LATVIA: ANNO 2000
OK, the first few years, you can make allowances for. But after a while, the sleazy, incompetent, inferiority-complex-blossomed-into-arrogant know-nothing style of running things, at least at the governmental level, becomes tiresome and damned irritating. The ignorance, drunken helplessness, sullen passivity and psychological squalor of a substantial part of the population do not exactly brighten the “civil society” side of things, either. Many of those who have made money use TV reruns of “Dallas” as a literal guide for spending it and as a handbook in business ethics. Underneath the facade, Latvia is too often a pretty sordid and sorry sight.
What the governing institutions lack in corruption they often make up for in ineptitude. Once some aspect of Latvian administration manages to avoid both, it is forced into some new form of bizarre behavior by the legislative Goon Show that is called the Saeima. The revised Child Protection Law that practically denied the children of single parents or divorcees the right to travel is but one example. Another case in point is the requirement that all vehicles owned by legal entities (as opposed to physical persons) can only be operated with a notarized power of attorney. This means that there will be hundreds of thousands of lats of business generated for the country’s secret special interest group – notaries public – from the pockets of trucking companies, other companies with fleets of service cars, and anyone who has bought a car on a leasing arrangement and left title to the vehicle with a bank.
These may sound like petty matters, but it is the massive level of petty, seemingly incurable stupidity that makes Latvia in 2000 a demoralizing place.
I am afraid that things are little changed 9 years later. On the streets, even before the economic downturn, one could see that the intractable underclass was still around, perhaps even gaining relative weight now that Latvia has been in the European Union for almost five years and it is very easy to move to live and work in another EU country.
One still sees the disturbing presence of able bodied beggars and young, dissipate, purposeless men (the new, perhaps racist term urla/as it is mostly applied to Russians, though there are plenty of Latvians who fill the bill/ comes to mind). The whole society, it seems, is sprinkled liberally with urlas.
In my earlier essay, I also used the American slang term mutt, which is broader than urla, as it can apply to ruling elite as well as to street people and marginalized groups.
Back in 2000, I wrote:
I often feel a strange familiarity in much of the street level behavior I have seen in Riga. People casually and carelessly strolling or staggering into traffic, hanging on street corners, lounging or sauntering in parks, the ever-present beer bottle in hand, the totally shameless intrusions into strangers’ personal space in queues and other crowded situations, and so on. Then I realized – these were the same behaviors and vibes one gets in a depressed black ghetto. This is Harlem or South Bronx street life-- Baltic style, and fortunately, without the Uzis.
There have only been subtle changes. The intrusions into personal space, as I remember, were from older, often blank-faced women, and in the intervening years, this particular subgroup may well have simply died off. Then again, I no longer ride public transportation on a daily basis, where this behavior was the norm when waiting in a small crowd (not a queue) for a tram or trolley bus. I have been able to walk to work for the past six years or so. The staggering into traffic-- I saw two urlas nearly taken out near the Central Station, at least one of them shit-faced in some multi-intoxicant haze.
Now that Latvia is facing its first really devastating economic downturn, what I wrote about social problems earlier seems more relevant than ever:
My guess is that around 30 % of the population of Latvia is “ghettoized” and probably beyond redemption, quite sullenly content to live in a haze of semi-ignorance, wounded pride interlaced with an inferiority complex, self-pity and passive resignation occasionally obliterated by alcohol or solvent abuse. For any society, there is a critical mass of degeneracy at which the society self-destructs or spirals into a long, agonizing stagnation characteristic, perhaps, of Third World tribes subjected to intolerable culture shocks. I am not sure that Latvia has reached this critical mass, but I have a feeling that it is dangerously close to it.
I have nothing to add. The feeling is the same. The country had 18 years, for fuck's sake! In that same time span, the US moved from the Man in the Grey Flannel Suit of 1950 to the counterculture and student revolt of 1968. The world now moves even faster and Latvia is simply letting itself be left behind road kill on the ever higher speed limit highway of history.
And I also can repeat and endorse what I wrote in 2000:
I expected a renewed Latvia and Latvians to move much faster, not necessarily in unison, but in close step (not deliberately tripping each other), toward self-evident goals like efficient government and markets, an open and fair society, and rapid, intelligent adaptation (not blind mimicry) of Western methods, values and institutions that, in the 50 year contest that was the Cold War, proved incontestably superior. I did not expect the muddle, the corruption, the ignorance that makes Latvia a psychologically often uncomfortable and disconcerting place.