Weekly News Update: September 17th - 23rd, 2018

Good afternoon everyone, and happy Sunday! If you're here in Latvia, we hope that you've been enjoying the record breaking heat over the past week, as summer gives one last gasp before the cold and rainy season. For those of you who don't like the heat, well... you're in luck, because it looks like autumn is finally here to stay. With the 2018 Saeima (parliament) election just under two weeks away, let's start with a brand new poll that was just released on Friday...

Delfi/"Kantar TNS" Poll: 38% still undecided

Source: Delfi

According to a poll released two days ago by news portal Delfi.lv and the Kantar TNS firm conducted in September, an overwhelming 38% of voters still have not made up their minds about who to vote days before the October 6th election. If the option "nezinu, grūti pateikt" (don't know, difficult to say) were a political party, it would have more seats in parliament than the three leading actual parties combined. This more than 1/3 of the population has remained more or less constant in the polls that have been conducted all year, and make predicting the actual election results difficult to impossible. That being said, there are still a few trends that are worth pointing out:
  • The traditionally Kremlin-friendly Saskaņa (Harmony) party has remained the #1 party in virtually every poll taken this year, and should remain the largest single party in Saeima as it has been since 2011, barring some sort of last minute shock.
  • Zaļo un zemnieku savienība (Union of Greens and Farmers, abbreviated as ZZS), the party of current Prime Minister Maris Kučinskis and President Raimonds Vējonis, has remained in second place in nearly all polls, although its lead above third place populist KPV LV party has continuously shrunk since Artuss Kaimiņš' upstart first shocked pollsters in a third place July finish. While a series of minor scandals and PR missteps hasn't led to the kind of complete collapse in support that obstensible coalition leader Vienotība has experienced, ZZS's footing is looking the shakiest that it has since the 2011 snap elections called by outgoing President Valdis Zatlers.
  • Speaking of KPV LV; by now, all remaining doubt anyone might have still had about the populist movement's viability should be completely erased. The only questions worth asking now are how many of the undecided voters will decide to break for Artuss Kaimiņš' and Aldis Gobzems' populist movement, and how the party will choose to wield its political influence. Unlike other major parties, KPV LV has refused to draw a "red line" against working with the traditionally Kremlin-friendly Saskaņa party, and instead has repeatedly stated that they will work with any party that is free of corruption and is committed to constitutional principles such as Latvian as the only state language (and language of instruction in public schools). While the election itself has been exciting enough, the real excitement should begin during negotiations to form the next governing coalition.
  • Aside from Saskaņa, ZZS, and KPV LV which have consistently ranked in the top three positions, there seem to be four parties that have a legitimate hope of clearing the 5% boundary for inclusion in Saeima, although how many of them will actually achieve this feat and how many seats they will receive in the end is anyone's guess. These parties include current coalition partners Nacionālā apvienība (National Alliance, abbreviated as NA) and Jaunā Vienotība (New Unity, abbreviated as JV), as well as upstart parties Jaunā konservatīva partija (The New Conservative Party, abbreviated as JKP) and Attistibai/Par! (Development/For!). While NA is a traditional nationalist party that focuses on issues such as use of Latvian language, JKP and Attistibai/Par are both centrist factions that have tried to capitalize on the stunning collapse of the Vienotība party (which has rebranded itself as Jaunā Vienotība for this election), and all three of the latter seem to be eating each others' lunches.
For more coverage of the election, check out our complete guide here. Also, make sure to like our Facebook page, as we will be providing minute-to-minute updates as the totals begin to roll in on election night on October 6th!

Source: Delfi

New "comptence-based" education standards adopted

Photo credit: Lexie Flickinger
Saeima (parliamant) has voted to adopt the new "competence based standards" developed by the Skola2030 program, which are intended to modernize Latvia"s education system and focus more on developing students' abilities rather than amounts of knowledge. Other changes in the sweeping bill include stricter restrictions against teachers with criminal records, quality standards and minimum student amounts for schools receiving state funding, and local funding for private institutions that provide social services. The competence standards have been somewhat controversial among many teachers who feel that there has not been enough support in helping them understand what they concretely must do differently in the classroom, but the standards will not go into full force until 2020, allowing more time for training and preparation. For more information about the planned and proposed changes to the country's education system, you can check out our guide here.

