Monday, October 24, 2011

Graffiti, junkies and multi-drug addled mutts as signs of social decay

The center (even officially known as "Centrs") of Riga, where I live and work, is showing signs of profound social decay. If you accept the "broken window that doesn't get fixed" theory of areas spiraling downward into becoming crime ridden slums, then the signs are all over the place in central Riga. It is not broken windows, but spray-painted, artless, incoherent graffiti everywhere. I discovered this by going around on walks and taking photographs, mainly of what I think is "street art" type graffiti and noticing that there was much, much more of the incoherent, quickly daubed squiggles and tags type of stuff. It seems to increase from week-to-week.
Also noticeable is the number of people on the street nodding on heroin or intoxicated on substances other than alcohol (not stoned, but on something that, unlike grass, affects motor functions in a different way than the drunken stagger of alcohol). You see these characters even in the morning, along with drunks, the typical signs of urban social degeneration. As things look, the mutts* are getting the upper hand.
*From the Urban Dictionary:

A Mutt is a person who is a real lowlife, degenerate piece of shit who just never does anything right... The common Mutt can be found in OTB and the local bagel store buying lotto tickets every day of their lives and losing every dollar they have... Another type of Mutt will be high or drunk 247 and try to operate and have a normal life but wind up doing "Mutt" things.

Here are some examples
Basically, just "tags" and scrawls, propagating day to day.
For the record, on addicts: Heroin should be decriminalized and made available to registered addicts along with clean needles. There should be no "accidental death penalty" for being a fuckwit who gets addicted, nor should we be robbed by addicts who need to pay for drugs whose prices are determined by their illegality, not their cost of production.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Latvia: Cobbling together a "kludge" of a government

It looks like Latvia may have managed to cobble together a fragile coalition of Unity/Vienotība (V), the tatters of the Zatlers Reform Party (ZRP), six ZRP defectors and the National Alliance (NA). By now it should be obvious that the bright sun of change some Latvians have expected since the founding of New Era (Jaunais Laiks/JL) almost ten years ago, and that they expected, yet again, with the V alliance in 2010, and yet again with the dismissal of the Saeima and the new elections, has slipped back below the horizon. Another false dawn.
So what can we expect? Valdis Dombrovskis will continue at the helm of a listing ship with six loose cannons on deck (perhaps more, one can't say that the disintegration of the ZRP has ended with the mere loss of 27% of its parliamentary strength). There is already talk that oligarch influenced Green/Farmers Union (Zaļo Zemnieku Savienība/ ZZS, which neither particularly green nor agrarian) could be called out of its political leper colony to boost the coalition should all else fail.
That, of course, would be a symbolic death blow to the ZRP, which was built, overnight in political movement forming terms, on the idea of opposing the “oligarchs” and the practice of state capture. The six loose cannons have indicated this could be fine with them, providing that no direct representatives of Ventspils mayor Aivars Lembergs (from his Ventspils based “sub-party”) are involved. Dombrovskis, too smart not to be aware of the kind of crew he is sailing with, has also hinted that the ZZS might be let in the back door. After all, they are weaker than in the last Saeima, when they did everything to disrupt V's attempts to govern coherently. But then coherent governance has never been and is unlikely to be a Latvian priority in the foreseeable future.
The Harmony Center (Saskaņas Centrs/SC) has forecast – motivated by some bitterness – that the coalition will be lucky to last until next spring. They may be right. They have also indicated that as a harsh and firm opposition, the SC will continue to advocate social democratic policies. When it was offered a chance to govern together with the center-right, the SC quickly abandoned the social democratic populism that got it elected. More evidence that the SC are chameleons, never mind inexperienced (maybe a virtue where “experience” is being part of two decades of misrule) at national government.
After the “Sunday morning surprise” popped on everyone by the chief loose cannoneer Klāvs Olšteins (who burned through two political parties this year so far), it is safe to say that anything can still happen by the time the Saeima has to vote on the new government on October 25. But it seems likely that the present kludge (to use IT slang) of a government will get approved. Then the whole company of 100 merry pranksters will have to pass yet another austerity budget for 2012. How much more will have to be cut, and will the cuts keep up with the deterioration of the tax base due to emigration and the drift of the population into the gray economy is an issue that no one has talked about yet in and depth. Everyone has been watching the political circus or balagāns of the past five weeks. The real horror show may start with the budget. 

