What are the historical and socioeconomic roots of the failure of governance and, to some extent, the failure of society that make me say that Latvia is a failed state lite? Why are the crisis in politics and the stagnation of the economy most likely intractable?
The deepest roots go far back in Latvian history. Maybe “600 years of serfdom” is a myth. The truth is that Latvian society was largely untouched by even a theoretical understanding of democracy and nationhood well into the 19th century. Subjugation and the serf mentality it created left a profound effect on national character and mentality.
At the start of the 20th century, Latvia was fortunate, despite being part of the Russian Empire, it had developed somewhat of an educated elite, sufficiently in tune with the movements and forces that had already changed or were changing Western Europe. These were classic liberalism, nationalism, scientific rationalism, to some extent Marxism, socialism and social democracy.
To be sure, the majority of society were still subjects, not citizens, trading loyalty or favors for the good will of the German manor lord, the Czarist bureaucrat or Father Czar (caratētiņš). Patronage and corruption, such as it was, had not reached depraved proportions, though I may be wrong and am ready to stand corrected on historical issues from this period.
Multi (25+) party democracy?
When Latvia gained its independence, the liberal democracy foreseen by its constitution, the Satversme, was the product of the nation’s small elite, which today we would call “Westernized”. The constitution had to be implemented in a society with an underdeveloped and fragmented political culture. How else does one explain 25+ political parties? The country’s already diverse population found expression in having, in the Saeima at one time or another, Zionist parties who differed only on whether they split a certain religious or political hair vertically or horizontally, Old Believers (Russians with ZZ Top beards), the Fishmongers and Breeders of Dwarf Swine etc. Some of these are made-up parties, but if you check the Saiema rosters from back in the 1920s and early 1930s, I don’t think my creative guesses are far from the truth.
As for corruption, etc., I assume that the film Ceplis (Soviet-era made), showing the antics of the business and political elite of the interwar period, was not an extreme exaggeration. Certainly, the culture of horizontal patronage among members of student fraternities (korporācijas) thrived, with some jobs or career advancements open only if you were a member of Ļurbalonia (sorry to insult all decent student organizations by avoiding naming any one in particular and making up this name)
After the bloodless military coup of 1934, it was back to being subjects again, this time of the Leader and Good Farm Manager (best try on labais saimnieks) Kārlis Ulmanis. Being a subject or follower of the good Vadonis (leader) also created, to my mind, a perverse version of that which is utterly lacking today in society’s attitude toward its institutions of governance -- trust.
The few remaining Latvians who experienced the Ulmanis era as young adults or teenagers often speak of those times with adulation. What shines through is that all these people, back then, trusted the Leader. They trusted him not because he had their electoral mandate based on informed choices, or based on a record of rarely or never breaking previous trust, they experienced as trust being relieved of the need to make choice and follow up, critically and skeptically, the actions of those chosen. Whatever the Leader does must be good, because we all, or most of us, trust him in this sense.
And so it was: I stay my place, you stay your place (to make a somewhat bizarre translation of what Leader Ulmanis said when the Soviet army rolled, unopposed, into Latvia in June, 1940). It quickly turned out that for Ulmanis “my place” was an unknown grave somewhere in the USSR, while “your place” (for the leader’s subjects) was a lot of places, many of them horrifying (Siberian labor camps, the Riga Ghetto, Waffen-SS fighting hopeless battles in some Russian swamp, Red Army on the other side of the swamp, fishing boats to Sweden, semi-slave labor under Allied bombs in Germany, and a whole range of merry adventures). In other words, almost everything had been fine on the Leader’s watch, but he just happened to lose the country.
Depradations of totalitarianism
And so, for the next 50 years, Latvian society was the largely unwilling subject of totalitarian foreign powers. The German occupation was relatively short, 1941-45, a different flavor of terror and terror with different targets than that of the Soviets in their first 1940-41 and subsequent 1945-91 occupations.
