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... 


Anonymous said...

What's the plan B?

Juris Kaža said...

Theoretically -- working in Sweden. Nothing definite.

Vic said...

Since I am foregin living in Latvia and learning the language, your blog is helpful to understand what is going on. I am curious: Would you agree Walhberg's opinions too? "But worse yet is the outright theft carried out in broad daylight by Western banks, whose academic friends were hired to write the Latvias' tax codes and who provided easy euro-denominated credit, so when the crunch came, they could move in and take whatever was left. Why invade such countries as Greece or Latvia with armies when you have bankers?" in Eric Wlhberg's http://www.globalresearch.ca/index.php?context=va&aid=18144

TRex said...

This is pretty depressing (but accurate notheless)reading but you can se the same thing in other EU countries and the CIS. The 3B's rose quickly after independance but fell even quicker. But as some Latvian politician noted recently after the Greek fiscal fiasco emerged into the harsh light of day, "we are no longer last!" perfectly illustrating why Latvia should contract out the running of the country so that the rats and vermin can be dealt with and some sructure established. I'm sure you'll see the western hand of Goldman Sachs and other players not currently well known revealed.

But it won't happen and Latvia has lost it's chance. Just a labor pool now.

Audrius said...


My name is Audrius Vedluga, 21, and I'm lithuanian and I study law in Bordeaux.I don't understand why there is so much pesimism in Latvia about it's independance. In Lithuania we do have much the same problems : economic crisis, hight unemployement rate, corruption, emmigration, communism's legacy and Seimas is occupied by a bunch of self-centred idiots that nobody thrust. Yet many people have come to 20th anniversary of independance on march 11(as much for military parade as for patriotic concert late that night). Many peope (not everyone) feel optimistic, and I am one of those, about futurre of Lithuania.
So what's so different in Latvia?

Alehins said...

When I look at myself in search for a Soviet, which I strongly believe I'm not, I realise what's remained in us since those times. This is my hidden knowledge that the only one I can rely on and count with is myself, because eveyone else is your current or potential but quite natural enemy.

This difference between the old Soviet world and the Western world still remains tremendous and I think it has only grown bigger since the fall of the communism.

The notion of competition is ever present in all modern and archaic societies. In a modern society, people don't need to fight for survival, which we in the post-Soviet still do. Those not fit for fight seem doomed.

I guess if we want to get rid of this humiliating legacy, get rid of the Soviet in ourselves, we could consider starting to care for each other, maybe stopping seeing enemies in each other. In that sense, I'm afraid western Latvians returning home from the trimda did little to introduce the values of caring and tolerance in the post-Soviet Latvia. Instead, many of them appeared even more xenophobic against a differently speaking part of the society than the local Latvians themselves who personally experienced the totalitarianism. This is what I read in your blogs Juri. With all respect.


why are people different? There is no definite answer. You can come up with yours and that will be just as good as anyone else's. Latvians are different.

Juris Kaža said...

I am afraid that you have misread my blogs. I do not recall ever writing anything against Russians, if that is what you mean by speakers of other languages. As far as caring and tolerance, I think former diaspora Latvians have done their part by involvement in NGOs in Latvia and even by taking part in the Riga Pride marches as heterosexual, traditional family people who support tolerance and human rights. The local post-soviet screaming mutants were the ones expressing hatred, intolerance and certainly not caring for others who are different.

Alehins said...

Juri, I didn't mean you said something exactly against whatever you understand under "Russians" or the word you used (and explained) in this same post. And of course you are right about western Latvians being active in some NGOs or employed managing foreign funds for the third sector. I know that, too, have worked together with some years ago.

I am talking about western Latvians having democratic values in their luggage when returning home. Did they know Latvia had almost half of its population by 1990 non-Latvian speaking? Yes. Were they ready to accept it or did they really hope someone would whip them up in freight cars and throw out of Latvia? What perception did they have about this half of the country’s population, how were they going to treat that half, how much respect to this half did they have in their luggage?

Well, I am sure many locals wouldn't be very surprised if the state would have really thrown some tens or hundreds of thousand out on the basis of their “registered” ethnicity. Psychologically, we all were prepared to ferocity under the totalitarian rule. Didn’t the Soviets repress people for belonging to specific ethnic groups? So it didn't come as a surprise that a number of Latvian political parties did call for forcing non-citizens out of the country.

Fine, I have no idea whether western Latvians expected the new Latvian state to exercise an ethnic cleansing. But I am not sure either whether they were ready to speak up against this would-be violence. Just as they didn't on the account of the non-citizenship, a practical expression of the state ferocity. Something cruel had to happen, if not a pogrom, then at least proclaiming them as not-really-citizens.

What I'm trying to say is that the democratic values, wisdom, knowledge, the experience from living in a democratic society should have come in the returnees. Now that 20 years have passed, Latvia is still a post-Soviet, non-western society. Not because the western Latvians didn't do their job. But they could have made some difference.