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Act one of the "balagāns" ends

Act One of the balagāns seems to have ended. At square one, namely, the coalition that most people thought they were voting for – a center-right government consisting of Zatlers' Reform Party (ZRP), Unity (Vienotība/V) and the breath-taking (if you try to say the whole thing in one breath) All for Latvia/Fatherland & Freedom/Latvian National Independent Movement or simply the National Alliance (NA). It took just three weeks of acrimony, betrayal, reconciliation, adultery and the political equivalent of make-up sex to get back to where everyone started – at least everyone who could a) count the Saeima seats won after the September 17 election and b) compare and contrast the party programs of those elected to the Saeima.
Looking at things that way, one can say – good for you, Harmony Center (Saskaņas centrs/SC),you added two seats and became the single largest party in the Saeima! However, your program – at least up until the chameleon hopped up in front of a picture (symbolically speaking) of Valdis Zatlers and Valdis Dombrovskis and started to try to match its background – was completely mismatched with these guys. The ZRP and V are not populist social democrats. Nor is V “pro-Russian” in the same sense that SC appeals to its Russian electorate. Neither is it anti-Russian and much of what it says could appeal to middle-class ethnic Russian voters.
The same goes for the ZRP, which has proposed and may still get ethnic Russian economist Vjačeslavs Dombrovskis appointed to a ministerial position. He would be, technically speaking, at least the third ethnic Russian minister after Vladimirs Makarovs of the nationalist Fatherland & Freedom and Vasilijs Meļņiks (finance minister for five days in 1997). However, the ZRP has, for three weeks, clung to the idea of having the SC as a coalition partner almost like one of those attack dogs whose jaws, once they bite, cannot be opened without cutting off the beast's head. The news that the ZRP has agreed to what was obvious three weeks ago came the night of October 10, so there is still time for surprises before the new Saeima meets.
As for SC, their “exclusion” from government is not a “Russian vs Latvian” thing, at least not in rational terms. The ideology of SC and the other potential coalition partners didn't match. You cannot match shape-shifting “social democrats” who voted to protect an oligarch (Ainārs Šlesers) from the law with centrists, much less with nationalists. The ZRP was crazy trying to do so and persisting in its obsession for three weeks, discrediting (if that is at all possible) the Latvian political system even further.
The potentially loose cannon in the upcoming coalition is the NA, who know that they probably can test how far they roll around on the heaving decks of the coalition without any serious consequences. Unlikely that they will be dumped in favor of the SC, after all, but perhaps they should not tempt fate. On some points of logic, the NA does make sense. No one should accept the facile phrase that Latvia was occupied, but there are no occupiers. To say this, even in 2011, is like going back in time to 1965 (20 years after the war) in Germany and saying : “There was a Holocaust, but there isn't anyone around who shot or gassed Jews.” Of course there were such folks around, and they were found and put on trial.
The expression “there was an occupation, but there are no occupiers” is an illogical way of saying that most, perhaps the vast majority of non-Latvians who arrived during the occupation did not do so with the intent of actively enforcing the totalitarian regime. Clearly, those who were members of the security service (the KGB) and the military (the Soviet army wasn't just visiting Latvia for 50 years for vacation). Soviet army veterans have essentially been blanket pardoned for, technically, being “occupiers” under the treaty that ensured the removal of ex-Soviet Russian troops. There has not been a concerted effort to find and punish ex-KGB, a number have even become businessmen and politicians (such as social democrat Juris Bojārs).
What one really means by saying “there are no occupiers” is that one isn't going to make a big deal of it unless there is a clear case of someone being a “ripper of fingernails” (nagu maucējs in Latvian). Also, there is no point in going after second-generation “occupiers” or those who simply came along for the ride thinking that the “known world” for them was the Soviet Union. The country has already lost some 300 000 people of all ethnicities to emigration, and trying to get even more to leave simply because they are Russian is not going to help things, especially the economy.
Keeping the NA from going off the deep end on these issues is going to be a major concern for the new coalition (if it hasn't already fallen apart as I write this). The other concern is what Zatlers, who has proven himself somewhat of a whackbat (amalgam of wacko and batshit) may do if offended by the NA and tempted to seek solace with his “first love” the SC. Which is not to say that the center-right coalition that has apparently been stapled together couldn't get the support of the SC on some issues. That would almost be like normal European politics. Nice thought. But this is Latvia...