The Soviet deportations of 1941 and 1949, the losses of population due to battle casualties on both sides (Latvian citizens conscripted by the Germans and the Soviets), the Holocaust killing of the Jewish population, and the flight of some 200 000 Latvians to the West as the World War II ended, had a devastating impact on the social structure of Latvia. A large part of the nation’s educated elite were lost as refugees, war casualties or victims of political repression.
Economically, the already damaged agrarian base of the country was practically destroyed by collectivization and political repression. The most capable and productive farmers, in addition to losing their property, were imprisoned or deported as kulaks. The message of the early years of Soviet rule in Latvia was that any skills or behavior that would have been considered as entrepreneurial before the war or today were best hidden from the authorities.
With Stalin’s death in 1953, there was significantly less reason for day-to-day personal fear of the government authorities, but people were still largely subjects of a regime beyond their control. Moreover, the Communist regime was obviously mendacious (or put simply, a liar) about its economic and social achievements. For most people in Latvia, the imposition of a centrally planned, command economy meant a decline in living standards and the quality of life, while Soviet official propaganda portrayed it as progress and advancement.
Latvians, who prided themselves as a nation of farmers, were shocked when collective farms or kolhozes, sometimes turned to buying bread at artificially cheap prices and feeding it to pigs because proper animal fodder was not available (delayed, misdirected or embezzled). The destruction of the market economy and the absence of competent management (as well as the intractable problems of managing a command economy) degraded labor productivity in almost all fields. Salary incentives often had little impact because there were few goods or services to be bought with higher income.
By the time Soviet planners, desperate about the failure of the centrally planned economy to deliver what Communist slogans had been promising for decades, started experimenting with various incentives (aside from exhortations and bonuses in “wooden rubles” ) the “animal spirits” of enterprising Latvians and others across the USSR had created a dark, distorted “market economy” of favor and influence trading, bribes, stolen production and the “misuse” of socialist state property.
Summing up the effects of Soviet totalitarianism, the late Latvian historian and political commentator Uldis Ģērmanis described the society created by Soviet rule as an “anti-civilization” (anticivilizācija) -- a tragic, at “best” black humor parody of what “civilization” is generally understood to mean. It was a fragmented, atomized, demoralized society under a false banner of internationalist unity and socialist construction that, in fact, engaged in industrial activities that have been described as “value destructive” rather than “value-adding”.
Informal communities of trust
With a lingering fear of the KGB and its informers or stukači, society fragmented into small communities of tenuous trust (family, close friends, school or university classmates) that also provided “safe areas” for officially unsanctioned or forbidden activities -- a cousin to sell sausages from the meat of a kolkhoz pig that never was put on the books (piglets die, nobody double-checks), a classmate to bring Levis jeans from a sailor in return for some other favor. This, too, was part of the anticivilizācija, since in normal, open societies, people at least had some trust of public institutions and could be open about other communities of trust they belonged to -- churches, clubs, circles of friends and the like. In the Soviet anticivilization, these communities, instead, formed an ad hoc underground of, if not deliberate, then defacto resistance to most, if not all of what the state represented.
Theft, embezzlement and double-dealing were the safest and most powerful weapons of resistance to the state, which was seen as a dangerous, hostile menace. Few people would risk the penalties for raising the pre-war Latvian flag on the factory flagpole or of distributing “anti-Soviet” leaflets. But when it came to skimming the monthly production quota of some “deficit” goods, even the local Communist officials could be offered a cut and keep quiet about this offense to good plan execution. Often they were at the top of and even started whole “food chains” of pilferage and off-the books production (there were reports of informal “night shifts” at Soviet factories that produced for the benefit of the managers, while the “day shift” muddled about pretending to work).
This form of resistance also brought practical benefits in a society of chronic shortage and disfunctional official channels for getting anything done. Raise the red-white-red flag and get away with it-- so what? Nothing changed. Steal several rolls of good fabric and you are owed many favors by your elementary school classmate, now a seamstress, including making you a jacket from part of what you stole. Or arranging to see her sister, a dentist who is not a butcher.
