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.