Saturday, October 08, 2011

Admitting a wasted vote in a failed state lite

I voted for Zatlers' Reform Party (ZRP) in the September 17 out of a sense of duty to vote for an “electable” political party, also to express my dissatisfaction with Unity (Vienotība/V) for letting their coalition partner, the Green and Farmers' Union (Zaļo un Zemnieku savienība/ZZS) walk all over them. I decided that voting for the party I most sympathized with, the semi-anarchist Last Party (Pēdējā partija) would be a waste of my vote.
It now turns out that voting for the ZRP, even though they came in “second” with 22 seats in the Saeima, was also a waste of my vote. Others may be happy with their choice, I am not. It not seems that the only goal of the ZRP is to bring the Harmony Center (Saskaņas centrs/SC) into government, no matter what other disruptive effects this may have. These may include tearing apart the other parties it is trying to bring into the coalition, including itself.
The idea of making the SC one of the building blocks of a future government with its 31 Saeima seats has freaked out Latvian society in many ways at at many levels. It has also been reflected in the foreign media in distorted and nonsensical ways. For instance, saying that the SC gaining two Saeima seats for itself is a “social-democratic” victory is simply wrong. The SC is not a classic social democratic party, its populism sounds social democratic at first glance. It has voted with the oligarchs, it did not act to let anti-corruption police search the homes of Saeima deputy Ainārs Šleser, suspected of corruption. One of SC's candidates for prime minister, Riga mayor Nils Ušakovs, partnered with Šlesers in running the city until the politician was elected to the Saeima in 2010.
For me, these are reasons enough to be skeptical of bringing the SC into government. I would also be worried about the somewhat chameleonic nature of the SC. Within days of the election, they were ready to abandon their pre-election promises concerning the indexing (raising of pensions)and to soften their skeptical stand on joining the euro (considering what is happening with the European sovereign debt crisis, there was some merit to this view) as well as on attempting to re-negotiate and extend Latvia's arrangements with the IMF and other international lenders (a crackpot idea, IMHO).
Also, the SC is actually an alliance of two parties – the SC and the Socialist Party, which is an unreformed, hard-line Communist organization that justifies the deportations of Latvian citizens under Soviet occupation in 1941 and 1949, and calls the 1991 restoration of Latvian independence as a “ reactionary coup”. In a sudden move after the election and as coalition talks started, the SC said it would disassociate from the Socialists. What were they thinking earlier?
Meanwhile, the other parties in the talks were also showing rifts. Valdis Liepins, a Canadian-Latvian who “defected” from V to enthusiastically join the ZRP has been circulating e-mails expressing his opposition to any deal with the SC. He is a potential defector from his new party, which could bring the SC/ZRP majority to 52 (should both parties try to go it together).
V, meanwhile, has been deciding on-again-off-again that it won't/might go into coalition with the SC or maybe with everyone (except the ZZS, a party consigned to a kind of political leper colony). Except that “everyone” doesn't get along with “everyone” else, and the country is not at war or in any other extreme situation requiring a government of national unity. The National Alliance (NA) has declared it will never join a coalition with SC in it, nor is the SC ready to sit in the same government with the nationalists. V is also showing little unity in that some of its components (the former Citizens' Union) are also threatening to split off if there is a coalition with the SC.
Which means there are really “one and a half” possible combinations – the ZRP, V and the NA in a center-right coalition with programmatic similarities and a ZRP/SC coalition of two inexperienced and programmatically mismatched parties that would satisfy former president Valdis Zatlers' ambition to finally bring some ethnic Russians into government (at all costs, if need be).
As for the “Russian” issue, that has been raised yet again in all of its paranoid glory, with at least some parts of society sincerely believing that the SC will move rapidly toward moving Latvia into Russia's sphere of influence and making Russian an official language. Dampening these views has not been helped by Janis Urbanovics, a ethnic Latvian SC leader and its second candidate for prime minister, hinting that Russians would use “extra-parliamentary” means of protest if the SC was kept out of government.
In short, with President Andris Bērziņš setting a deadline for some kind of resolution of matters this Monday (October 10), there is some pressure for the parties to get their act together. But since this is Latvia, that may not happen. The continued bickering, bumbling, “betrayal” and shape-shifting will only confirm the totally cynical attitude the vast majority of the population has toward politics and politicians in general. While Urbanovics may not succeed in getting people into the streets, the continued failure of Latvian politics will lead to more external and “internal emigration”, in the form of passive resistance to taxes and any dealings with a system of governance much of the population sees as corrupt, incompetent and hostile to their interests. 