As the malaise of the centrally planned but nearly unmanageable Soviet economy spread to more and more institutions, bizarre relationships developed. Even as Latvians, enjoying perestroika and glasnost freedoms, shouted at public rallies for the Soviet Army to leave Latvia, Latvian kolkhozes unofficially traded food (meat, eggs, fresh produce) to nearby Soviet army bases in return for motor fuel. Soviet army conscripts were living on poor rations, sometimes the kolkhoz care packages filtered down to them, more often, the officers would send Latvian sausages, smoke meats and cheese back home to Russia for consumption or sale through one of their informal and hidden communities of trust (Uncle Leonid in Krasnoyarsk and his black market boys). Meanwhile, had there been a major military alert, many tanks and armored personnel carriers would not have made it far past the army base gate, because their fuel tanks had been siphoned to pay for inventory for Uncle Leonid’s basement meat emporium.
Society as a thieves’ market
This society, a thieves market of fragmented, mutually suspicious informal little groups, all deliberately or unconsciously undermining the enemy state and its official economy, was what stepped into complete political and economic independence, somewhat unexpectedly, in August, 1991. The flags on the flagpoles changed, little else did, though much was expected, far much more than from the Communist slogans of the last time the order of things had changed back in 1945.
The Latvian leadership of the early 1990s were basically well meaning, inexperienced (at running free countries) and baffled Soviet people trying to be “ post-Soviet” (when “post” amounted to days or weeks). They inevitably failed. Bumbling mistakes were made, temptations “to grab a little” abounded. Society -- a rag quilt of these little groups of tentative trust -- took a few looks and concluded -- it is all the same. The state is still a hostile and incompetent force, failing to deliver the milk and honey that implicitly stood behind all the slogans and songs of national pride and independence. So fuck ‘em.
Oh, but there was milk and honey and five-star cognac in abundance, because the market economy kicked off in Latvia and the rest of the former USSR as one of history’s biggest yard sales. Millions of tons of inventory -- metal, chemicals, scrap, caviar, furs, you name it -- were there in the ownerless warehouses of ownerless all-Union enterprises. So people got to it, and were literally rolling in hard currency.
This was not entrepreneurial capitalism, but it sure looked like “ wow, I’m a millionaire”. What role models did anyone have for this? Certainly not the discreet charm of US or British “old money” where wealth was “flaunted” by funding a university library, opera house or scholarship fund. Try Dallas instead.
By the mid-90s (around the time of the so-called G-24 loan fiasco, when millions in foreign aid loans were wasted and shamelessly embezzled) the first Western and European Union (EU) advisors started arriving in Latvia under the Phare and other programs. Sometimes stridently, sometimes unintentionally condescendingly, the advisors and consultants repeatedly told their “clients” that graft and stealing were bad, that bureaucracy had to be eliminated or made efficient, that government operations and finances had to be open and transparent, plus a whole shopping list of things that had to be done if Latvia wanted to join the “civilized” world and eventually, the EU. Much of this fell on ears that were open in the classrooms and seminars, but often deaf when it came to putting the lessons into everyday practice.
In the 90s (and still, almost 20 years later), it was often argued that Latvia could not be like developed Western countries because it was poor. Certainly, it could not afford to build massive new infrastructure, tear up its railway net overnight and adjust it to European gauge and many other things, but that was not the issue. Latvia didn’t do the simple things that were recommended over and over by the Western consultants and that cost little or nothing -- like stop embezzling, taking bribes, being harsh and unkind to people seeking public services, treating employees as equals, not servile subordinates, etc.
What happened during the late 90s and what continues up to now is that the remnants of the anticivilizācija simply shrugged off all well-meaning outside influences and went about their business. This showed up not only in the activities of significant parts of the political and economic elite, but also in everyday behavior by ordinary people. It has probably been underestimated to what extent much of the population is psychologically twisted, undereducated, and made passive-aggressive by both the Soviet legacy and the experience of the past 20 years. I have described these behaviors in other posts.
