Sunday, December 27, 2009

Tent city protestors in Riga

Protestors have built a small tent city in Riga in front of the government house or Cabinet of Ministers. Started by one man, Gints, who demands the government act to reduce unemployment and to reform the electoral system, it has blossomed to ten tents and a semi-permanent fire for cooking and warmth. The protests now cover a variety of causes. I had a chance to film what was going on a few days ago from today, December 26.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Ten years after -- almost (an earlier essay)

Almost 10 years ago, I wrote this essay on " Being Post-Latvian" . I thought it had vanished into electronic limbo until I managed to attach an old Imation drive to my iMac and, to my great surprise and delight, recover this very prophetic essay which, I believe, I posted on the now defunct American Latvian Laiks portal.

Please update the ages I mention by 9 years -- I have hit the big six-o and my youngest son is 14. But the thoughts expressed are still very relevant, maybe more relevant than back then.


Being post-Latvian and other weird existential dilemmas

by Juris Kaža

An essay I wrote over the summer (2000- JK), a tirade, perhaps, in parts, has been widely read and discussed among the Latvian diaspora, "diasporans" who have moved to Latvia, and regular expatriates from Western countries in Latvia. I belong to the second group. I suggested that there were getting to be simply too much dissonance between what Latvia is, where it is going, and what it apparently will never be -- and some very important parts of my "Latvian" identity.

At the end of the essay, perhaps written in an excessively dark mood, I said that I and other former exiles, unlike many and probably most "Latvian Latvians", had options, meaning options outside, away from or beyond the "Latvia thing". It is perhaps the last twist that is the most interesting, because I suspect there really isn't a "where" that diasporans can go to anymore. Very few snails run away from their homes, and it isn't because they are slow.

So what does "beyond" mean, why go there, and why even look for the space if it might not be there? I think a lot of the "why" was laid out in the earlier essay, and since then, I have gathered a few more examples that Latvia, at one level of analysis, is a frighteningly depraved society, from its dregs to its top. A great example of the dregs was the young Latvian woman, who was probably in her early teens when independence was regained and can't really claim to have lost her best years and had her mind twisted under decades of Communism. She simply "lost" her 18-month-old child while on some rambling drunken excursion along the coastline. The most likely explanation is that the toddler wandered into the surf and was swept away. So it goes, to quote Kurt Vonnegut.

Meanwhile, mommy hasn't a clue, just a couple of other kids and some drinking pals with a car (the toddler was lost on a drunken motorized ramble), which means they were not your hardcore derelicts.. With mothers like this, does Latvia really need crack cocaine?

As for the top, there is the wonderful story of a county executive (or whatever you call a "pagasts") running over an 18 year old girl while driving drunk. Even if we accept the version that the dead woman caused an unavoidable accident, and that the driver couldn't have stopped to avoid hitting her even if cold sober, what could justify simply leaving the corpse by the roadside and spending the next few days trying to get the car fixed to cover traces of the accident? OK, there was the case of U.S. Senator Edward Kennedy some 30 years back, but at least he came clean the day after. And if we accept Kennedy's version of events, he made some attempts to rescue the young woman who drowned in his car when he drove off a bridge.

The former Latvian county executive, who briefly had charges dropped of failing to assist an injured person (one can't give first aid to the dead, sort of makes sense…), has apparently continued his drinking. In his favor, he did help to pay for the funeral of the girl he (inadvertently, let us assume) killed. But the criminal investigation was only continued after a major uproar -- perhaps a good sign after all.

My gut reaction to this kind of stuff is that a) Booze-mommy ought to have her tubes permanently cut and the other kids put up for adoption b) I'm not going to, like some minor Old Testament character, rend my garments and wail if somebody takes a hunting rifle and terminates the ex-pagast executive mutt. And so we slide into serious -- and, to borrow a term from a Bruce Sterling novel -- batshit ravings. Western raised and educated person, foam dripping from chin, starts advocating forced sterilization and vigilante drive-by shootings.

Which brings me to the "fucking kuce" syndrome.

Let's rewind to the corner of Lacplesa and Terbatas in downtown Riga, where there is this big, abandoned construction pit with a wooden fence and walkway around it and a narrow driveway to some courtyard behind the pit (now a building that housed Dienas bizness for several years --JK). In the morning, somebody swings a car halfway into the driveway and stops it, completely blocking the busy sidewalk. From the silhouette barely visible through the ubiquitous darkened glass, I see it is a woman and mutter under my breath -- "kuce nevareja citur stavet" (couldn't the bitch park elsewhere) but what I was thinking, but didn't say, was "fucking kuce", a mongrel phrase sounding straight out of 70s American Latvian creole, where the best one I heard was the dialogue:

" Kur ir Lenars? (Where's Lenars?)"

"He's asleep, pliks, on the pods." (He is asleep, naked, on the toilet).

That's just an aside. It turns out the woman who so abruptly stopped her car in the middle of all the rush-hour pedestrians was unlocking some kind of metal bar designed to keep non-residents or whatever out of the back lot by ripping their car antennas off. "Fucking kuce" also looked dumbly apologetic -- a Latvian babushka barricaded into the wooden walkway on the other side of her car was starting to lambaste her. I felt I had overreacted, and even felt a tinge of guilt for what seemed like gut-reaction sexism. But when I thought about it, it was merely giving gender specificity to anger with the "kuce" remark.

A few days later, while the pedestrian walk lights were lit on Crash Corner (Lacplesa and Caka), I started crossing with my five year old (now 14 -JK) and some scraggly unshaven geezer wobbled through the pedestrians against the lights on his bicycle. The thought of "inadvertantly" elbowing the mutt and sending him sprawling into the gutter flashed into my mind, but was quickly overtaken by the revelation: "Fucking kuce syndrome!" or FKS.

I will write FKS from now on as I am not trying to test my readers and possible editors by seeing how many times I can write "fuck" in one essay with any socially redeeming value. FKS is simply the abrupt, shorthand version of exasperation with the whole sleazy white-trash side of Latvia (where the white trash, unlike in Alabama, cut across the whole socio-economic spectrum, from elected officials to shave-headed, convicty-looking teens and gutter mutts rummaging in the trash bins).

The female gender in FKS isn't inadvertent. When I think about it, Latvia is so often represented as a woman -- Mother Latvia mourning her dead, the maiden at the top of the Freedom Monument blasphemously nicknamed Milda, and the Folk Girl, as some translation software might render the Latvian "tautu meita". So, to put it in a single cute phrase, I got a case of FKS with Milda.

So what does one do about frequent attacks of FKS? For the ex-pats, it’s a simple matter. Time to move on, perhaps time to ask for a raise. The we-have-to-be everywhere multinationals, after all, will spend pretty big bucks to keep normal Westerners happy in environments where, instead of breakfast television, you watch the locals eating your pets in the middle of the pot-holed street. This is the kind of place where the local police chewing betel nut-- or whatever it is that keeps them giggling-- watch the pet breakfast and give hand jobs to the flash suppressors on their Kalashnikovs. Compared to that kind of place -- which lies only a few notches up the scale from football-in-the-streets-with-human heads Sierra Leone -- Latvia is a relative paradise, but a salary review is always worth a try.

As far as moving, your ordinary ex-pat American, German or Swede can then add Latvia to his or her "been there, done than" list for better or worse. After all, one didn't get into the business of being an international sales/marketing/finance or whatever person in order to have a dull and unchallenging life. The market, so to speak, comes with the mutts, be they in greater or lesser numbers. (I use "mutts" here loosely according to a vague memory of New Jersey gangster slang from some old Martin Scorsese movie, where "mutt" means some pathetic, dissolute, half-wit, half-criminal not too far from its actual meaning of "mongrel dog" as in "Vinny is a fuckin’ mutt, we outta kick his head"… )

Diasporans who have had it, I suppose, could do the same -- the move part, at least, but that brings me back to the analogy of the snails. Snails can't leave home, at least not without some possibly fatal and disfiguring jettison-your-exoskeleton thing. And then what?

I am still some distance from tossing it with Latvia, but I have done some serious thinking and that is where the whole post-Latvian issue arises. There is a major collision of rationality versus programming here, probably not only for me but for any other diasporans who may be thinking as I do. For one thing, we diasporans (former exile Latvians) are imprinted (like ducklings with their mothers) with wanting or at least missing a Latvian environment. For most of my growing-up life, I, a naturalized American citizen, studied or worked with "the Americans" and went to Saturday school and partied with my people, the Latvians. Twenty odd years on, it would turn out that "my people" and the inhabitants of Latvia were related but different tribes.

When it came to core matters, primary social contacts, serious relationships and the like, it was automatically predominantly Latvian. I dated Latvian girls in the US and later in Europe, married an exile Latvian woman, and after we split up in 1991, I remarried to a Latvian Latvian. Latvian all the way! It was instinctively unthinkable otherwise, and this is perhaps something that only Jewish American readers of this piece or other ethnics will fully understand.

