heavily repressed Latvia.
Moscow never challenged the Lithuanian Communist party (LiCP) during the decades following Stalin’s death. Under the leadership of the strategy-conscious and popular native Communist Antanas Snieckus, the party was, in fact, the most successful of the three Baltic Communist parties in creating a structure dominated by Lithuanians and in successfully (at least in relative terms) promoting what were perceived as native Lithuanian interests: “The stability of the top party and government personnel appears remarkable by Soviet standards.” (Misiunas & Taagepera, 1993, p. 146) The leadership of the LiCP remained, for the most part, in the hands of ethnic Lithuanians, who played their cards well. In 1971, 78 percent of Central Committee members were natives — that is, Lithuanians — compared to the Estonian Central Committee’s 80 percent natives and the Latvian’s low of 42 percent.
The same ratios apply to Communist party members. In Lithuania, ethnic Lithuanians made up 67.1 percent of party members, compared to 52.3 percent ethnic Estonians for the Estonian party and around 40 percent ethnic Latvians for the Latvian. (Parming, 1977, pp. 51–52) During what must have been complicated and at times stressful negotiations, the Moscow Central Committee acknowledged that Lithuanian leaders were behaving cleverly. As a result, local Lithuanian interests occupied a high place on the agenda. In Lithuania, moreover, the native language enjoyed a stronger position than it did in the neighboring republics, and economic conditions were in certain respects better.
During the period of transition that started in 1987, the LiCP played a crucial role in two important ways. First, parts of the Communist leadership established early and close ties with the Lithuanian Popular Front Sajudis and its “initiative group’” (for example Ceslovas Jursenas and Bruno Genzelis). In practice, Sajudis and the LiCP — that is, the national and the Communist Party — were to overlap and collaborate in a way that was unique among the three republics. There was a Sajudis-friendly group within the Communist Party which supported demands for Lithuanian independence at a quite early stage. In a crucial manifestation of loyalty to the national cause, the First Secretary of the LiCP, Algirdas Brauzauskas (later democratic Lithuania’s popular president and prime minister) openly declared his support for Sajudis’ demands for Lithuanian independence during the tense Moscow Supreme Council meeting of 1989.
Following a period of increased internal party tension, caused by the rapidly accelerating popular success of Sajudis, the LiCP reached a crucial point in December 1989 when it split in two. The faction associated with Sajudis walked out. It separated itself from Moscow, in order to strive more openly for Lithuanian independence. The Moscow-loyal, so-called “platform” Communists remained in the LiCP, making increasingly desperate attempt to save the Soviet Union and their party’s dominance. “With regard to domestic Soviet life, the separation from the Soviet Communist Party in Moscow, this event can be regarded as significant as the fall of the Berlin Wall”, as one of the participants in these seminal events formulates it. Under the leadership of the popular First Secretary Algirdas Brauzauskas, Second Secretary Vladimir Berezov, and the well-known and respected so-called national Communists Justas Paleckis, Romualdos Ozolas, Bruno Genzelis, and Czeslovas Jursenas, the splinter “nationalist” Communist Party took a clear position in favor of sovereignty (although holding that it was to be achieved in a “pragmatic” manner). This was a bold and risky decision to make, at a time when nobody could clearly predict what would happen with the Soviet Union and how power relations would develop in the Lithuanian state.8 The stakes were high and “it was of course very risky”. This audacious step, in combination with the LiCP’s long-lasting history of moderation and national communism, provided the newly-reformed Communist party with much-needed credibility. In late 1990, the splinter Party changed its name to the Democratic Labor Party (LDDP), so as to manifest its democratic ambitions and its preparedness for democratic government. Meanwhile, the Sajudis party — which, at that point, dominated both the parliament (the Lithuanian Supreme Council) and the government — had begun to split into factions. This left the national Communists, the Democratic Labor Party, as the country’s major coherent political force.In Lithuania, societal resistance was primarily religion-based. The Catholic Church was strongly identified with Lithuanian identity. (Alexiev, 1983, p. 23) Two social forces, one underground and one official, articulated resistance towards the regime. In 1972, the Chronicle of the Lithuanian Catholic Church began to appear, distributed as an underground, samizdat publication. Three Catholic dissidents of the pre-war generation, among them Viktoras Petkus, had initiated this publication. In Lithuania, to a much greater extent than in Latvia or Estonia, religion was intertwined with and even seen as constituting national identity: “In Lithuania, religious issues evoke strong nationality responses, and religion is often used as a channel for expressing what essentially amounts to nationalist dissent.” (Parming, 1977, p. 26) Despite their great importance as a source of inspiration for the entire region during the Soviet era, however, there are few signs that Catholic resistance movements formed themselves into parties during the transition phase.