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Ground control to the majors Valdis...

The political balagāns in Latvia has lifted off into new regions of outer space. Major Valdis Zatlers of the spaceship ZRP (Zatlers' Reform Party) has said it will take Imperial Star Cruisers (main battle tanks in Earth terms) to get him to undock from the Starship Harmony Center (SC). Now the other space major Valdis (Dombrovskis) has joined the orbital circus by proposing that all the spaceships dock and form a nice orbiting “ rainbow” with the Starship Unity (V), the Nationalist Falcon (NA) and even the almost launched into the Phantom Zone interplanetary garbage scow The Green Farmer (ZZS).
Ground control to the majors Valdis – this ain't gonna work, not in orbit, not on Earth.
The whole process of putting together some kind of workable coalition has gone far down the road to a total FUBAR (fucked up beyond all repair, in case you didn't know). It was probably heading there from the very start. Major “Big Wally” as I call him was determined from the start to link up with SC. Nothing was going to stop him, not even a deal with the other, “Little Wally” and V, to form the “core” of any coalition. Core meltdown. Bad in space, worse on earth.
So where does that leave things? The smart thing to do, to keep everything from de-orbiting and burning up, would be to let Major Big Wally remain docked and in orbit with SC. Everyone else stays on the ground, in gentle opposition and sees how many orbits the tandem can do by themselves.
This may be the only way out. Despite the fact that, programmatically, ZRP, V and the NA fit together, actually putting them together into a coalition has proven to be about as easy as the worst case scenario for assembling a piece of IKEA furniture. All the parts are there, just no one can fit them together and all attempts just fail.
Well, maybe not. Now it is on again, yes, again, between V and the ZRP, who have, according to the latest news, both agreed to call for a kind of government of national unity minus the Green Farmer spacecraft, to be left in decaying oppositional orbit. That means that both the SC and the National Alliance will agree to sit in the same government. Yeah, right... Where is that cryptic IKEA diagram. Wait, these are parts from a different chair.
It is night, there will be real daybreak some hours from now, but this whole Saeima dismissal process, the referendum, now the latest elections, all point to yet another false dawn. The already totally cynical electorate will give whatever new government is cludged together a single digit rating even before it is formed.
Oh yes, then there is the little matter of the 2012 budget, with more spending cuts and the need to pour resources into what one can neither confirm nor deny is a rathole in the skyways – air Baltic. There, also, some kind of deal has been cobbled together and it will cost the state LVL 57 million in a first installment. Berthold Flick, who may well have been running the company against a merry mare's nest of revenue-suctioning parasite companies under his half-owned Baltijas aviacijas sistēmas (BAS), at least, is out of the picture. Whether he will sell his shares in BAS remains to be seen. In any case, it is starting to look like the biggest minority owner of air Baltic may be from the Russian sleazocracy.
Somehow I don't see the broad rattletrap coalition now being proposed as capable of getting much of anything, never mind the budget, done. Leaving the linked spacecraft of SC and ZRP to do it alone would be the test to quickly see whether they have the stomach (especially SC) to cut at least another LVL 100 million, if that is really the true figure. Just wondering, as 14 000 taxpayers, a record number, rising fast, have left the country this year to work and pay taxes where it actually counts and pays off. So I don't see tax revenues narrowing the budget deficit. Instead, the tax base will shrink by the combination of emigration and increasing tax resistance and evasion.
Let us see what marvels of outer space the next few days bring...