Getting out of this place, where I don't see an obvious defeat for white-trash Muttland against the Latvia I was given illusions about, means losing this instinctively important Latvian environment. And then where to? I've spent thirteen years in Sweden, two of my sons live there, but -- boring! BORING! This is not meant to be offensive to Sweden. What they have done is to make their country into one big white middle-class suburb with an all-too-predictable, reasonably well-behaved, semi-homogenous population, where young women wrapped head to toe in Muslim chadors tell semi-clueless TV reporters: "Jag är också svensk" (I am Swedish, too). And in their heads, they are probably right.

As for what to do in, say, Sweden, there's probably some narrow-niche possibility to work writing about wireless telecommunications, broadband internet, lots of that nifty stuff the Swedes can do. I would then get some of it myself and use it, guess what-- to keep in touch with Latvia. So there is one kludge of a solution -- virtual Latvia, but reality in some place with a lower "where did we drop the baby on our last bender?" rate and fewer FKS experiences during the average week. But then we are sort of back to square one, repeating dramatic history (monitoring, with bated breath, the freedom struggle) as wacko farce (watching a broadband stream of the latest LNT TV report about some political mutt who makes $50 000 a year legally and is building a house out of the opening titles of "Dallas" on land his mother bought from her savings as a kolhoz milkmaid during the Soviet era).

So what else to do? There is a bit of diasporan networking and clustering (the "Trimdie" --diasporan in Amero-Latvian creole--house on Bruninieku, hanging at Osiris, seeing if there are still diasporan evenings at the World Federation of Free Latvians or PBLA office, whatever). I probably hit some of the wrong evenings at the PBLA, some years back, because it seemed like much of the crowd was what I would call Type V diasporans. Type I diasporans are bubbly teeny-boppers who see Latvia as a big theme park extension of Garezers, the Latvian summer camp in Michigan and who have lots of cheery fun on some American Latvian Association two week (if it's Tuesday we play the kokle in Aizkraukle) trip. Type IIs seem to predominate -- they are the 20-somethings who come to Latvia for both adventure, idealism, beer, casual sex, interesting work, Paddy Whelan's, whatever. This is the demographic group most suited for a wide range of stuff like foot-soldiering global wars, discovering America, chasing off on Gold Rushes, starting dot-coms and garage bands and other dangerous, unserious and fun stuff.

The Type IIIs are rare. They are middle-aged people who ought to be wringing their hands about children's college tuition. They have to be career fuck-ups, wackos or foreign government paid consultants to be here. Type III includes 51-year old (now 60 -JK) me (shit, I never thought I would ever be writing that age back when I was listening to the Rolling Stones "Colors" and smoking grass in 1968). The Type IVs are basically your spry retired folks, some a touch kiddie-minded (to translate the Latvian expression "berna prata") and many are here to do good things. The Type Vs are the ones who seem to have come to DIE in Latvia and save their grandchildren hassles with the urn at Riga Airport customs.

I'm not knocking this group. It cuts back on a lot of weirdness like the small "reburial" business -- digging up grandma from Perpetual Rest Cemetery in some US suburb and replanting her three rows down from Banner of Stalin General Gronkoplyordov in one of the classier Riga graveyards. I will always remember meeting an acquaintance from Sweden back in the late 1980s who filled me in on his latest doings: "I was at both of (famous Latvian exile playwright) Martins Ziverts' funerals."

So to return from this major, but, hopefully, amusing sidetrack, the PBLA evenings that I hit were a little overstocked with Type Vs and a smattering of my people, Type IIIs, mostly with “what a weird scene this is” looks on their faces. And anyway, there is more to life than telling spry ladies who are your mother’s age and come from Chicago that it has been a while since you were a “jaunietis” (a callow youth) attending some callow youths’ seminar on folklore at their Daugavas vanagu house.

Anyway, to try to seek solace in diasporan clustering often tends to end up as a futile effort at rewinding the unidirectional film of history. It will never be the ALJA (American Latvian Youth Association) Congresses of the 1970s again, when we were all a disparate, but strangely united group escaping from our everyday immersion in the sea of "Americans". My old friend Martins Zandbergs recently celebrated his double nickel (55) and there was a cross section of the whole ALJA and ELJA (European Latvian Youth Association) scene there. My memories of the 1970s and 1980s seemed like recollections of some common astronaut training, and now we were all landed and scattered on different parts of a small, but disturbing planet -- the paper moon we used to study from a distance.

There's also not much point to getting together and bemoaning the locals. In the early to mid-1990s, it was probably like the German Wessie-Ossie thing. "They haven't a clue, lots of them are awful, but they're our folks and they'll come around soon enough." Well, the "soon" soon passed and some of us are thinking more and more of the enough part.

One of the great fortunes that turn out to be misfortunes of the Latvian nation is that it is small. Small is beautiful except in wars and revolutions. 25 million Latvians and 20 armored divisions would have made it considerably harder for Stalin in 1940. Double-digit millions of folks (with the right density of global scatter) would also make another solution possible -- the Singapore model.

I'm talking about a small, efficient, clean, honest, very much Chinese part of the Chinese nation that, while sharing significant elements of culture and the Chinese language, is a far cry from 1 billion Commie-deformed mutts of the Chinese mainland (this is a country where televised mass executions seem to have little effect on official corruption). Clearly, the majority of the Chinese (and I may be wrong here) are going to have to go through the same agonizing and possibly interminable post-Communist come-down that the Latvians did, once the totalitarian geezers running China die off.

Meanwhile, we have no less "Chinese" Chinese living in a little tropical cyber-island which moved into the 21st century already in the late 1980s. For the sake of argument, I am ignoring the more bizarre and smiley-faced-authoritarian aspects of Singapore -- the ban on chewing gum, the canings of some foreigners, hangings for drug possession, etc. The point is that aside from these quirks, part of the Chinese nation has established a wealthy, honest, efficient, technocratic little society where those Chinese live who don't find stumbling behind an emaciated ox in the rice paddies of Bat Dung province to be the meaning of life.

I wish there were enough diaspora Latvians to make a Latvian Singapore (with chewing gum allowed) possible. I might move there. Everyone would speak Latvian, there would be almost no I dunno-where-I-dropped-the-toddler-moms, almost non-existent FKS incidents, there wouldn't be five cable channels of Russian-language TV (three with dubbed maudlin 1980s Uruguayan soap-operas), no white-trash mutt authorities and bureaucrats.

The island of Tobago, with its tropical climate and historic links to Latvia would be an ideal place to establish a Latvian-speaking mini-Singapore but, alas, Tobago has its own population. They would, at best, find such a proposition amusing and bizarre and at worst, toss out the whole lot for infringing the sovereignty of their little republic.

Vilnis Zalkalns (now dead for several years -- JK), a long-time Latvian activist and radio journalist in Sweden, proposed something like the Singapore idea on the cusp of independence in the early 1990s. He suggested that all the then-exiles move to a single, medium-sized town in Latvia and sort of take it over, setting an example of Western political, economic and ethical lifestyles. This was also a charmingly bizarre idea. I think Tukums was one of the towns under discussion because it had a very high proportion of Latvians.

Vilnis is one of those diasporans, roughly of my generation, who has chosen to visit often rather than to return. I think his work at the Radio Sweden Latvian Service as well as some health concerns are important reasons why Vilnis, one of the most dedicated Latvian patriots I know, hasn't moved to Latvia. But I also think he is very skeptical of the viability of Latvia as a "civilized" society and genuinely worried that it will degenerate into a semi-Russified banana republic. Anyway, it is now probably too late to head for Tukums. It would simply drive up rents and real estate costs and probably line a few pockets before someone wisely decided to give it up.

To tell the truth, there are probably no viable post-Latvian options, at least not on the social level. That only leaves some kind of individual psychological remodeling to do. One has to bend all those big Latvian parts back and extrude from oneself a new personality where being Latvian is just one big component, like loving golf. Functionally, outside of Latvia, there is no difference between people who meet at a workplace or a social setting and where some have spent the weekend golfing and others being Latvian. I choose golf as an example because to me knocking a small ball between holes on a grassy field is utterly bizarre. So is being Latvian to some middle American whose ancestry is a largely forgotten ethnic mixed salad.

The thing is, I suspect that in a totally American environment-- back in Boston or seeking new challenges on the West Coast or wherever – I will tend to harangue people about Latvia like others harangue semi-captive audiences (coffee breaks and lunches) about golf. I know a lot about Latvia and most Americans know jack shit about it and it makes you feel good to think you are enlightening them. It also makes you feel European--which Latvians historically were and politically hope to be-- because reasonably educated Europeans tend to lose track of fewer foreign countries than Americans do. Europe, after all, is one big cluster of foreign countries and many are small enough so that their inhabitants risk wandering into another country on long afternoon drives. The whole Schengen thing in the EU only encourages this, letting European citizens cross three borders shirtless, in shorts with a Belgian library card in their back pockets. At Riga airport, you probably go to a detention cell for this and get your library card stamped so that you cannot use it in Latvia for five years.