Sources: LSM, skaties.lv

Battle over sex ed continues

Latvia’s Association for Family Planning and Sexual Health, also known as Papardes zieds ("Fern Flower," a reference to a pagan midsummer fertility tradition), released an open letter signed by 19 other non-government organizations and addressed to Saeima and the government this Wednesday urging the abandonment of the controversial 2015 "morality education" law that allows only a  strictly socially conservative approach to teaching marriage and family life issues, obsetensibly in line with Latvia's constitution. Papardes zieds claims that this law is unconstitutional and has led to a crisis in sexual education, with a report conducted by the organization and published in the magazine Ir earlier this month finding that while a third of Latvian 15-18 year olds have had sex and two thirds used pornography, more than half reported that their schools did not teach enough about their bodies (the article also pointed out that the most recent government survey of its kind in 2013 had found that 61% of teenagers believed that it was impossible to get pregnant the first time and two thirds believed that it was impossible for women to get pregnant on their periods). After a picket protest by the group last week, Saskaņa member of parliament and sponsor of the 2015 law Jūlija Stepaņenko officially requested that the prime minister's office investigate the group as a potential foreign agent attacking Latvia's constitution, pointing to 61,529 of funding provided to the NGO by George Soros' Open Society Foundation (a popular bogeyman for far-right groups and conspiracy theorists). In turn, a report by the Baltic Center for Investigative Journalism (Re:Baltica) has suggested that socially conservative groups that have grown increasingly loud over the past few years seem to be connected as the Kremlin, as have Stepaņenko's Saskaņa party and Inguna Sudraba's No sirds Latvijai (For Latvia From the Heart), from which members of both supported Stepaņenko's request to the prime minister. Although the issue hasn't been any kind of significant factor in the current election, it will likely be a contentious one for the forseeable future.

Sources: LSM, TVNET

Wind farm project meets local opposition

Photo credit: Jeffry Beall, via Wikimedia Commons
Last week we reported a massive new wind farm that was being planned between the regions of Dobele and Tukums, roughly 75 kilometers southeast of Rīga. Well, it seems that a number of businesses on the Dobele side aren't so thrilled with the idea, and have launched a campaign to block the construction of Swedish energy firm Eolus' green energy project. Business owners fear that the 250 million euro wind farm will negatively impact the region's critical agriculture industry, but Eolus representatives have called the fears unfounded. If the project goes ahead despite the mounting opposition, the 51 new wind turbines to be built are expected to generate around 10% of Latvia's energy consumption.

Restrictions lifted on treatment of HIV patients

Latvia's Ministry of Health
Photo Credit: Edgars Košovojs, via Wikimedia Commons

After a meeting with non-government organizations representing HIV patients on Monday, Minister of Health Anda Čakša (Zaļo un zemnieku savienība) announced that a restriction limiting treatment to only patients with cell counts of less than 500 will be lifted. This news comes after years of the United Nations and other international organizations calling on Latvia to do more to help its HIV patients, only 38% of which recieve medical treatment for the disease. Similar restrictions will not be lifted on Hepatitis C treatment, which like HIV has been a growing problem for Latvia in recent years compared with other countries in Europe.

Source: LSM

Rīga mayor: No €5 entrance fee for drivers

Photo credit: Peter Heeling

Despite an eyebrow-raising claim that had been circulating late last week that Rīga's city council was preparing a secret post-election plan to introduce a €5 entrance fee for drivers, similar to the one found in the city of Jūrmala and elsewhere in Europe, Rīga Mayor Nils Ušakovs has said that such a regulation was not being seriously discussed. Ušakovs did, however, tell Latvijas Radio 1 program Krustpunktā on Tuesday that the council was considering serveral proposals to decrease traffic in the city center, including the improvement of "park and ride" and cycling infrastructure, and raising parking fees on the sides of streets.