The other openly political oppositional force in Lithuania consisted of several small, unconnected networks of university students, united around social-democratic ideas formulated during the 1960s and 1970s.9 When the Lithuanian Social Democratic Party was officially re-established in 1989, these clandestine “streams” came together. However, the Lithuanian social democratic “movement” in no way equaled the extended, personally overlapping system of clubs that evolved (as we shall see) in Estonia.
For these reasons, the 1988 establishment of the Lithuanian Popular Front Sajudis marked something that was significantly new in the Lithuanian context, with few (if any) links back to earlier opposition or resistance initiatives. A vehicle for large-scale popular mobilization, Sajudis provided a shared ground for resistance and for the growing oppositional movement. Within the movement, a prominent university milieu came to play a distinctive role. Several of the 35 people who had taken the initiative of founding Sajudis — for example Alvyrdas Juozaitis, Bronislavas Kuzmickas, and Petrus Genzelis — had a background in philosophy.10 In both Lithuania and Estonia, indeed, the humanities — history, journalism, philosophy — constituted a major platform for resistance. Major public figures who took oppositional stances during the late 1980s, and went into politics in the early 1990s, brought with them humanism and an interest in values, moral issues, and historical patterns of development. That had an influence on Lithuanian and Estonian politics, which became more spiritual, idealistic and also, perhaps, less cynical than did Latvian politics. Early on, persons with strong nationalist sentiments, such as music professor Vytautas Landsbergis,11 joined Sajudis. His quick rise to a position of leadership was highly troubling to some circles, where he was regarded as a “climber” and a fundamentalist.12
Top positions in the Estonian Communist Party (ECP) were frequently held by Russian-born Estonians (so-called Istlased) loyal to Moscow. Their nick-name Istlased was based on the fact that the nomenklatura often spoke Estonian with a Russian accent, thus making them “Yestonians”. (Misiunas, 1990, p. 207) However, as mentioned above, ethnic Estonians dominated the top party structures (a factor which set the Estonian party apart from its Latvian counterpart). It is probable that Moscow, aware of Estonia’s historically rooted anti-Communism, had seen to it as early as 1949–1952 that the ECP was dominated by cadres loyal to the center. (Misiunas & Taagepera, 1993, p. 149; cf. Aarelaid–Tart, 2003, p. 72) Nevertheless, the party became, in time, increasingly “Estonian-inclined”. (Aarelaid–Tart, 2003; see also Ruutsoo, 2002) The de-Stalinization of the late 1950s and the “thaw” during the 1960s, for instance, allowed native Estonians to rise to leadership positions within the ECP. The crushing of the Prague Spring of 1968, however, “destroyed Estonians’ liberal illusions about the possibility of Communism in their home country having a human face” (Aarelaid–Tart, 2003, p. 73) for more than a decade to come. Nonetheless, again in contrast to Latvia, the Estonian Communist Party did not denounce nationalism; it was permitted “as long as its manifestations do not lead to active dissent in other areas of societal life”. This placed the Estonian and Latvian Communist parties at opposite poles when it came to tolerating expressions of nationalism. (Parming, 1977, p. 52) Although the ECP was not very popular in Estonian society, it clearly demonstrated far stronger liberal tendencies than did its Latvian counterpart.