And so the expatriate’s paradoxes multiply. With being Latvian tucked away in an appropriate niche, one finds oneself still being semi-European, with that problem having its roots in being Latvian. That probably makes it kind of difficult to scrunch oneself back into the peculiar space-time warp that is America. If I could teleport into a situation where there was a job and a home for all my children waiting, it would probably be to the US, at least for a couple of years, just to check the place out 25 years down the road.

By space time warp, I mean that the US is pulling away from much of the rest of the world technologically (expect for the mobile phone systems, a mare’s nest of standards) and economically, thereby speeding ahead in time. America’s space is warped because it is still somewhat huge and insular and even the most ethnically diverse social settings are simply accepted as part of the charm and color of that part of America, never mind where the Hmong running the gas station or the restaurant came from and what travails they may have endured. Hmong, Chechens and Paraguayans, I get the feeling, are simply viewed as the human equivalent of exotic flora in America. Like the Yucca cactus, which is not found everywhere, they simply are accepted as being there to enrich and set apart the landscape. That’s the US at its best. At worst, the wrong kind of ethnicity will have the original brand of white trash putting on the sheets…

In Europe we still view nations a little differently. For one thing, they are real, you can drive (except from interminable countries like Sweden) and take a look at them. To be sure, the EU has started the long-term process of changing nations from being clearly defined building blocks of the European house to something more like texture shifts in the common European fabric. Put that argument to some Latvians, at least, and they will retreat (stretching the fabric analogy) to the logical equivalent of a corner and shout that they are proud to be a rag that no one really wants to add to the quilt.

So even to be European, you have to have your patch to stand on and from which to gladly and willingly tear down your ancient moss-covered fence and become part of a “we” that doesn’t erase the special “us” of your nation. In that sense, the French and the Germans are already becoming post-French and post-German (and the cynics are muttering that the latter couldn’t go post-German fast enough) in a real way. Unfortunately, Latvia is standing just inside the threshold of the new century as a kind of fenced-in fen with many of the denizens staring in sullen horror over a shanty-town barrier. In this environment, described more lavishly in my earlier screed, some of the younger and brighter “Latvian” Latvians are getting out in the manner of true emigrants. For them, being post-Latvian is simply being pre-British or pre-American (which their children will be), or perhaps just European (but from the part that isn’t quite making it). For the 20-somethings, being post-Latvian is also a reversible state. Maybe when they are 35, some will come back – if the mutts haven’t completely trashed the place,

Which leaves my generation with no viable answer to the problem of being post-Latvian

Friday, November 27, 2009

Grey Nation Down

I'm playing on the title of a 1970s disaster film, Gray Lady Down, about a nuclear submarine that collides with a freighter and sinks to beyond where it can be rescued. But what I really mean is that Latvia is more and more a gray nation -- in terms of aging, the weather, the unique gray light of November -- and it is down in several senses, depressed economically, depressed psychologically, and headed for stagnation -- a state of, for the foreseeable future, permanent down.
I don't mean to disparage the gray of age, but this is an aging nation and probably was even before the economic crisis. Now the gray scale is being cranked up by the emigration of the young, among other things, because they see the growing hopelessness of the old and gray. Those are the ones with no option, the ones whose entitlements can be cut with relative impunity and probably will be cut. A family in Ireland or Great Britain can at least financially support its gray generation which will get little or nothing for years of social taxes paid. Indeed, Latvia if not now, then soon will be a country with a high negative return on taxation. Instead of getting some kind of services for taxes (the schools work, the police come, there is health care), Latvians will be paying more for less and subsidizing out of pocket what their higher taxes no longer support.
One need only to look at Latvia's foreign trade statistics (despite fanfares about approaching balanced trade, the current account and all that) to see that this is a country in economic depression. Almost all imports (a sign of the health of the domestic economy) are down by huge double digit figures. The same for exports . Imports of manufactured goods in September were down by 53.3 % from the year earlier, imports of clothing (textile and textile articles) down by 37 %.
Exports rose for such seasonal and world-market affected categories as foodstuffs (mainly grain), but even here, the fish and pharmaceutical exports that had been rising were off again. The country, according to some statistics, is maintaining a good trade surplus in manufactured goods, but at a depressed level and only because imports in these categories have collapsed. As indicators of domestic purchasing power, the trade statistics show that, like a wounded submarine, Latvia is plummeting to the bottom and will probably stay there for the next decade. The 2011 budget, which has to pass the Saeima probably weeks after next year's general election, MUST cut at least another LVL 500 million if there are no surprises. This year, according to how one counts, LVL 500 million were cut, but the international lenders objected, and another 50 plus millions had to go. So with tax revenues mechanically depressed (down) because of salary cuts. So for all we know, the new, very likely populist and inexperienced new government that will be clunkered together in the fall of 2010 will face demands to cut, perhaps, LVL 600 million. Who knows?
All of this is quite justifiable grounds for down as in depression. OK, there is probably nothing to gain from wallowing in this emotion, neither is there reason for euphoria because of occasional statistical blips. Emigration -- both foreign (as in leaving the country) or internal (refusing to cooperate with a failed system) is certainly not an irrational step and it is at least some kind of action, rather than passive acceptance of the consequences of an prolonged economic stagnation exacerbated by gross misgovernance.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

A decade of stagnation ahead, looking to Latvia 100

It was the 91st anniversary of Latvian independence on November 18, a day celebrated in somber, but somewhat hopeful circumstances by Latvians outside Latvia for 50 years. For all those years, Latvians mourned the loss of their independence, but held on to hope that the country would regain its freedom. That happened in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Eighteen years have passed since then, and Independence Day is a good time to reflect on what has become of the country since then and what may await Latvia in the next few years. Will country be better off on its 100th anniversary in 2018 than it was on the 90th in 2008 or the 91st this year?
Unfortunately, a detached and rational analysis of what is happening does not leave much room for optimism. Latvia is being devastated by a global economic crisis about which it was repeatedly warned, and for which it failed to prepare (as did, for example, Estonia). Boosted by reckless lending and borrowing, the economy seemed to boom right after Latvia joined the European Union in 2004, and the government, deaf to warnings, spend money as recklessly (pedal to the metal) as some of the Swedish banks sharing the blame for events here.
The government had no plan for what would happen when tax revenues from an artificially overheated economy no longer sufficed to support an inefficient and bloated state administration. A depraved culture of corruption and cronyism flourished almost from " day one" of the renewed independence, but during rapid economic growth, its depredations were not dramatically visible. Now we see the Riga Children' s Hospital plundered (or, perhaps, used as "black treasury" from other corrupt activities) to the tune of LVL 700 000 (more than USD 1.4 million).
Now the country has faced a choice between state bankruptcy or budget cuts that amount to reducing Latvia, with no prior planning or warning, to a minarchy where the state can barely maintain such services as police, national defense, and the courts. By 2012, education, medical care and personal security will largely be services available commercially, not as a result of spending tax revenues. Personal incomes will not increase sufficiently for most Latvians to be able to afford these services on a pay-per-use basis and still pay taxes that will be largely spent to repay the national debt, offering taxpayers practically zero return on taxation.
Another way to express this odd sounding concept is efficient and effective governance. By joining the EU, Latvian citizens have a defacto choice of governance -- that is, they can move to countries that offer a better return on taxation, but less political representation (no or limited voting rights). In Sweden, a Latvian paying taxes only slightly higher than those proposed for 2010 by the Latvian government (with a soon to be zero return), obtains a return in the form of tax-supported (there ain't no such thing as a free anything) education, reasonably efficient tax-supported police, tax-supported medical care and better, less corrupt or simply less dumb-ass public administration.
So what do I see happening? Tens of thousands of Latvians are going to choose places to live with better governance and, probably, better jobs, wages and "general attitude" (a factor often cited by Latvian emigrants to other European countries, mainly Ireland or the UK, who have already realized that the monetary gains of emigration aren't spectacular). Those tens of thousands, perhaps as much as another 100,000 or more, on top of those already living abroad, will drain the labor force of much of its best and brightest workers and potential managers.
When the rest of Europe recovers, Latvia will lack the skilled labor needed to meet export orders from Europe because those who could fill them will already be out there in Europe. The Latvian state has shattered, permanently, any trust or reliance it had among its citizens. This was accomplished by almost two decades of half-assed misgovernance, corruption, idiocy, provincialism, nothing-specialism and pedal-to-the-metalism. It is valid observation, for many Latvians, both the young, who do not want to waste the life ahead for them, and the old, who don't rationally see any change in their lifetimes, that if they (those running the country) haven't gotten it by now (almost 20 years), they probably won't.
So what will we see? A lost decade of third-world-lite economic stagnation, an aging population with a dwindling tax-base to support them, an elite living off of its sleazewealth until even that runs out (but hey, we're OK now, Jack) and their foreign educated children refuse to come back to the backwater their parents created. The best and the brightest of the Latvian nation -- look for them in Dublin, London, Stockholm, Munich, Sydney, San Francisco -- and, if they live in Europe, as most will, dipping into Latvia for relatively cheap home visits on a low-cost airline. The lat, by 2018, will still be the national currency, but hey, it's preferable to pay in euro.
Latvian labor in Latvia will be cheap -- among the cheapest in Europe, but also not very smart or productive. Part of the reason will be that most who finished school after 2010 will have had an education that decreased in quality from year to year and never was that great to begin with. So labor will be rationally cheap -- rated by its quality and productivity. The best value for money will be those kids with Latvian sounding names finishing some of the better schools in Ireland, Britain, Germany or Sweden, and they will be worth the higher going rate as skilled workers or management trainees.
In short, Latvia, thanks to almost depraved misgovernance and a hapless population unable to dislodge its political elite, faces a gloomy and stagnant decade ahead. Yes, one should celebrate independence, but not to the extent of sacrificing rational analysis for feel-good patriotic false optimism.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Limitless depravity -- Childrens' Hospital plundered

