There was a theme in my earlier post that should be expanded upon. It will soon be five years since Latvia joined the European Union (EU) and there will be various assessments of the impact of EU membership.
I believe the most dramatic and, perhaps, underrated impact of EU membership is an aspect of free movement of people that is little discussed. We often view this freedom as one to study or temporarily work (for experience or better pay) in another EU country, or, for some, to set up a business in another country. But, in fact, free movement allows EU citizens not only to move for economic or academic reasons, but also to make a real choice of governance and of social environment.
It is clear that in many countries, the level of government efficiency, responsiveness to its citizens, general transparency and lack of corruption differs significantly from Latvia. In many countries, governments may not be very pleased with criticism directed against them, but they don’t label their citizens “yappers” (vaukšķi). They try to respond to criticism because they realize that, ultimately, the critics are the people who “hire” them to run the country with their tax money. They are public servants, like it or not. In Latvia, the ruling elite has been a class unto itself, convinced beyond argument of endless “fat years” or of their own abilities as bulldozers or space shuttles.
I won’t mention the government of Valdis Dombrovskis here, because I think he was put iin as a fall guy or is the first officer of the Titantic, kindly asked by the captain to “take over the bridge” just as the floor starts to tilt a little. His role is to go down with a ship that can’t be rescued any more.
Beside the arrogance and state-capture corruption (dozens of seats on state-company boards for “our own people”/savējiem, though now some are being liquidated), Latvia also shows a high degree of societal degeneration. It can be seen on the streets -- staggering drunks, rude, brutal public transport wardens, nervous, morose, despondent or anger-ravaged faces everywhere. A sight seldom seen in other European countries, even Scandinavia, where public displays of moods or emotions are muted.
For many ethnic Latvians, there is also a certain discomfort from the cruder aspects of the Russian population -- the swaggering, shave-headed, running-outfit clad lumpenproletarians/urlas that one sees, especially in the Soviet-era housing areas of Riga. Behaviorally, these people are like the inhabitants of an American ghetto -- diminished work ethic, substance abuse, aggressive and crude behavior.
Given the choice of going somewhere where these problems are not present, and paying only the price of having to use another language at work and daily life outside the home (most likely English), it is perfectly logical that increasing numbers of Latvians are “giving up” on their own country and choosing places with a better (though far from perfect) system of governance and social environment.
Another facilitator of what I call governance/social environment choice may actually have been brought to Latvia by the “Bulldozer”, former Minister of Transport Ainārs Šlesers -- namely, the low-cost airlines led by Ryanair. These make “virtual emigration” possible and relatively painless. In other words, Latvians can live under better governance and in better social environments without losing contact with the essentials of what was important or good for them in Latvia. Within a couple of hours, anyone can fly in from Ireland, Britain or elsewhere in Europe to visit family, friends, favorite places. With fast internet connections, video links and Skype, “real virtual” presence is possible as well.
So we have a phenomenon of as yet not consciously self-contained Latvian communities growing across Europe (in Ireland, Great Britain, eventually elsewhere), communities, which like the one in Ireland, where only a few hundred of some 20 000 Latvians voted in the 2006 Latvian elections. This is a definite sign of political alienation, whatever other ties they may maintain with Latvia. Moreover, these communities are self-selected (people decided to emigrate, they didn’t flee like the post-war Latvian emigres) and consist largely of people with the ambition, skills and self-confidence to start a new life in a new country. In one sense, a bleed-off of Latvia’s potential, on the other hand, an inevitable result of state/societal failure combined with unprecedented opportunities for choice of governance and ease of transport and communication.