Estonia differed greatly from the other two Baltic States in that a semi-autonomous social elite, composed of intellectuals, had begun to constitute itself during the Communist era. Neither Latvia nor Lithuania had any equivalent to Estonia’s many informal networks and clubs, either in scope or continuity. Estonia had a more extensive grass-roots society than Lithuania, one that had gathered the local intellectual elite in a veritable sub-society of clubs, groups and small associations. (Bennich–Björkman 2006, 2007) Not only did this club society give birth to numerous interconnected groups which revived constructions of Estonian history and national identity. It also engaged particular individuals who, when democratization started, had thus already acquired significant “organizational” experience, had already helped establish social networks and had already deliberated on national identity. (Bennich–Björkman & Likic–Broboric)
Some of these groups, such as the 1966 Estonian Democratic Movement and the Estonian National Front, articulated outright opposition to Communism and focused on Estonian independence. (Alexeiv, 1983, p. 35) Estonia’s club society, as it took form during the backlash following the 1970s Prague Spring, was much less overtly political. Elsewhere, I have described its members as engaging in “soft resistance”. (Bennich–Björkman, 2007) The most important thing affecting the democratic state-building that followed, however, was the fact that one of the major political parties in independent Estonia’s post-1991 politics — Pro Patria, later Isamaaliit (today Res Publica/Isamaaliit Union) — emerged directly from this club-based civil society. Its roots reach back to 1974 (at least); the party thus links civil society to politics. Since Pro Patria governed, in coalition, during 1992–1994, the formative years of Estonian state-building, Estonia’s club-based civil society is directly linked to Estonian party formation and state-building strategies.
Club Tõru (established in 1974) was officially initiated as part of a centrally launched, Communist party-sanctioned reading campaign.13 For over twelve years, it provided a meeting-place for intellectuals who wanted to discuss crucial topics of the day, educate themselves, and preserve Estonian culture and history. One of the leading figures was the young Trivimi Velliste, who would lead the Estonian Heritage Society movement in the late 1980s and, still later, serve as minister in Mart Laar’s first government.14 Meanwhile, in 1975, a home-town movement (Estonian: Kodulinn) was founded in Tallinn; its goal was to preserve and clean, as well as educate young students about, their home-town. Its initiator was a television journalist, Tiina Mägi. Kodulinn became an official organization coupled to the Komsomol, as was usual in those days.15 Mart Laar, who was to become both the leader of Pro Patria and, in 1992, the first prime minister of independent Estonia, was one of the Tallinn high-school boys engaged in preserving Tallinn’s buildings and monuments while increasing his knowledge of Estonia’s history. In 1978, he enrolled in the history department at Tartu University as one in the “class of 1978”.16 Shortly thereafter, a small informal network under the leadership of the three prominent history-class students began to form; both Mart Laar and Lauri Vahtre, who would later become prime-minister Laar’s adviser, were leading figures. Sharing strong anti-Communist sentiments,17 they formed Noor Tartu (English: Young Tartu), a movement modeled on Kodulinn. (Laar, 2002, p. 22) 18 Members of Noor Tartu often cleaned up old cemeteries and grave-stones, which was officially defined as community service; their simultaneous contribution to the re-conquest of Estonian history was more politically controversial.19 In contrast to both Tõru and Kodulinn, which had also engaged in community service, the leaders of Noor Tartu were clearly motivated by anti-Communist aspirations — despite the fact that Soviet power then seemed firm and steadfast, with perestroika lying years in the future.
Here, then, we see the first building blocks of a nationalist network that engaged in what should rightly be termed a mild form of regime resistance, played out in continuous, if tacit, negotiations between activists and authorities. (cf. Eglitis, 1998, p. 16) In 1986, after the beginning of perestroika, which officially permitted, even encouraged initiatives from outside the Communist party, and following in the footsteps of Kodulinn and Noor Tartu, the Estonian Heritage Society (Eesti Muinaskaitse Selts) was founded. Trivimi Velliste from Tõru played a leading role in this movement, which consisted of local sub-societies in small towns and cities, involved many thousands of participants, and fulfilled the purpose once launched by the hometown movements of restoring and re-conquering Estonian history and culture. The Heritage Society has been held to incorporate aspects resembling a political party. It definitely played an important role in the nationalist movement. (Misiunas & Taagepera, 1993, p. 314)20
Thus, parties such as the Estonian Rahvarinne (Popular Front), founded in June 1988 by the moderate Communist Edgar Savisaar, were not as qualitatively different from previous organizations as were their counterparts in Lithuania and Latvia. A form of civil society existed already in Estonia. As a result, Estonia’s Popular Front does not occupy the symbolic position in national history writing held by the other two states’ equivalent parties. Rahvarinne included liberal-minded Communists as well as non-partisans, but was quickly complemented by an alternative, nationalist and more outspokenly anti-Communist movement. The Citizen Committees attracted members from the nationalist networks of the 1970s and 1980s described above, and became intimately associated with Tunne Kelam, who had founded the 1988 Estonian National Independence Party. Out of this movement grew the Citizens’ Congress, which acted, in 1990–1992, as a parliamentary forum that functioned as an alternative to, and sometimes rival of, the Estonian Supreme Council. (Lauristin & Vihalemm, 1997, pp. 89–90).