Latvia's Bureau to Prevent and Combat Corruption (KNAB) has arrested two officials of the Children's Clinical University Hospital (Children's Hospital) and three other persons in Riga for the embezzlement of at least LVL 700 000 in funds (more than USD 1.4 million) earmarked for renovations and improvements at the facility. Those arrested include a member of the hospital board. KNAB officers seized the funds, including LVL 500 000 in cash, in a series of raids and searches around Latvia.
The Children's Hospital has been the object of a number of charitable activities to raise funds for renovating its wards, and, while renovations have been made, it is reasonable to assume that some donated funds were also embezzled or used for bribes and kickbacks.
One of those arrested, Aivars Lisenko, a top administrator at the hospital, is also a member of and contributor to the Peoples' Party (Tautas Partija/TP), a member of the ruling coalition. With polls showing support for the TP well below 2 % ( 5 % is needed to be seated in the Parliament or Saeima), the party plans to bring back former Prime Minister Andris Šķēle in next year's elections. TP party officials are rushing to deny they knew anything of Lisenko's criminal activities, although his legally required state employee income declaration should have raised eyebrows -- he had huge cash and bank savings and had privately lent someone LVL 208 000. With official income of LVL 27 000 per year, it is hard to see how this accumulated money came from legitimate sources.
News of the Childrens' Hospital scandal has caused the usual temporary wave of public outrage. It remains to be seen if the accused will be convicted and what other similar scandals the KNAB will uncover in coming months. It appears that this kind of corruption, no matter how depraved, is endemic to Latvia.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Report: Desperate Latvians selling organs

In what may be a somewhat sensationalized report, the Latvian news portal is reporting that increasing numbers of apparently unemployed Latvians are offering to sell their organs, mainly kidneys, on the internet.
According to the website, the practice is not sanctioned by he Latvian Trasnplantation Center, but legal experts say selling kidneys is not forbidden (though in a legal gray area).
Prices asked for "healthy kidneys" on the Latvian classified ads site range from LVL 5000 (USD 10 000) to LVL 50 000 (USD 100 000).
The kidney sellers interviewed by say they are in debt and unemployed, or in some cases, willing to sell the organ in order to "live, rather than exist" (an 18-year old) after paying off unnamed bills and debts.
While many of the organ sellers may be genuinely desperate, some may be using their kidneys as a substitute for the easy credit of a few years ago, when it was possible to borrow several tens of thousands of LVL to buy luxury goods, electronics, foreign travel or an apartment).
The reports of organ selling put Latvia, an EU member state, on the same level as some Third World countries, where the practice is widespread among the poor.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Microincidents and social decay

I may be wrong, but often a "sense of what is going on" arises from a series of what could be called microincidents that point to a broader pattern of developments in society. Trend analysts often look at this as forerunners of something that may become significant (small groups of trendsetter teens dressing like, eating or doing X, Y or Z). I also think that microincidents can start to add up to a pattern of social degeneracy in Latvia.
Let me just name a few. In two drives to and from my summer house (finally closing up and wired with burglar alarms), I saw several instances of what I called "traffic wading" -- persons simply, blindly stepping into a street wherever the fancy strikes them, then standing more or less dumbstruck on the white line or just zombieshambling along, since cars do stop for pedestrians and other large objects on the road, even in Latvia. One woman I saw was standing and smoking on a busy road. Most of those I saw were not drunk (the 9 am stumblebums encountered as I walk to work no longer register). They were just somehow --detached.
Then there was the a middle-aged female undead with huge shopping bags who, in a very narrow (and badly designed) place in a cafe in the Alfa Centrs shopping mall, simply squeezed and pushed by us, not saying a word, not giving us a chance to step aside. I remarked to my wife something to the effect that " the bitch could have excused herself" loud enough for the woman to hear, but she simply moved on, zombiefaced and deaf (a Latvian language paper folded in one of her bags seemed to show that she understood the language). This was not the first such encounter, sometimes these robo-bābas (for all you Latvian readers) or robo-bitches (not an exact translation) bump past you at street crossings and other places where there is pedestrian congestion.
What I am saying is that as the better educated and more adventurous (of economic necessity) population emigrates, what is left is an increasingly behaviorally deviant, strange, lumpenized, often intoxicant dependent contingent responsible for an increasing number of microincidents that add up to an emerging sense that society is degenerating as the ranks of an economically deprived or outcast and psychologically damaged underclass seem to increase day by day.
This is not just me. A local Latvian woman who I work with from time to time, and who moves around roughly the same streets as I do also told me recently that she was freaking out from all the strange and bizarre people she was seeing. Is that as the Eloi leave, we see the Morlocks better?

Monday, October 12, 2009

Swedish paper pulls a mindf**k on the Latvian media

Sweden's Dagens Nyheter has pulled off a successful mindfuck on the Latvian media, thanks to me, actually. The paper ran what appeared to be a letter to the Swedish prime minister Fredrik Reinfelt (Moderate Party) from the leaders of his three coalition partners. It raised very credible points, including Finance Minister Anders Borg's scolding of Latvia for failing to cut 500 million LVL from its budget.
The letter was written in a very Swedish informal style -- Dear Fredrik, etc. and signed with first names. This made it even more believable that it was not a fake opinion article, but most likely a leaked letter. The signature of Peter Wolodarski, one of the editorial page writers, lent credibility to this version. OK, it was Sunday afternoon, I was not at the office, I was surfing the Swedish press, so I wrote it up. But it was not fucking April 1, when you are on the lookout for such stuff.
OK, the squareheads* got me on this one, gotta write a correction on the LETA wire....

*a bizarre name for Swedes I heard in an American cowboy movie, where one referred to a Swedish prarie settlement as a place "with nothin' but squareheads living there". :)

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The strange death of liberal "Diena"

NOTE: Corrected the spelling of the British family to ROWLAND in a few places.

October 10 turned into a day of written and video/audio soundbites amounting to obituaries for Latvia's (once?) leading daily "liberal" newspaper Diena (The Day). It was no wonder, as the chief editor of the Diena media group, Nellija Ločmele, the editor-in-chief of Diena, Anita Brauna, the editor of the editorial and op-ed page, Pauls Raudseps and several senior reporters announced their resignations after it was disclosed that Diena (along with Dienas bizness, a business daily) had been sold to the British Rowland family.
The Rowlands are said to have financed the transaction when the Swedish Bonnier publishing group and agreed to convert their loan into shares in a mutual fund that became the owner of both Latvian media companies. However, there are contradictory reports as to whether this was the actual sequence of events.
The departing editors said they could not work together with the new managing director of the Diena publishing group, a former executive at the company who returned to engineer and execute the transfer of Diena and Dienas bizness from the Bonnier group to the new owners.
Founded as a government-owned but independent newspaper in 1990, while Latvia was still a Soviet republic, Diena was "liberal" in the classic sense of standing for individual rights, freedom, Western-style democracy and values.
In July, it was announced that the Swedish Bonnier publishing group, the owner of Diena and the business daily Dienas bizness (this blogger worked for Dienas bizness for 11 years) since the early 1990s, was selling both newspapers to a Luxembourg-based company owned by Aleksandrs Tralmaks, a former executive with Diena (some years earlier) and Kalle Norberg, an Estonian financier. The transaction was financed (temporarily) by undisclosed lenders as part of a scheme to set up a Luxembourg based media mutual fund.
The transaction, with so many unknowns, set off a frenzy of speculation, much of it verging on paranoid fantasies that Latvian oligarchs, Russian intelligence services and other evil powers bent on destroying Diena or using it to brainwash the population were actually behind the deal.
To be sure, the transaction was hasty, largely because the Bonnier group was eager to get rid of their Latvian assets as quickly as possibly, while keeping their business newspapers in Estonia and Lithuania. It was going to take Tralmaks and Norberg a few months to set up their mutual fund, longer than the Swedes were ready to wait. In a move that would later be one of several reasons for things unravelling as they have, Tralmaks and Norberg raised funds for the purchase from undisclosed lenders. Tralmaks said the real owners of Diena and Dienas bizness would be disclosed on October 1, but later delayed the announcement until October 9.
By then, three months of secrecy, contradictory hints (at one point, the transaction was said to be financed by some of the founders of Skype)and internal recriminations and arguments about future business strategy had taken their toll. There was, in all likelihood, an irreparable rift between the top editors and Tralmaks by mid-September, when rumors of Ločmele's and Brauna's resignations first appeared.
Tralmaks had proposed drastic cuts in production expenses for Diena of around 55 %, which would have led to considerable staff reductions and salary cuts. Diena's editors proposed a less painful solution (according to a blog Cita Diena/A Different Diena set up to communicate about the breakdown of the newspaper as run by them) and at one point even proposed a management buy-out of sorts. Ločmele jas told Latvian media she had found potential investors to buy back Diena from Tralmaks and Norberg, but was rebuffed. That move also sealed her fate -- it was seen as disloyal to the owners of the moment.
The situation at present is that everyone seems to be standing at a smashed trough (pie sasistas siles) to use a Latvian expression (sort of meaning that the instrument by which all of the barnyard creatures could have been fed has been foolishly destroyed). Tralmaks (now merely the CEO of the Diena group, with no ownership stake) has seen his brand value walk out the door -- indeed, he had some of the top editors escorted away by lawyers and security guards who first searched boxes and briefcases of "the departed" to see that no confidential company documents were taken.
"The Departed" have strongly hinted that they will start a new media outlet, most likely an internet portal and some kind of print publication, but with the Latvian economy collapsing, this is a daunting task, no less than the challenge of keeping the "old" Diena afloat, with Tralmaks speaking of drastic drops in advertising spending already at the time the deal was announced in July.
Finally, Jonathan Rowland, the Rowland family member apparently most involved with the investment in Latvia, has seen his admittedly risky investment turn -- very risky. Rowland appears to have been a bit of a high-roller in the past, so three years from now, he'll probably be at his club and hear something like "Good on you with that Shanghai deal, pity about that...where was it... Latvia or someplace? Odd isn't it, it was some Latvian lads who put the new roof on my country place. Great job. You know, Colin got burned for about as much on that Swedish game console some, lose some."