Sunday, October 02, 2011

The “nicotine drill”, urban cattle update and a whiff of heroin

I go to work past some kind of vocational high school in Riga, and almost every morning, I see something that reminds me of my high school days in the US-- almost everyone has left the building and is standing around in small to medium-sized groups. Back at Newton North High, this kind of a scene meant there was a fire drill, and this occurred a couple of times during any semester. At the Latvian school, the teenagers are out, standing in clumps, every weekday. And 99% of them are smoking. It is, in other words, a daily “nicotine drill”.
Don't get me wrong. Smoking is an individual choice. I have smoked for periods in my life, but never to the point of addiction (“needing” a cigarette at all costs, feeling “withdrawal” symptoms). If someone wants to smoke, let them do it (with respect for others and non-smokers, a commodity in short supply in Latvia). But the shocking number of smoking teenagers every morning indicates a number of things badly wrong. First, apparently these kids are either not educated about smoking, or whatever they are told falls on deaf ears. Compare this to the relatively low teen smoking rates in Sweden and other European countries. The other thing is that these smokers are the public health problems of the future in a country were there is practically no public health – by the time they are 20 years older, there may well be no tax-funded health care in Latvia (or many of them may be net consumers of health service in countries they have emigrated to).
In other words, the “nicotine drill” is yet another “street level” observation of the failure of societal mechanisms in Latvia and the continued degeneration of everyday life. I can only note that the proportion of the strange, addled and desperate-looking on the streets continues to increase. It is, perhaps, distorted by the fact that I work near the Riga central train station, and train stations are magnets for social outcasts.
Just a few examples – the pathetic, stereotype-boosting hustle by Roma/Gypsies by the train station, involving a few women peddling some kind of cosmetics, supervised by a number of men. It happens every day, with little apparent success by the “salesladies”. Where the goods come from can also be open to question. Certainly, one of the marketing mistakes by this team of street peddlers is that most Latvians automatically think – “Roma=stolen goods”. This may or may not be true. Perhaps they are peddling counterfeit goods. In any case, this activity, day-to-day, propagates the image of Roma as folks who engage in what can charitably be called cheap-ass, sleazy commerce.
A few meters away (one standing with a crutch, one sitting in his wheelchair) are two disabled beggars, who routinely engage in verbal and, sometimes, physical bum fights. The stand right by the pedestrian cross toward the train station (also the Origo shopping center) said to be the busiest in northern Europe. Here we see the phenomenon I have called urban cattle in full flower. Urban cattle are people who simply wander about mindlessly, ignorant of distinctions between sidewalks and road traffic, as well as anyone else engaged in locomotion (on foot, by motor vehicle or bike) around then. Urban cattle operate alone or in small herds. These herds, as a rule, fan out when one approaches and tries to overtake and pass them while walking somewhere in a purposeful manner (the cattle saunter and pause, doing “stop and stares” at nothing in particular).
It has now become routine at the Origo crossing, where pedestrian lights are indicated by digital times, for the urban cattle to jump the gun in considerable numbers at around 10 seconds before the lights actually change. I see this every time I cross there. First the urban cattle, some as early as minus 15, without even breaking stride from whatever hallucinatory or somnambulant hike they are one, then the rest of us
This seems especially dangerous, as the cattle end up in the path of drivers racing past the crossing on yellow. So far, I have not seen anyone hit, which seems almost miraculous. Then one day I noticed a few heavy-eyed cattle walking in a noddy-plodding manner not typical of alcohol drunks, who usually stagger and sometimes are self-aware (with the exception of the glassy-eyed robodrunks marching in their own oblivion).
Which brings us to the next observation. Mr H is definitely here in Riga. Harry the Horse is riding high. People are fucked up on heroin in Riga, not in great numbers, but increasingly noticeable. I have worked or lived in places with junkies on the streets before (New York, Frankfurt) and the eyes half-shrouded by lids, knees bending slowly, then popping back out of the nod thing is pretty obvious. Maybe other recreational chemicals do the same. I don't remember seeing folks on quaaludes back in the day, but those made people who took them into giggly-gumbies (like the stop-motion clay creature Gumby of 1950s and 1960s TV), or so it is said.
Anyway, I run across a few obvious junkies on the street every week, and this should have alerted the media that something is going on. But the Latvian media do not have the time or resources to deal with this issue, or maybe I don't read the right papers. However, it is become clear that heroin use among the underclass (and not only) is an emerging problem in this country.
My solution – decriminalize heroin, set up needle exchanges, clean shooting galleries and offer detox programs (unrealistic in Latvia except with charitable financing) to those who need it. This would reduce the danger of overdoses, get the heroin trade out of the hands of criminals (shifting it to pharmacies for registered addicts), prevent the spread of AIDS and hepatitis, as well as drastically reduce crime related to drug addiction (theft and robberies) as well as emptying the prisons of those “guilty” of victimless crime. 