The First Post-Independence Governments
The political parties that governed the three Baltic States in the first formative years after democratic elections differed profoundly. During this period, democratic states took form, and the identity and experience of the leading political forces became particularly important in molding the trajectories taken.
The first post-independence elections were in 1992 (Estonia and Lithuania) and 1993 (Latvia). While the parliamentary elections of the 1990s were dominated by the still-vibrant Popular Fronts, subsequent elections were characterized by the participation of a large number of (mostly) newly-formed or recently re-established21 political parties. These elections, although most often resulting in coalition governments, were dominated, in each country, by a single party — Pro Patria in Estonia, Latvia’s Way (Latvijas Cels) in Latvia and the Democratic Labor Party in Lithuania. Estonia’s Pro Patria received 28.7 percent of the country’s parliamentary seats, Latvia’s Way 36 percent, and Lithuania’s Democratic Labor Party 54 percent. (Kreutzer & Pettai, 1999) The nationalist movement was thus the winner in Estonia (although things might have turned out differently had Russian-speaking Estonians been allowed to vote; the victory might then have gone to the so-called Coalition Party, which drew together the so-called “red directors”). The Estonian Pro Patria party was founded in 1991, before the start of the election campaign. During the following two years, Pro Patria played — with the support of the nationalist Estonian National Independence Party (ENIP) and the Mõdukaads (a more or less social-democratic party) — a crucial role in leading Estonia’s transition to democracy and capitalism. Close friends and acquaintances from Noor Tartu and EÜS (the Estonian Student Association), such as Lauri Vahrtre, Jüri Luik, and Tiit Pruhli, formed Laar’s closest circle.22 Pro Patria’s leadership had clear ideas about “cleaning the place up” (a slogan from their pre-election campaign). This was to be done by breaking old nomenklatura ties and establishing clear divisions between business, politics and bureaucracy. Because its members consisted to such a great degree of intellectuals, students and academics, the party neither had nor established close contacts with business circles. If anything, the party honored principles of morality and non-corruption.
In Lithuania, the Democratic Labor Party (LDLP/LDDP) won a landslide victory in the 1992 elections. Under the leadership of the highly popular Algirdas Brauzauskas, and with the support of the former Sajudis wing of pragmatists, now gathered in the Forum for the Future,23 it was actually possible for this reformed Communist Party to return to power and completely wipe the popular front party Sajudis from the political scene.
Brauzauskas was a pragmatist, but he was also a liberal reformer and a politician who had supported Lithuanian independence. When it came to financial assets and organizational experience, the Democratic Labor Party obviously had substantial means at its disposal, greater than any other actor’s. But the party had, besides, a history of moderation and support for Lithuanian aspirations. It had reinforced its identity as a risk-taker in its fight for Lithuanian independence. All this made it well equipped for the task of governing the new state during its first four years of turbulence, privatizations, and unsettled power conditions. There is nothing to suggest that the Democratic Labor Party, despite its roots in the Lithuanian Communist Party, entertained close ties with business circles or with the nomenklatura. This may seem surprising; but it can be explained by the fact that the core group broke with the mother party in 1989, and shortly thereafter established itself as a separate party.
Contrast the two cases, described above, with that of Latvia. Latvia’s Way, the party that was formed in 1992, did not derive from pre-existing resistance groups or networks, or even from the reformist wing of a moderate Communist Party. Early in the process of party formation, close ties between politicians, businessmen, and intellectuals were established, so as to “integrate” Latvian society — as well as secure party financing. One finds tendencies, very early in the party’s history, of businessmen using personal contacts and friendships in the Latvia’s Way party to lobby for particular interests. Thus, the first steps were taken on a road that would develop into a systemic pattern of what is, often, corruption — or at least highly disputed ties and types of lobbying. To understand the difficulties Latvia’s Way’s faced as ruling party during these politically formative years, we should take a closer look at the party’s background and formative circumstances.