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

500 m or 8.5 % --have we a failure to communicate?

I have not been following the seemingly shambolic (tax this, no, tax that, no, tax nothing, axe nearly everything) development of the 2010 Latvian budget in great detail. But it now seems that the main problem with the international lenders (the European Union/EU, the International Monetary Fund/IMF, the Nordic countries, etc.) is that there appears to be no common definition of benchmarks. There is the absolute number of LVL 500 million (that's more than USD 1 billion for those who want it in "real money") and the other figure of an 8.5 % budget deficit as a proportion of Latvia's GDP.
One is a fixed figure, the other is changeable (not in nominal terms, but in the underlying factors). LVL 500 million is 500 million. 8.5 % is 8.5 % of a figure that has already fallen by 18 % and will probably fall again in 2010. What was USD 8.50 out of a hundred dollar bill isn't USD 8.50 out of USD 82 or maybe USD 70 further down the line.
So what is the crucial figure? In terms of keeping government borrowing down as a percentage of total GDP, it is the percentage that counts and all (most?) of the other figures adjust accordingly. This is one way that you can interpret the Latvian government's proposal to cut the budget in absolute figures by only LVL 225 million, or maybe LVL 275 million, or maybe LVL 335 million. Which is it? But forget that, the important thing is that one of the "whiches" is an amount that brings the budget deficit close to 8.5 % and, in a sum of spending cuts and revenue increases, actually adds up to, or has the same effect as 500 million. Got it?
Swedish finance minister Anders Borg didn't, nor perhaps did the EU. Borg was speaking on behalf of the EU when he chided Latvia for not cutting LVL 500 million straight up from state expenditures, punkt, slut! as the Swedes would say. But maybe the EU really didn't mean 500 million, whatever it takes, but rather, whatever gets Latvia to 8.5 % without effectively stopping the core functions of the state, including education, pensions and health care.
A long IMF country report dated August 7 but made public only a few days ago in early October doesn't paint a very hopeful picture of Latvia's ability to live up to the IMF's conditions. It uses words like "daunting", "challenging", etc., seeming to say between the lines that Latvia lacks the political will and administrative capacity to get its act together. It also hints that the country might have been better off devaluing the LVL early on, as the unbendingly strong lat is named as one of the "challenges" in several parts of the report. Anyway, to devalue at this point would merely worsen the effects of a very harsh internal devaluation (wage cuts of 30 % and more) and replace falling prices with import price inflation. If the LVL is floated, there is talk that it would be very volatile and fall between 30 and 50 %, maybe to recover close to its current theoretical but unused band of plus or minus 15% of the "fixed" rate against the euro.
With some non-Swedish foreign papers interpreting the story of Borg's alleged confidential talks with Swedish banks as "warning of Latvia's collapse", it is a wonder that there has not been any pressure on the LVL as yet (Oct 7). The Swedish Finance Minister is in the challenging position of having to speak for the EU (it is the Sweden presiding) when the EU position (500 million or 8.5 %) is a bit ambiguous, and of avoiding a situation where Latvia actually cracks and hundreds of billions of SEK (as loans by Swedish bank subsidiaries in EUR) are put at great risk or lost.
As the rather harsh dialogue between Latvia and "the Borg" (not the Star Trek hive mind, but the Swedish FM with his dual role) continues, it is obvious that the basic problem is a failure to formulate the issue, which Latvia has tried to belatedly do, arguing that it is meeting the 8.5% target and should not be beaten with the 500 million cudgel. But it may be too late, and Latvia has created an almost irrevocable image of being an unreliable, vacillating and politically disorganized partner for its international lenders.

Monday, October 05, 2009

The everyday Latvian Charlie Foxtrots* continue

Often it is not the high (low??) black comedy of Latvian politics that reminds one of how disfunctional some things are, but rather everyday occurences. Take, for example, two cases-- the bizarre waste of European Union funds in Carnikava, where my family has a summer cottage. Officially, there is a project funded by the EU Cohesion Fund to extent municipal water and sewerage to parts of the town, including some of the so-called summer cottage districts (land that was divided up for this purpose during the Soviet era and given, mainly, to people associated with the state hydrological and reclamation institutions, that is, engineers and technical staff who know something about water and sewerage systems).
As I noted in an earlier post (with video), "work" has been going on at a road crossing for several months, digging and refilling the same trench, moving and reburying pipes and culverts, keeping some kind of ancient-looking pumping machinery on site and basically totally or partly blocking access to whole communities. According to some of my summer neighbors, who know what they are talking about, the problem seems to be that whoever is doing the job cannot get one major sewer/water connection across a main road done right. Instead, the construction crew is conducting an endless series of experiments. This is not the Channel Tunnel, for f**k's sake! We are now getting close to the season when frosts and freezes are likely to ice up the water-filled trench and the mud-field surrounding it. What then? Where is the EU investigator demanding that these fuckwits explain the massive waste of funds (at least on a project level)?
Another daily WTF? is the pedestrian tunnel that has been dug, equipped and simply left empty, boarded up and fenced off at one of the busiest and nastiest crossings in Riga, between the Central Station and the Stockman/Forum Cinemas complex. There are pedestrian lights which seem to function in some random relationship to other traffic lights, leaving huge trolley-busses, busses and other traffic blocking the crosswalk or simply driving through the flow of pedestrians (this is Latvia, lights are merely suggestive). Partly to blame, apparently, is Finnish Stockmann, which promised to build a pedestrian tunnel at the same time as it built the department store and cinema multiplex, but one suspects that things may have been delayed for years because in this kind of public-private partnership, the "public" side had its hand out and the private side was expected to put something there before anything moved along.
Anyway, crossing to the department store and cinemas was a mess before any construction began, it was a worse mess while construction went on, and now little has changed while, for several weeks, there has been a finished tunnel (the workers are gone) boarded up on the Central Station side and fenced off on the Stockmann side. WTF??
There are reports in the media that the tunnel may actually open to pedestrians in the next couple of weeks, the reason for the delay being, again, as so often in Latvia, that some process has to unfuck itself over an agonizingly long time before anything happens. In this case, it is the formalities connected to delivering title to the tunnel from the builders (financed by Stockmann) to the municipality of Riga. Meanwhile, welcome to the Third World...?