Opening the floodgates
2004 and EU accession opened the floodgates for people who wanted to get away from all this and move to where they were, first of all, better paid, and second, better governed both by the states where they moved and, often, in their new workplaces. The end result is that Latvia has lost some 300 000 inhabitants, in non-violent and, for those directly involved, even subjectively pleasant ways (I disagree with those who compare the population loss to a war, economic migrants are not refugees from conflict nor are they war casualties). TV shows on emigration often feature people saying that they are living dignified lives for the first time after moving to Ireland or England.
However, the emigration also took away a very significant part of the population that, had it been confined to Latvia by difficult immigration rules in other countries (no EU membership), might have formed a powerful political opposition to what has happened. A potentially revolutionary opposition was simply vented off like steam, thanks to Latvia joining the EU and many people choosing a relatively quick way to get away from, though hardly solve, Latvia’s intractable problems. It could even be said that many of the country’s best and brightest have been lost, simply because it matters to be good and bright elsewhere, but not very much in Latvia.
While we may not yet be scraping the bottom of the social and demographic barrel, we certainly are in the lower layers, and it even seems that it can be seen on the street level - the increasing numbers of worn-out, strange, haggard, desperate and sometimes criminal looking people on the streets. It also seems, looking at some remaining young people, that the generation of fetal alcohol syndrome babies from the 1980s has started growing up. Yet another sign that the effects of anticivilizācija lingering 20 years after the USSR collapsed.
Anticivilizācija has left more than a physical condition. It has also hit at what I would call the “social DNA” of the nation, the processes by which social behavior patterns, rather than physical characteristics, are transferred from generation to generation. Compare this, if you wish, to the operating system of a computer, the program that determines how all other things are done by the machine. Real DNA is like hardware, and there is nothing particular about the Latvians -- same as everyone’s and same as it ever was.
Warped “social DNA”
The social DNA of Latvia, however, is badly warped. It predisposes people to a strangely post-Soviet paranoid inferiority complex. Being told that, or determining one’s self that one lacks something is not in and of itself enough to develop an inferiority complex. A rational individual will look for ways of remedying one’s faults and failings. Add to that a paranoia fed by complex, overlapping and overlaid conspiracy theories and being told that there is something wrong is equal to trying to make things wrong or worse. No need to listen to these voices!
Moreover, the paranoia exaggerates the inferiority complex to its opposite -- not only are we victimized, but we, as victims, play a special role on the world stage with major figures such as George Soros and the better part of the Russian intelligence services (and most of the Russian population of Latvia) out to keep use down and make things worse. This paranoid inferiority complex -- sometimes mild, sometimes intense --blurs the view of or blinds the remaining population to seeking a way out of their lingering misery. Instead, with fewer and fewer educated and thinking individuals as part of the mix, society continues to chase phantom solutions and explanations for its problems -- a return to mythical autarky, a strong leader (appearing from where?), more wacko conspiracy theories, many of them fed by crackpot Russian websites and publications, since people able to critically read other languages have moved to the countries where they are spoken -- England, Germany, Sweden, etc.
So where does that leave things? Unfortunately, it looks like Latvia has slipped past some kind of tipping point, and what we will see for the many years is stagnation and slow decline. People who expect a great repatriation of the 300 000 immigrants are deluding themselves. What is there to come back to, to permanently come back? For those who emigrated to Western Europe, frequent visits are not a problem. Keeping up the language and culture -- ditto, if anyone wants to. An emigre middle class can afford its ethnicity and most of the trappings as a hobby -- the post-war refugees proved this. Latvian churches and centers everywhere. The new emigrants are duplicating this to some extent. They are saying that their presence in Ireland, England, wherever, is (semi) permanent. The only benefit they will bring to those remaining in Latvia is a steady flow of repatriated funds (remittances) and money spent when visiting “home” from their real and socio-economically better homes.
I have seen the future, and it may not be there.