Latvia’s Way as Elite Party
Latvia’s Way has its roots in 1990–1993, the years of the reign of the Supreme Council, much like several other Latvian parties. It constituted itself as a political party only after the elections. This did not stop it from gaining, and keeping, government power. It ruled for nine years (always in coalition with other parties). The call to form a party that would, as its founders put it, be “modern and European” but simultaneously capable of integrating with Latvian society, was first formulated by a number of deputies linked to the Supreme Council’s Economic Commission and the Commission for Foreign Affairs. The first step was to set up a political club — the so-called Club 21.24 The Club’s declared goal was to integrate society, that is, to avoid the exclusion of groups or individuals. Given Latvia’s particular demographic situation, and the resultant rapid politicization of citizenship issues, the Club’s goal was tied, first and foremost, to issues of ethnic integration. A modern party, its founders believed, should espouse ethnic diversity, pluralism and tolerance. Basically, the Club served three purposes. First, it offered an arena in which a new and integrative network, the basis for a modern, Western, open party, could grow. In Estonia, this type of integrative network had already begun to form in the 1970s; it later provided the basis for Pro Patria. In Latvia, such a network had to be deliberately created by a political club, one that invited “progressive” political actors to meet each other behind closed doors. “The people invited to the Club were like-minded people: tolerance, democracy, market economy”, as Valdis Birkavs puts it.
Second, and equally significantly, Club 21 had the crucial task of providing basic input regarding Western ideas and experiences on democratic, economic, and administrative issues. In short, it was through Club 21 that those who were to form Latvia’s modern and progressive party gained insights into modern statecraft, as provided by the foreign experts invited to Club 21. The Club provided informal settings, where liberal reformers, committed individuals who were genuinely working for social change, could freely discuss their ideas. Third, Club 21 served as a national think-tank, gathering together like-minded, liberal and Western-oriented people to discuss alternatives for Latvian political and economic development.
Club 21 rested on three social pillars: politicians, intelligentsia, and last but not least, businessmen — that is, Latvia’s (new) economic entrepreneurs; in short, the elite. All, it was thought, supported the development of a liberal European state and society. Politicians formed the core of Club 21. People from the cultural field, the “intelligentsia”, were invited because they enjoyed a high reputation in Latvia. The decision to include economic entrepreneurs in the Club’s basic membership had major consequences for Latvia’s future political development. It opened up direct avenues for entrepreneurial influence on Latvia’s Way — a pattern that, as privatization accelerated, soon spread to other parties and, consequently, to Latvia’s political institutions. Entrepreneurs not only exerted economic influence; they could also exploit personal ties of loyalty and friendship in demanding favorable treatment from ministers and others. (cf. Nørgaard & Hersted Hansen, 2000)
As the first euphoric feelings of independence started to fade, idealistic motivations and the sense of working for a common cause gave way to more egoistic ambitions. Meanwhile, Latvian economic entrepreneurs increased their strength and power. They were already, so to speak, “inside” political power centers:
Businessmen started to create a lobby, always, in Club 21. Prime ministers, Godmanis, then Gorbunovs, etc., came to the Club — businessmen who wanted to use this opportunity to lobby for themselves, not for the interests of the Club. In the beginning, I had control over the businessmen, but they wanted to lobby for themselves. (Interview with founder Krumins)
Why were the economic entrepreneurs, Latvia’s new businessmen, invited to a club whose declared purpose was to create a winning political party capable of building the Latvian state? According to Janis Krumins and Indulis Berzins, they were brought in to garner support for projects and for the future party.26 But equally crucially, they were considered part of the new Latvia’s future elite — a Latvia that would not require boundaries between power spheres. “Then of course, the people who got started in business, the new capitalists, were in many ways our compatriots in many things.” (Interview with Pantalejevs) It was, after all, a liberal party, and it seemed natural “to involve not only politically active but economically active people. To LC (Latvia’s Way) came many businessmen and so on and politically active young people — the best to my mind”. (Interview with Vaivads) Edvins Inkens clearly articulates the vision of a Latvia functioning with a single, united elite: “I do not see it as possible to create two elites, because we are such a small society. This fact has had many adverse consequences. This is a very good society — for those who use contacts for their own personal benefit.” (Interview with Inkens)
When the party Latvia’s Way was established, finally, in September 1993, Club 21 was its most important base. The core of the party consisted of members of the club: Indulis Berzins, Valdis Birkavs, Mãris Gailis, Anatolijs Gorbunovs and Ojars Kehris were among those prominent club participants who later held powerful positions in the party and in government.27 Thus, the network established by Club 21 constructed, very early, the close ties between politics and economics that characterize the Latvian party sphere. Some prominent participants were uneasy about this development. (Interview with Meierovich) Once a pattern had been established, during Latvia’s politically constitutive phase, that “allowed” ties between the leading political party and Latvian business interests, such ties became endemic to Latvian political life, and contributed to the aggravation of the problems that are measured, today, in terms of state capture and state exploitation.