*oh yes, the title contains a nice name for clusterfuck.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Valdis, Valdis, vad fan?!*

Vad fan?! (pronounced va' faahn) is a Swedish exclamation of surprise, anger and disgust in different proportions, depending on the context and connoting anything from " what the heck?" to "what the devil?" (almost literally) and even "what the fuck?!"
Vad fan?! probably sums up what Sweden's Finance Minister Anders Borg feels about the situation in Latvia, where his country's banks have billions of SEK at risk if the economy is not stabilized and some signs of recovery shown. Essential to stabilizing the Latvian budget are huge international lines of credit that have been and will be paid out only when conditions agreed upon with the international lenders -- the European Union (EU) and International Monetary Fund (IMF) are met.
So far Latvia has blatantly ignored the terms of its most recent letter of intent with the lenders and, instead of cutting LVL 500 million (more than USD 1 billion from the 2010 budget), it has cut only LVL 225 million. Pushed by the People's Party (Tautas Partija/TP) -- which signed the letter of intent promising to tax residential real estate-- Latvia has backed off from even considering some kind of tax on residential housing and expelled the only parliamentary deputy who suggested that the matter be put to a legislative vote even if the TP was against it.
Valdis Dombrovskis, Latvia's prime minister and head of a shaky coalition, now claims that "political agreement" has been reached on the less harsh 2010 budget that actually breaks with the terms of the letters of intent Latvia has signed with its creditors. In other words, there is a very good chance that Latvia will not get any more loans for the simple reason that it ignores the terms and conditions on which this money is provided.
Sweden's finance minister has understood as much and has let both Swedish banks and the media know -- directly and indirectly -- that Latvia is on its way to possible if not likely state bankruptcy and economic collapse (once there is no more money for the state budget). The Latvian government, or rather the TP, which lives on a planet of its own, is ignoring these warnings and dragging out its Alice-in-Wonderland budget process in front of the whole world (which is, unknown to the TP, the planet that they are really on).
Latvia has already established a solid reputation of unreliability and vacillation -- if not something worse, summed up by an expression that circulated after a city councillor (who was cooperating with the police) took a bribe and then didn't vote how he was bribed to vote. It is " paņēma un uzmeta" -- "took the money and fucked us." The TP and other Latvian politicians apparently believe that this way of doing things can be exported to the international arena without any consequences.
To be sure, the terms Latvia agreed to with the international lenders are incredibly harsh and leave no room for measures to stimulate the economy. As implemented by the government, the budget cuts hitherto seem to be destroying the state-funded health care system, wrecking education (teachers are paid barely above the minimum wage), demoralizing the police (with drastic salary cuts) and reducing pensioners to absolute poverty.
On the other hand, the international lenders, including the IMF, didn't fly in with a ready and non-negotiable set of requirements, more likely, with a number of goals and targets that they asked the Latvian side to make proposals for meeting and assuming that the Latvian government could actually execute on these proposals and compromises. From the outset, the EU and IMF lenders never excluded, for example, devaluation of the LVL instead of an extremely harsh "internal devaluation" by reducing wages. Latvia was unbending and chose a policy that, many would argue, has sharply cut living standards (prices of many domestic essentials would not have risen sharply if the LVL was devalued, certainly not with the same effect as a 40 % cut in income).
Instead of formulating a policy that met the needs of both sides and sticking to it, the Latvian government has engaged in a balagāns (a cheap clown show) of political in fighting and signaling the international lenders that now that you have filled the trough (with the loan tranches paid hitherto), the pigs will play with their food as they please.
Sweden's finance minister doesn't go out and (even in a confidential meeting) scare Sweden's already hypernervous banks with warnings that Latvia will collapse unless there is a lot of substance to such a forecast. It now looks like Anders Borg is probably right and Latvia's creditors must do as American children in the 1950s when the atomic air raid warning went off -- they have to duck and cover.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Valdis, Valdis, what the fuck?????

If high EU and IMF officials could write what they really thought about Latvia's political bardak*, the headline is how they might address Latvian Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis in a confidential e-mail. To be sure, neither the former MEP nor his party wewre involved in it, but basically, one of the coalition parties, the People's Party (Tautas Partija/TP) has opted out of the letter it signed with international lenders.
That would be bad enough -- the TP prevented a bill proposing a tax on housing from being moved into the legislative process in the national parliament, the Saeima. So instead of voting on some kind of tax on residential properties, there will be no vote or parliamentary discussion, essentially reneging on the promises made to international lenders to implement such a tax.
But there is more. The TP has expelled, without any hearing, the Saeima deputy and party member Dzintars Ābiķis, who voted against blocking the bill from the legislative process. He didn't vote for raising taxes, he didn't vote in favor of the residential housing tax, he simple voted for letting the legislature discuss, amend and put to a vote a bill drafted in an effort to comply with international lenders.
The TP has also suggested that it wants to talk to the IMF and other lenders in what very much sounds like an attempt to renegotiate a done deal, putting forth their own terms (whatever they may be). To be sure, the international lenders' terms are harsh, they allow absolutely no spending of the loaned funds for economic stimulation (that is left to EU structural funds, which Latvia has CharlieFoxtrotted** so far). And oh yes, the TP has a bit more current voter support (around 1.7 %) than Stalin would get. Just the guys to talk on behalf of the Latvian people.
And yet that is not the end of the story. The government has drafted a budget that simply doesn't cut spending by the amount agreed with international lenders (by around LVL 271 million instead of the required LVL 500 million).
So what is happening? EU and IMF honchos are soon descending on Riga to ask the headline question in person. The opinion, already widespread earlier -- that the Latvian government is a bunch of untrustworthy, capricious fuckwits-- is crystallizing even more. And that means, we may not get the next tranche of international loans no matter what anyone does. I mean, when the signature of a major coalition party amounts to goatfuck a few months later...
Where do we go then? -- probably devalue the lat, print cash (could have been done earlier to spare everyone the agony of salary cuts and firings) and buy time through the winter, possibly with Dombrovskis being pushed out of office or resigning (getting off the tracks before the train hits). After that, with the TP zoonoids in charge, you can write your own black comedy...

* Russian-derived word for total chaos, literally, a honky-tonk whorehouse in chaos
** clusterfucked

Friday, September 18, 2009

State Labor Inspectorate puts hands in the EU cookie jar

The head of Latvia's State Labor Inspectorate, Rita Elce and five other officials have been suspended pending corruption investigations by the Bureau to Prevent and Combat Corruption (KNAB in Latvian).
The Labor Inspectorate head and staff members are suspected of using European Union (EU) social and regional program funds to hire fictitious employees (apparently real persons who never worked a day at the government agency but funneled almost all of their salaries to the bank accounts of the alleged conspirators).
Elce told journalists she would cooperate with the investigation and denied that she had benefitted from the diversion of EU and other public funds.
The "fiddle" with EU funds seems to have been an internal one for the enrichment of those involved, but its alleged existence raises suspicions that the agency could have been (and still be) open to bribe-taking to cover up illegal, unsafe and unethical labor practices and the use of black and gray market labor (illegal aliens, legal residents paid in envelopes).
Events such as this indicate that the KNAB is keeping its earlier promise of "we will come for you" with regard to corrupt public servants, but it does little to diminish the image of Latvia as a state where corruption, incompetence or both are endemic to the structures of public administration.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Analysts see collapse of trust in government

The Strategic Analysis Commission (Stratēģiska analīzes komisija/SAK), a kind of think tank that has been operating under the office of the President since 2004, presented a report (Latvian language, downloads from the link page) saying that trust in government institutions was extremely low and that around half of the population would be ready to engage in violent protest.
Roberts Ķīlis, a political scientist who heads the SAK, presented its findings to an extraordinary meeting of the Cabinet of Ministers (the government) called by President Valdis Zatlers to ask for an accounting of the reform process. The meeting, broadcast live by Latvian Television, lasted more that six hours and included heated exchanges between ministers, between the President and ministers, as well as statements (and outbursts) by third parties (representatives of unions and NGOs).
The findings of the report stated, among other things:

Latvian society is dominated by unprecedentedly low trust in both the government, the parliament, and, as surveys from the summer of 2009 show, also in the entire political and party system. Even though Latvia's inhabitants have never shown significant trust in their democratic representative institutions, the spring and summer of 2009 are illustrative of a permanent crisis of confidence. In this context, it is unlikely that it is possible to regain even a part of the lost trust in a few months time, In order to renew trust in the political system, it is essential to achieve a positive dynamic in the crisis (breaking a negative vicious circle).

The report goes on to say that there will be an inevitable new wave of emigration (both for economic reasons, and to seek social and political stability). This addresses the point I have earlier made in this blog, that emigration is not only a choice in favor of higher salaries (offset by a higher cost of living and sometimes, higher taxes that emigrants don't anticipate), but also a choice of governance. Emigration is also seen as a kind of final break of any loyalty to the Latvian state and society.
The report also points out that the municipal elections did not decrease what they called "social tension" and that voters, in effect, voted for politicians and parties they deeply mistrust. This is likely to continue or worsen as the national parliamentary elections of 2010 approach
On a positive note, the report concludes that Latvians are not yet ready to trade democratic freedoms for economic security. But on the economy, the SAK forecasts that recovery will not bring wages and living standards back to 2007 levels for at least five or six years -- by 2014 or 2015. This conforms my view, and that of blogger Edward Hugh, that what Latvia faces is essentially an "L" shaped recession. While Latvia stagnates, other European economies will recover and grow, drawing away skilled labor and professionals that would be needed even to make the slow and feeble recovery forecast by the SAK. After all, what kind of a recovery is it when you catch up with 2007 in 2014. Ironically, the "seven fat years" now look like seven pounds of flesh and seven years irretrievably cut from Latvia's development.
I would say the SAK report is more evidence of the main thesis of this blog -- that Latvia is a failed state lite.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

The last days/weeks of Dombrovskis the fall guy?