Source: LSM

Saeima discusses new "fast credit" regulations

Photo Credit: Nick Youngson, via Alpha Stock Images

Members of Saeima (Latvia's parliament) had a heated discussion this week about possible changes to regulations regarding "fast credit" providing companies. These potential amendments include raising the age limit for such consumer credit lines, setting new maximum interest rates, and potentially banning (or heavily regulating) the advertisement of such credit firms. As anyone who has watched Latvian TV in recent years knows, commercials for such companies are ubiquitous, with the Latvian broadcaster's association (NEPLP) claiming that 15% of Latvian Public Media's (LSM) funding comes from such advertisements. Discussions are expected to continue until at least next week.

Source: LSM

2 Euro "Zemgale" coin announced

Source: Bank of Latvia

The Bank of Latvia announced this week that it would be releasing a 2 Euro coin to commemorate Latvia's southern region of Zemgale, concluding it's three-year series of coins to honor all four major cultural regions of the country. The northern region of Vidzeme had a coin dedicated to it in 2016, while the eastern region of Latgale and the western region of Kurzeme both had their commemorative coins issued last year. 500,000 pieces will be released into general circulation, while 7,000 will be available for purchase by collectors. If you are a collector yourself, keep your eyes peeled for these!

"Baltic Unity Day" celebrated on Saturday

Image: Bearas, vis Wikimedia Commons

Yesterday, Latvia and Lithuania celebrated "Baltic Unity Day" to commemorate the Battle of Šiauliai in 1236, when a unified force of pagan tribes defeated crusaders sent by Rome. Although both countries were forcefully converted to Christianity in the following centuries, pagan traditions are still a significant part of Latvian and Lithuanian culture, and the day is celebrated to highlight the nations' continuing close friendship. This year major events were held in the southern city of Jelgava (less than an hour from the Lithuanian border) and in Riga.

Source: LSM

Arrested priest to remain behind bars

Photo Credit: Michael Coghlan

Fr. Pavels Zeila, a parish priest from the Eastern city of Rēzekne currently being held for alleged involvement in human trafficking and sexual assault, was denied a legal bid to be released from custody, and will continue to be held while the investigation continues. This incident is the latest in the global abuse scandal which has rocked the Catholic Church over the past few decades, but hundreds of supporters from his parish have protested his arrest as a politically motivated attack on the heavily Roman Catholic and culturally distinct Latgale region in eastern Latvia just before Pope Francis' highly anticipated visit there. Jānis Urbanovičs, a member of Saeima (parliament) from the Saskaņa party has gone further, claiming that the arrest is part of a Europe-wide conspiracy to undermine Christianity funded by a shadowy non government organization. Zeila's alleged victim is currently receiving professional help from human trafficking experts.

Source: LSM

Poll of the week:

Speaking of the Pope's visit, that brings us to our poll of the week! We asked our Facebook page subscribers if they plan on seeing the Pope during his visit to Latvia tomorrow, and while the overwhelming majority of our readers said no, tens of thousands are still expected to greet the Pope either during an ecumenical service in Rīga or at a mass in Aglona, Latvia's most important place for Roman Catholics, found in the eastern region of Latgale. Due to significant interest in these events, Saeima decided a few months ago to make tomorrow an official bank holiday. Even if you're in the 95% of our readers who won't be visiting the Pope, we hope that you at least enjoy a day off (if you have one)!

That's all for this week! Enjoy the official beginning of fall, both according to the calendar and to the weather. We'll be back next Sunday for another weekly update, but in the meantime don't forget to "like" our Facebook page for "stories of the day" posted each evening to keep you informed about the most important happenings here in Latvia all week. We'll also be covering the important yearly "Riga Conference" on defense issues this Friday, so expect a special report on that at the end of the week. Take care!