One can cite an additional, telling example that illustrates the rather astonishing absence, in Latvia, of a concept of political society as a delimited power sphere: the choice of the non-partisan entrepreneur Andris Skele as prime minister, brought in to solve Latvia’s 1995 government crises. After prolonged negotiations between different coalition partners and two failed attempts by Maris Grinblats (TB) and Cevers (Saimneks) to form a government, a so-called rainbow coalition was put together, consisting of six parties: Latvia’s Way, TB, LNNK, the Farmers’ Union, the Unity Party and Saimneks. Unable to reach an agreement on a partisan candidate for prime minister, the parties compromised by choosing Andris Skele. (Nissinen, 1999, p. 194) Skele was, at the time, no party politician; but he was already one of Latvia’s leading business entrepreneurs, a position he would reinforce in the years to come. Appointing Skele head of government at a time of large-scale privatization sowed uncertainty in Latvia’s growing business community. It was, many politicians believe, a mistake: “We made a mistake when we agreed on a non-partisan prime minister” (interview with Birkavs), “we invited in Skele as prime minister and that was a mistake” (interview with Gailis).
His appointment helped change the rules of the political game in Latvia, because “he was the first politician to make money using state resources.” (Interview with Inkens) The problem with him was “his business connections, that he was an entrepreneur”. (Interview with Repse)
Other economic actors felt compelled to augment their own political contacts and opportunities to exert influence. Many — for instance, Parex Bank — sought to insure themselves politically by sponsoring many parties at a time. Skele’s skeptical attitude towards political parties (although he did create the People’s Party in 1998) had a further, seriously negative effect on Latvian political culture. (Interview with Birkavs)
Choosing to base Latvia’s leading political party on the progressive elite (including not only civil society and entrepreneurs, but exile groups as well) and the 1995 appointment of a non-partisan entrepreneur to the office of prime minister were, I have argued, policies that derived, to a great extent, from the lack of any clear idea about the necessary autonomy of political society in democratic politics. Instead, the initiators of Latvia’s Way — most of them liberal, tolerant, well-intended reformers — carried over an unproblematized, Communist notion that the state should be governed by an integrated elite. In that sense, even though Latvia’s Way (founded on Club 21) was a liberal party, its leaders were still overly influenced by Soviet concepts of the state. The apparent dangers with this approach in a system where money has started to “rule” did not become apparent until the pattern of economic-political ties had already been cemented — a pattern which has proven very tenacious.
The fact that Latvia’s liberal reformers, working during the 1990s, intuitively espoused the Communist-derived concept of an integrated elite, rather than that of separate spheres of power, can thus be explained by elements in Latvia’s history. The most important of these is made up of absences: the absence of civil society in pre-transition Latvia and the absence of reformist factions within Latvia’s Communist Party. The liberal reformers had, to put it simply, too few democratic ideas and visions upon which to draw; too few resistance movements, too few attempts to create an alternative or oppositional path. This meant, in turn, a paucity of both the visions and democratic identity needed to provide models for what democratic political actors should be and do. A comparison, in particular, between Latvia and Estonia, shows how civil initiatives taken during authoritarian rule can make a real difference when it comes to subsequent, positive change — in this case, in promoting democratic state-building. Ideas, networks and identities need time to take shape and mature, and that is why, even though a committed liberal party did form in Latvia, it lacked a profound, much-needed identity as a political actor. ≈
- The following persons deserve gratitude for their assistance, translation, and comments: Aili Aarelaid-Tart, Daina Bara, Kristine Bruvere, Astrid Hedin, George Kolankiewicz, Lorija Lietaviete, Irmina Mytonaite, Vello Pettai, Ilona Raugze, Georg Sootla, Jurga Valanciutete, Raivo Vetik, as well as an anonymous reviewer. The research was made possible by a grant from the Bank of Sweden Tercentenary Foundation.