Saturday, October 01, 2011

A new, bizarre act in Latvia's political "balagāns"

The political balagāns (carnival) continues with a wee-hours-of-the night coup by the Zatlers Reform Party (ZRP) to bring Harmony Center (Saskaņas Centrs/SC) into government and offer the post of prime minister to Valdis Dombrovskis of Unity (Vienotība/V). Somehow I don't think this was coordinated between ZRP and V, in accordance with an agreement between both parties forming the “core” of any next coalition that exactly this kind of thing would be done by mutual agreement. For a number of reasons, the ZRP simply decided to screw its potential coalition partner, set off a bombshell in the middle of the night and get the whole country (or that part of it writing comments on internet portals) up in arms.
One reason former president Valdis Zatlers himself mentioned (and this was hinted at when he was forming his barely three-months old party) was to bridge the ethnic gap in Latvia between Latvians and Russians. At least one political scientist, Iveta Kažoka, called this “historic” and a good thing, sorta... In purely logical terms, it makes considerable sense. Latvians and Russians face the same economic challenges – despite some GDP growth, the country is still way below where it was in 2007 or 2008 and will not clamber back until the middle or latter part of the decade. Unemployment hits Latvians and Russians equally hard. Even emigration is an issue if we talk about ethnic Russian voters, which means they have citizenship, a passport and are free to go look for a better life in the rest of the European Union. Ethnic issues are largely historical and it is the future – will Latvia have one or not – that matters. Or so it would seem.
In reality, ethnicity overrides any and all common causes, except in fleeting, temporary situations, like hockey championships, where Russians and Latvians unite behind their (heavily Russian) national team. The issue of occupation and who or what was responsible for it (between 1940 and 1991, twenty years ago) is still emotionally pivotal and the main reason the National Alliance (All for Latvia/Fatherland&Freedom/Latvian National Independence Movement –NA) will see cows flying in formation before it joins any government with the SC in it.
It is not clear what would happen if the SC electorate were all to agree, not only that there was an occupation, but that they all, whether born here or not, are occupiers, including minor children, housepets and lawn statues of dwarfs. The NA, I am sure, would then urge them all to go back to Russia, acting out its deoccupation fantasies. That might have worked in 1991 -1992, but not anymore. Besides, Russia is an increasingly authoritarian bardak of corruption and cronyism that even puts Latvia to “shame”. However, a virtual deoccupation has already occurred in economic and demographic terms – at least 300 000 people, most of them economically active, have left the country, probably never to return (in any permanent sense). Trouble is, only some of them are Russian.
The other reason that Zatlers wants to have a three-party ZRP, SC and V coalition is that it would have more than a two-thirds parliamentary majority needed to change the constitution and allow popular elections for president, as well as granting the new, popularly elected presidency broader powers. Presently, the Latvian president is largely a figurehead. Cynics say the only reason Zatlers dismissed the parliament was in order to run for the new, more powerful office of president a few years down the road. This is probably not true, there was good reason to dismiss the Saeima with 94% of the electorate approving Zatlers' move in July.
As far as V and the coalition offer from the Zatlerites goes, it looks like the party will fulfill a cynical name I gave it back during the summer – izjuceklis or something that will tear itself apart. The former Citizens' Union (Pilsoniskā Savienība) has declared its opposition to forming a government with SC and there is talk of some V members of parliament quitting the party. This would leave ZRP with the other option of forming a bare-majority government with the SC, resting on 53 votes in the Saeima. It would also leave two inexperienced parties running the country, at least one of which has a dubious record on being law-abiding (voting against a search of the oligarch and Saeima deputy Ainars Slesers' residences) and of keeping promises to its own voters and internal partners (Nils Ušakovs has said he will boot the crackpot neo-Communist Latvian Socialist Party out of the SC if that is what it takes to get into the coalition).
So the balagāns is far from over and Latvia probably faces more years of acrimonious, bumbling government for the next few years, perhaps followed by a possible nationalist backlash in the regular Saeima elections in 2014.