Valdis Dombrovskis, like the summer weather in mid-September in Latvia, is on borrowed time. It is hard not to see and hear that the knives are out for him. Both his own coalition partner, the People’s Party (Tautas partija/TP), and the loyal opposition (no ministers, but hitherto behind the government) of Latvia’s First Party/Latvian Way (Latvijas pirmā partija/Latvijas ceļš LPP/LC) are shaking the coalition so hard that pieces are sure to fly off.

The LPP/LC said at a recent party leadership conference that they would not support Dombrovskis’ government. with Riga vice-mayor Ainārs Šlesers calling for the Prime Minister to step down in so many words.

Guess who will step up?

Not even a few months had passed since the June municipal elections put the twins Nils Ušakovs (of the pro-Russian Harmony Center/Saskaņas centrs/SC) and Šlesers in charge of the Latvian capital when the “alpha twin” Šlesers started talking of taking up the call to head a government after the 2010 elections. Now, it seems, the trumpet is sounding in his ears a bit earlier.

The People’s Party has been quarreling with Dombrovskis on economy policy and accusing the government (here one must agree with Latvia’s most unpopular party in voter polls) of poor communication both within the government and with the general public. It looks like they are ready to jump as well, but hoping that the 2010 elections will boost their ratings significantly beyond the present 1.5 to 1.7 % the TP has gotten in recent polls (one thinks that given the historical ignorance of some young people plus the spin that he is actually a nice guy from Purvciems could get Vjaceslav Molotov an higher rating than the TP).

The TP wants to draft “ businessman” and ordinary rank-and-file member Andris Šķēle to make a come-back as Prime Minister (unless he trips and falls under the Bulldozer -- one of Šlesers’ municipal election symbols). Interestingly, when asked what business Šķēle had been doing on a TV talk show, Vineta Muižniece, the TP parliamentary faction leader, said that it was a private matter for Šķēle.

Certainly, whatever it is he has been doing has gotten little publicity compared to other business figures, such as Mārtiņš Bondars, ex-chairman of Latvijas Krājbanka (The Latvian Savings Bank), who have hinted at entering politics. We can read the bank’s annual reports. We can look at the track records in private business of people such as Vitālijs Gavrilovs, who ran the brewery Aldaris for many years. Other than peripheral involvement in some windpower project and alleged involvement in the failed first attempt to start digital terrestrial television, I really don’t know what Škele has been doing as a businessman these past few years. Does anyone else?

I don’t believe the “Šķēle factor” will revive the TP, which is widely and accurately blamed for its blind and deaf belief that the “fat years” would continue forever. What is more worrisome is that if fall guy Dombrovskis falls, “pedal to the metal” Šlesers may step up to the Prime Minister’s chair even ahead of the 2010 elections (it is anybody’s guess what may happen to the economy and the social fabric of the country over the next year, but it won’t be anything good). The LPP/LC, to my mind, is a cryptofascist party backed by religious fanatics who have repeatedly attempted to restrict the free speech rights of sexual minorities in Latvia. The authoritarian mind set of these people may then treat other dissidents -- such as angry spontaneous demonstrators -- no differently.

Another sign that Dombrovskis has expended his usefulness is the fact that the ink is dry on a number of critical international lending agreements and the cash is rolling into Latvia’s state coffers. There is no need to have guys hanging around whose party leadership (Dombrovskis is from the New Era/Jaunais laiks/JL) pledged in church to be committed to clean and honest government (many saw this as a balagāns/cheap show, but maybe not the Main Man up there). The international loans (and the lenders will not have armed auditors standing next to every bureaucrat) are the biggest opportunity for corruption and state capture, dwarfing the infamous G-24 credits of the early 1990s, where mere tens of millions vanished down the rathole.

Knowing what a Charlie Foxtrot (cluster f**k) the Latvian government (any Latvian government) can be, there was a substantial risk that the whole international borrowing process could have been bungled, leaving Latvia at least temporarily insolvent. Better to have had Dombrovskis and the JL guys at the wheel for that. Since it didn’t happen, we can clear the bridge and put a real pirate crew on deck now that the ship didn’t sink.

However, that doesn’t change the fact that another LVL 500 million will have to be cut from the 2010 budget in the next few weeks, with equally much coming out of the 2011 budget. So even if he gets a premature shot at the Prime Minister’s chair, Šlesers will face some real challenges as well as likely social unrest and a noticeable bleed-off of the potential workforce as economies recover in countries that Latvians can easily emigrate to.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Latvia to borrow USD 800 million domestically by year end?

The Latvian government has promised international lenders to raise LVL 400 million (more than USD 800 million ) from "domestic sources" by the end of this year, according to a confidential document leaked to the national news agency LETA.
In addition to the document, it is understood that the Latvian State Treasury (Valsts Kase) has already drawn up a schedule of debt auctions and target yields.
With less than three months remaining in 2009, it appears that there will be frequent, high volume sales of treasury bills or other debt instruments, perhaps on a weekly basis, for the rest of the year.
The large volume of borrowing in a poor country of 2.2 million is likely to drain all liquidity from the money market unless foreign bank subsidiaries or other foreign investors come in as "domestic" bidders in the auctions.
It is likely that such heavy government borrowing will effectively squeeze out Latvian small businesses and private borrowers who are already complaining about banks being reluctant to lend. In addition, the squeeze is likely to boost domestic interest rates even further.
Since the largest Latvian financial institutions are Swedish owned, participation by Swedish subsidiary banks would increase the Swedish financial sector's already high and precarious exposure in Latvia and the other Baltic states. Although state debt is generally rated as very secure, there is an inevitable linkage between the huge Swedish exposure in mortgage and private lending and state finances. Large-scale defaults and renewed pressure on the Latvian currency could, in the future, lead to stop-loss selling of Latvian treasury bills.
The failure of a modest-sized treasury bill sale earlier this year led to turbulence on Scandinavian stockmarkets and intervention by the Bank of Latvia to support the lat.
The LVL 400 million domestic borrowing target also raises questions about the true size of Latvia's budget deficit, which was supposed to have been covered by loans from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
The confidential document also indicates that Latvia must work to restructure its existing debt stock to increase maturities and reduce the risk of rollover (in simple terms, borrowing from Peter to pay off Paul, then hitting up Paul again when Peter has to be paid back).
The document, which found its way to the Latvian news agency, is apparently very sensitive, with Finance Minister Einars Repše interrupting remarks by a member of the Latvian parliament, the Saeima, warning the man that he was about to disclose state secrets. The parliamentarian referred to provisions in the confidential document that "would be of great interest to financial speculators."

Monday, September 07, 2009

Finance Minister amazed by economic reality

The Latvian TV show Nekā personīga (Nothing Personal) showed the Minister of Finance Einārs Repše expressing surprise that total budget spending had not decreased despite sharp cuts in the basic state budget. The money, it turns out, was all being spent through the so-called social budget comprised of pension payments and unemployment benefits. The economic crisis and rising unemployment -- some of it fed by laid-off government and municipal employees -- was increasing demands on the social budget at the same time as lower wages and fewer employed are available to fund the social budget through so-called social contributions (another name for taxes).
"Surprisingly, and I was surprised by it too, our reduction in expenditure in the basic budget is almost precisely compensated by the increase in expenditure in the social budget. So the reduction and all that we have done with our combined efforts last year and this year has reduced the basic state budget, that is, the expenditures for state administration and related spending. But purely by chance, the social expenditures have grown by the same amount," Repše told the TV3 reporters.
What a surprise, especially for a Finance Minister one would expect to know a little economics! And didn't he say that that any downward spiral of tax revenues and rising social costs had been taken into account when making drastic budget cuts? So we only seem to have cut LVL 500 million and are back to square one. What else will surprise the Finance Minister next?

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Teacher protests on the first day of school

Hundreds of Latvian teachers gathered in front of the Cabinet of Ministers building (The Government House) to "mourn" the degradation of Latvia education by drastic funding cuts and salary cuts. The peaceful protest came a day after several hundred demonstrators blocked bridges and roads outside Bauska, Latvia to protest the reorganization of the local hospital, eliminating, among other things, the maternity ward and most emergency services.

The Battle of Bauska -- just the start?