Juris Kaža said...

One thing is true -- that in the political exile world of Latvians until the late 1980s, the occupation and totalitarian regime in Latvia were closely linked to Russia and Russians (and Russian migration to Latvia was seen as, and probably was, deliberate Russification). However, there was serious debate about whether the occupation was to be seen as simply a Communist regime, or whether the Communist regime was just the latest manifestation of Russian imperialism. In other words -- who was the enemy? Was the Latvian exile community engaged in a purely anti-Communist political struggle or was it against Russian imperialism and the inevitable, if simplistic links to Russians per se, who represented, often, both faces of the adversary -- the Communist authorities and the ethnic occupier.
I don't think anybody wanted the new Latvian state, in 1991, to start ethnic cleansing, but there was a time when many Russian immigrants to Latvia seriously thought of leaving because they were not sure of what would happen. If the Latvian government had said nothing (but also done nothing to "push" anyone), there might have been a significant "return" of Russians to Russia or some other former Soviet territory. Instead, the Latvian government and political leaders signaled the Russian community that there was no reason to leave, but at the same time, the whole complicated citizenship and language debate started. It left a significant part of the Russian population subjectively aggrieved as "non-citizens". Maybe things would have been different if a significant part of the then-future "non-citizens" had left Latvia peacefully in 1990 -1992. But the clock cannot be turned back.
I guess the short answer is that "anti-Russian" attitudes, not without reason, were part of the exile Latvian way of thinking, sort of like the combination of anti-Nazi/anti-German sentiment among Jews and other victims of the German occupations during World War II.

Anonymous said...

Dear Juris, I beg to differ in one respect . You contend that The "face" of Riga has changed and it looks like almost any European city.

I don't share this impression. Not of Tallinn and not of Riga. While there are great parks and great restaurants in Riga, and I love Latvia - I really do, because of the great similarity between Estonia and Latvia, and because of my Latvian friends, etc., I have an impression of a city that was once great, then got despoiled, neglected and almost ruined, that is similar in many respects to Tallinn. Eclectic and with a scarred face. The modern architecture is sometimes good, often it sucks or is just banal. But it has been plopped down rather gratuitously and brutally into a landscape that still yells "Soviet Soviet Soviet". Both cities, depending on where you go, have that heavy gritty smack of the USSR, and not even Central and Eastern Europe to them. Interspersed of course with elements of charm and greatness.

Charm is a thing that the Balts still don't fully have the hang of. They want tourists, but they don't do old, charm and stylishness very well. Not in terms of the big combined picture.

The cities of the West are many and some of them are also blighted to a greater or lesser extent, but the Soviet blight carries its own signature. Tallinn, in any event, looks exactly like post-soviet Tallinn and not a Western city. We are somewhere in between, and the rough unevenness of the "eclecticness" rather saddens me in comparison to architecturally much more harmonious cities in the West. Stockholm for example bears the elements of postwar brutalism in a more integrated way - regardless - than these Baltic hodgepodges that have been through much more. The cities certainly are layered, and he or she who knows can see how the layers of good times and bad times have been laid down.

Simon and Garfunkel:

"In the clearing stands a boxer
And a fighter by his trade
And he carries the reminders
Of ev'ry glove that layed him down
Or cut him till he cried out
In his anger and his shame
"I am leaving, I am leaving"
But the fighter still remains."

Juri Estam in Estonia

Anonymous said...

Gaaaaaaa!!!!! Hilarious crap! I was reading your piece and waiting when u r going to blame Soviet Union" legacy for the economic and social problems Latvia is going through. I laughed when the tired and cliched moaning about Soviet past started in earnest. U r becoming too predictable and boring. How is this for a reason. Latvian politicians elected by Latvians themselves have run the country into the ground by their incompetence, corruption and hatred towards Russia and everything remotly related to Russia. They divided the nation, destroyed industry and agriculture, decimated social services and education and drove tens of thousands into emigration. So-called "Soviet legacy" had nothing to do with the idiotic policies pursued by Latvians in the last 20 years. Do you think people who put them in their offices didn't know about their Communist Party past. Damn right, they do! Ansip in Estonia was a CP member as well but he is extremely popular among the natives (non-Russians) for his Russophobia. Latvians will keep reelecting the same politicians who ran the country into the ground just because they don't want any Russian speakers to share the power. Can you name me at least 1 Russian-speaking minister in the gvernment. So if Latvians want to know who is responsible for their problems all they have to do is look in the mirror.

maris said...


All of what I've read is on the 'negative'. With all your 20/20 wisdom, how about aiming at the 'postive' instead. I don't mean by 'guilding the lilly', but by expressing positive ways / suggestions forward .. to help Latvia climb out of the shit, regardless of how it got there. Help Latvia forward, in lieu of denegrating it.