Tuesday, May 04, 2010

20 years of freedom and they put you on the sh*t list

Latvia celebrates 20 years since its formal declaration of renewed independence on May 4, 1990. That was a warm, sunny, almost summer day with foliage in full bloom -- at least judging from the videos of those events. I am writing on a grey, chilly day with buds just bursting. Eerily, the weather sums up what most of the population feel about their country. According to one poll, 70 % of Latvians aren't celebrating this anniversary. 
One reason could be that people don't like the idea of two independence days -- November 18, 1918, when the Republic of Latvia was first founded, and the second May 4 date, which has been the subject of argument -- some of it hair-splitting by ultranationalists --over the past 20 years. For some, the "4th of May republic"  has become a curse word, a symbol of how part of the old Soviet nomenklatura switched side but didn't change their basic nature. There is some truth to that, as I will discuss later.
Whatever one calls it, 20 years later, the processes that were already in motion on May 4, 1990, and were historically crystallized by the vote of the then Supreme Council, have led to a state of affairs that is a great disappointment, if not a complete betrayal of most of what the enthusiastic crowds of that May afternoon were hoping for. This is the second reason there is little enthusiasm for May 4. 
20 years is roughly one generation, 20 years is the time it takes to get a theoretically very good education -- 12 years, plus four years of university, plus some kind of post-graduate education or training.  20 years is the time it took a large society like the US to move from the conformity of the late 1940s to the social and political upheavals of the 1960s. 20 years is the time it took a war-ravaged nation (Latvia) that had to fight a war of independence to rise to become a reasonably successful, though authoritarian European state in 1938, the last full year of peace. 
Certainly much has happened in 20 years, or more precisely, almost 19 years since Latvia actually regained its independence with the disintegration of the Soviet Union in August, 1991. The "face" of Riga has changed and it looks like almost any European city. The market economy has brought in goods and services and abundance unheard of in the crumbling planned economy of 1990. There have been incomparable opportunities for travel, education and enterprise for the population, especially for young people growing up since 1990/91.
Latvia is also a democratic country that largely respects the freedom of speech and the press (the idiotic activities of the Security Police against an economics lecturer and the attempts by the Riga authorities at restricting gatherings on March 16 and LBGT Pride events notwithstanding). So far, it seems, so good...
But things are far from as good as they should be or could have been. Unlike 1938, Latvia is at the bottom, not the top of European statistics. Unemployment hovers at over 20 %, salaries are falling, an unknown, but very large number of people have emigrated (if they had stayed on the labor market, the unemployment statistics would be much greater, even adjusted for those listed as unemployed in Latvia but actually working abroad but not reporting it in order to collect unemployment benefit or simply because they don't care). Around 90 % of the population, depending how one asks the question, distrust political institutions and politicians. The reputation of the democratically elected parliament, the Saeima,  hit a new low when many parliamentarians simply lied to the public about how they would vote on the re-confirmation of Prosecutor-General Jānis Maizitis (the post remains vacant). The Saeima pushed its rat-like reputation even lower when it refused to let Dainis Īvans, the first leader of the Latvian Popular Front  (Tautas Fronte), the movement that set the move to independence in motion, address the special session of the Saeima on May 4. 
The past 20 years have seen a series of often depraved corruption scandals that have resulted in very little in the way of prosecution and punishment. The criminal process against Aleksandrs Lavents, one of the bankers responsible for the collapse of the largely fraudulent Banka Baltija in 1995, was dragged out so long that the years of jail time (and endless illness) practically amounted to sufficient punishment (time served) when Lavents was finally convicted. A couple of years later, the wreck of a man moaning on his prison hospital stretcher was looking more than chipper at such Russian-speaking gliterati events as the "New Wave" music festival in Jūrmala. 
Aivars Lembergs, the almost perpetual mayor of Ventspils who has amassed several centuries of wealth (assuming he saved every santim of his mayor's salary) and faces compelling evidence of criminal corruption and embezzlement, remains a popular politician who spent a few months in pre-trial jail. 
Political parties seem to be universally involved in corruption and influence peddling. Politicians Ainārs Šlesers and Andris Šķēle, the partners of a AŠ2 election-alliance gimmick, were behind the attempt to buy votes on the Jūrmala city council. They remain unscathed, despite recordings of Škēle asking "who is the bigger cretin"  when presented with choices for mayor of the Riga suburb.
Nothing is sacred -- it appears that the Children's Hospital in Riga was used as a conduit for (and victim of) a corruption scheme siphoning funds from renovations and construction at health care facilities. This happened at the same time as a non-governmental organization Lielie (The Big Guys) was raising funds for improving the Children's Hospital to partly compensate drastic funding cuts for medical care.
Just after joining the European Union (EU), Latvia rushed headlong into overheating its economy with reckless borrowing and "pedal to the metal" politics against all better advice. Then everything crashed and, as things now look, nothing will recover for many years. 
Part of the reason for what happened is, indeed, Soviet legacy. People were conditioned by the system to see the state and state institutions as the enemy. Pilfering from the state was not seen as a crime and, indeed, the only form of "resistance" that could be undertaken with relative impunity compared to over political action. One could get away with stealing cloth from the factory, but not with running a Latvian flag up the factory flagpole (at least until the late 1980s). When the early independent Latvian governments faltered or failed to meet exaggerated expectations (pumping huge government subsidies to everything, a very "Soviet" expectation), the reaction -- pilferage, low level corruption, tax evasion -- was already known by force of habit. I remember saying, but maybe not writing (unless I go through a lot of old floppy disks), that changing the flag on the flagpole would not change the nature of the society that had been formed under the previous Soviet flag. That proved, to some extent, to be true. Certainly Soviet nomenklaturshik thinking unconsciously carried over into the way early (and even later) governments behaved, down to African-dictator-style motorcades with flashing blue lights in order to transport my favorite imaginary Minister of Canine Welfare (Suņu labturības ministrs) the few blocks from Government House to the Saeima in Riga.
As emigration takes a significant part of the "best and brightest", it seems that the the number of lumpenized individuals (the term urla, mostly applied to Russians but fitting many Latvians as well, is often applied).  Perhaps it is because I work near the Riga Central railway station, but it seems that the number of urlas is increasing, as well as the number of shit-faced staggering drunks one sees at "inappropriate" times of the day. It also seems that beggary and the public displays of misery associated with it are on the rise. Even among "ordinary folk" there seem to be more worn, desperate, despondent looking faces. This is -- and it is a subjective view-- a nation on the downslope, down and out and no place to go.
Maybe in another 20 years Latvia will have clawed its way to something close to a prosperous, democratic Western society. At the moment, one shouldn't bet on it, because in the past 20 years, the botched and missed opportunities outnumber the often visible surface accomplishments. As for me, I am doing the very contemporary 2010 Latvian thing of working on yet another Plan B, should the need arise...