Several hundred people blocked two bridges in the town of Bauska, Latvia on August 31 to protest the reorganization of the local hospital and were dispersed by special riot police sent from Riga. Although emotions ran high and there was some pushing and shoving, there were no known injuries and four arrests, reportedly for public intoxication.
The action could, borrowing from Rage Against the Machine, and exaggerating somewhat, be called The Battle of Bauska, especially if it is the first taste of the social unrest that is being expected this fall. It may also have been a show of force by the government indicating that instead of dialog, it will back its hasty, seemingly chaotic and ill-explained so-called reforms and cutbacks with the riot squad where needed.
While the Bauska hospital is not being closed, it is shutting down maternity and in-patient services and reducing emergency services. Patients are being re-directed to hospitals in Jelgava, some distance away and elsewhere. This has especially distressed pregnant Bauska residents as well as those who fear the reduction of emergency assistance, not only for themselves, but for future victims of road accidents along a main north-south highway that runs through the town. It was in order to cause disruption and publicity along this main transit route that the highway and bridges were blocked in a largely spontaneous action that was guarded, but not dispersed by local police.
The health care system in Latvia is, undoubtedly, bloated and inefficient, but the present cutbacks are being made in a way that appears arbitrary and irrational, piling perceived threats of reduced health care on top on cuts in education, pensions and salaries for many public sector employees. The events in Bauska may well be precursors of more widespread socio-economic protest that may be beyond the capacity of Riga-based riot police to control.
Protests are unlikely to solve the fundamental problem -- the total destruction of trust in government/state authority and the de-facto lack of funding for a range of services, highlighted by health care. The government has largely dug its own pit (not to say grave, although there is talk of toppling the administration of Valdis Dombrovskis) by failing to explain its cutbacks and reforms and, in the case of health care, failing to prepare for a reduction in the number and functions of hospitals in Latvia. There is, for example, no nation-wide network of medical evacuation helicopters (only a few would be needed) nor is there subsidized or insurance-covered transport for patients making routine visits to hospitals and clinics from remote areas.
Latvian television (the evening news program Panorama) has posted some semi-edited raw video of the events in Bauska on YouTube.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Latvian PM--wave of emigration inevitable

Latvian Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis has told reporters (item in Latvian) that a wave of emigration is inescapable as European economies recover ahead of Latvia and the wage gap between Latvia and Western Europe is widened by recent sharp wage cuts.
Dombrovskis said the problem was no longer emigration, which was inescapable, but how to get migrant labor back to Latvia. While some people returned from abroad at the height of the credit-fed boom in 2007 and early 2008, I think such efforts will fail. In any case, with what I would call a "drooping L" scenario likely for the Latvian economy, the return of emigres is a problem for the late 2010s at the earliest (say, 2015 -2018 at the earliest). By drooping L, I mean a sharp drop followed by stagnation with a noticeable downward slide.
The PM has essentially confirmed (at least in general) the analysis posited by this blog and others, that the errors of earlier governments have pushed society past some tipping points and further irreversible decline is inevitable. What Dombrovskis didn't say much about was the profound destruction of trust and reliance on Latvian governance caused by the policies he has been forced to implement -- cutting funding for education, implementing de facto health care for cash only, and cutting pensions.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Welcome back, old friend --the grey economy

Taxation is theft. We tolerate it because the thief, government, uses at least some of the loot rationally and sometimes we (civil society) get a piece of it back when using a public service such as education, the police and, in a number of countries, basic health care. When the system starts to break this implied promise, or otherwise grossly disappoint or appear to deceive us, society takes spontaneous action to keep more of the wealth it creates under its own direct and, generally, radically de-centralized control.

This is not meant as some kind of libertarian economic tirade, but a forecast that in Latvia, we will very likely see a resurgence of the grey economy -- the kind where most economic activity works as it should, but as much of it as possible takes place outside the tax system.

It is important to understand that the grey economy is nothing but the everyday, legal economy with a strongly diminished or completely absent incentive to make payoffs (taxes) to the state. It is not the black economy, where many activities are malum in se (evil per se) such as knowingly selling guns to criminals, trading in goods stolen or obtained by fraud, selling the fruits of forced labor and the like. Many would include the trade in state-prohibited intoxicants in black market activities, but that is another issue.

Latvia has a history of grey market activity going back to the 1990s and beyond. It stems from Soviet times when most of the population rightly regarded the state as a totalitarian monster(the Gulags, the KGB) and/or a pathologically lying buffoon (Brezhnev, Communist ideology, promises of socialist prosperity) and did everything in their power to deny to the state or expropriate back from it the fruits of their labor. To put it concisely -- stealing from the state was a virtue. It was the only relatively safe form of resistance.

The grey market continued to evolve during the 1990s, in the general chaos of legislation and system transition. Those who had “stolen” from the state under the Communists often saw little reason or incentive to stop. Only as Latvia reformed and rationalized its tax system, as the state bureaucracy became marginally less byzantine, as accession to the European Union approached and was achieved, did the grey economy recede. With lower tax rates and an apparent “return on taxation”(schools were built, roads fixed, hospitals upgraded), there was less to gain from trying to beat the system, plus there were considerable internal costs in doing so. A bookkeeper keeping two sets of books will ask to be rewarded (on or off the books) appropriately. Concealment and evasion strategies must be formulated in addition to the management time needed to run the core business.

By the middle or the end of the 1990s, the superprofitable business of plundering Soviet-era assets for a song and selling them in foreign markets was also drawing to a close. While making 300 % profit on selling the metal from an abandoned Soviet factory (with most of the labor bartered for vodka) was an incentive to keep such transactions off the books, there was less incentive when earning 25 % from a foundry that did most of its work buying legitimate scrap and selling to export customers that did not want to look like they were buying from bandits and insisted the business at least look like it was paying taxes.

What I see happening is that the massive state budget cuts, hitting at core public services such as education, health care, public safety and pensions, will trigger another boom for the grey economy. If anyone has not caught on to this destruction of “return on taxation”, they will catch on when the government raises a whole slew of taxes (the new tax on residences, higher income and VAT taxes -- in short, whatever was dreamed up this week and may be shuffled around next week). It is time to dust off the grey market experiences of 10 years ago.

The government is very aware of what its own actions are inciting in society -- otherwise it would not be urging the State Revenue Service/VID (or what is left of it after planned massive staff cuts), regulatory bodies and the police to crack down on tax evaders and “illegal” business. Instead of becoming more service-oriented and business friendly, the VID will, if government directives are carried out, revert to its worst inquisitorial auditor/punisher face. File your quarterly papers a day late (even if the taxes they refer to were transferred on time) -- fine ‘em, fine ‘em. Misspell your company name, forget a digit of the registration number, whatever -- off with your head! Now that makes deceiving these fuckers an honest sport again!

Aside from reverting to a state of low intensity civil-war-by-deception with the tax-collecting, regulatory and repressive organs of the state, some businesses (I like to think) have other incentives for paying wages by envelope rather than paying them after tax. Business owners see that off-the-books wages have tangible social benefits, while paying the state social tax has the opposite result. Beggars still huddle on downtown streets, hospitals are closed (for whatever reason), teacher’ s salaries are cut to barely above minimum wage, no matter how much taxes and social fees are paid. When paying envelope wages, the employer knows that the money is being spent by Jānis for his sick mother, by Ieva for her child’s education, by Sergey to modestly renovate his apartment. In other words, the enterprise becomes a kind of private welfare space, spending the money denied the state in more visibly and tangibly beneficial ways. This is not to say that all envelope wages are paid with this kind of consciousness, probably in many cases, this arrangement is part of haphazard and often exploitative labor relations. But then again, back when taxes were paid, weren’t they paid to have labor law enforcers do their job?

In a very rough and often uneven way, a functioning grey economy can at least partly replace the missing “return on taxation” from the Latvian government, which has, during the blind and foolish administrations of the “fat years”, painted itself into a fiscal corner in several dimensions. Officially, the IMF and other lenders are telling it to get its act together, save billions in the next couple of years, cost what it may socially, while society and the real economy are saying -- we won’t pay! (but we will pay some of those deserving it). In effect, the collapsing public services are replaced, in an unevenly distributed way, by the funding diverted to the grey economy.

The grey economy is no replacement for a functioning modern moderate welfare state (as Latvia has tried to pass itself off as being), nor is it a rational step in consciously moving toward a night-watchman state or minarchy (which Latvia seems to be stumbling toward, whether it knows it or not). It is an improvised solution based, not on a reform of the system of governance, but is a symptom of chronically bungled and incompetent governance.

The next developments in Latvia’s economy are going to be pretty rough. European countries with labor markets accessible to Latvian citizens will recover ahead of Latvia. There will be another wave of labor emigration, numbering in the tens of thousands, in the period 2010-2013. Like their predecessors to Ireland and Great Britain in the late 1990s and the first decade of the 2000s, these Latvian economic immigrants are unlikely to ever return permanently to Latvia. Their presence, however, will generate additional repatriated funds, which will be of some limited benefit to Latvia. The Latvian economy, however, will be deprived of much of its best, brightest, most skilled and entrepreneurial labor, increasing the demographic burden on those remaining beyond the mere numbers of those emigrating. Not only warm bodies, but productivity will emigrate, and with that, there will be less value generated by the domestic Latvian economy to reallocate to pensioners and already depleted public services. As for basing an economic recovery on exports, it will be pretty hard when many of the best export producers will have “exported” themselves.

So where will those remaining behind go? Not abroad, obviously. It is a bit exaggerated to think that there will be a day when the last Latvian shuts off the lights at Riga Airport. But in terms of economic and demographic tipping points, there may well be a point at which a sufficient number of “the best and the brightest” have departed, effectively switching off the lights at the end of any tunnels.

So where will the remaining ones go? I think they are already moving into the virtual, tentative, experimental, not-as-disfunctional-as-the-official-economy space that is the burgeoning, resurrected grey economy. And I do not blame them at all.