- Lithuania initially introduced a mixed system of proportional and majority voting; its Constitution was meant to create a stronger presidency than provided for by the other two states.
- It has been correctly pointed out that of the three, Estonia was a forerunner; its economy was the first to be thoroughly liberalized, using shock-therapy tactics. Latvia and Lithuania have, however, not lagged far behind.
- However, there is a tendency, over time, for specific parties to become attached to single sponsors — e.g., the Greens and Farmer’s Union to Ventspils and Lembergs, the People’s Party to Skele (who also founded and led the party in the late 1990s).
- Juris Dreifelds, cited in Parming, 1977, p. 26.
- Interview with Indulis Emsis, Riga, 2003-10-20.
- Interviews with Justas Paleckis, 2004-06-15, Vilnius; Czeslovas Jursenas, 2004-06-17, Vilnius;Vladimir Berozov, 2004-09-16, Vilnius; Antanas Beinara-Vicius, Vilnius 2004-09-15 — all belonging to the faction within the LiCP that broke with Moscow.
- Interview with Dobelis Kirvelis, Vilnius, 2005-02-03.
- Interviews with Arvyrdas Juozaitis, Vilnius, 2004-03-09; Petrus Genzelis, Vilnius, 2004-03-09; Bronizlavas Kuzmickas, Vilnius, 2004-03-10.
- Interview with Vytautas Landsbergis, Vilnius, 2004-06-20.
- Interview with Vytautas Petkevicius, Vilnius, 2005-02-02, who holds the provocative view that Landsbergis betrayed the original ideas of Sajudis, and was an infiltrator working for Russian interests.
- The “book-lovers’” campaign, launched by Moscow in 1974, provided the constituting group with an official but welcome roof under which to meet. Interviews with founders Trivimi Velliste, 2004-02-20; Toivo Palm, 2004-09-03.
- Personal information, anonymous referee. During the 1960s, informal society was, it has been claimed, fairly vibrant; the authorities were more open during this period.
- Interview with founder Tiina Mägi, Tallinn 2004-09-03.
- The studies were organized as programs, in which the students followed a five-year curriculum. While there was minimal freedom of choice, and individual deviance was minimal, the program structure did mean that students became closely knit.
- The name “Noor Tartu” deliberately alluded to the Estonian nationalistic movement in the late nineteenth century, Noor Eesti.
- Interviews have been conducted with all three leading figures, as well as several participants, in order to deepen and nuance the picture of Noor Tartu. Madis Kanabik, Tartu, 2004-02-19; Kärt Jenes-Kapp, Tallinn, 2004-02-22; Mart Kalm, 2004-09-27; Rünno Vissak, Tartu, 2004-02-19; Eero Medijainen, Tartu, 2004-02-19.
- Interview with Marju Lauristin, 2001-03-01. — Laar writes in his memoirs that the movement “rief zu einem neuen nationalen Erwachen auf” (2002, p. 28).
- When I use the term “re-established”, I mean that these parties had existed, before, in the independent, inter-war Baltic states (cf. Lewis, 2000, chapter 2).
- Interview with Hain Rebas, 2004-08-30, Gothenburg, minister of Estonian defence 1992–1993.
- Interview with Alvyrdas Juozaitis, Vilnius, 2004-03-10; Kazimiera Prunskiene, Vilnius, 2004-03-10.
- Interviews with Janis Krumins, Riga, 2001-10-17, 2003-10-24; Indulis Berzins, Copenhagen, 2004-01-28; Andrejevs Pantalejevs, Riga, 2003-10-21; Janis Vaivads, Riga, 2004-08-19; Mailis Gailis, Riga, 2000-10-23; Ojars Kehtris, Riga, 2004-08-18; Valdis Birkavs, Riga, 2001-10-18. (For information on Club 21 and the formation of LC.)
- Interview with Valdis Birkavs, prime minister 1993-1994, chairman of LC, Riga 2001-10-18.
- Interview with Krumins, Riga 2001-10-17.
- Personal information via fax from Andris Berzins (LC), former prime minister, on LC persons also active in Club 21.
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