Sunday, February 12, 2012

What has Latvia's transition turned into? - a comment on political scientist Iveta Kažoka's views

A lot of buzz has been generated among the Latvian twitterati by an essay by political scientist Iveta Kažoka in her Latvian language blog on the website www.politika.lv . Kažoka contends that Latvia is no longer “a society in transition” (from totalitarian socialism to...whatever?), but something else, showing the seeds and potential for a better society. To be sure, she asserts, there are significant hinderances to such development, but, nonetheless, she is an optimist, if only Latvians (or Latvia's inhabitants as a whole) were to change their mentality somewhat.
Kažoka writes, that after attending a conference in Lithuania and getting around a bit elsewhere, she can't accept that the “transition society” label applies to Latvia any more:

Despite that 10, 6 or 4 years ago, labeling Latvia as a transitional society was almost automatic. It seems, intuitively, that in recent years the use of this term has gradually faded. Today, when identifying ourselves to an international audience, a more frequently heard description is “new European Union member state” or “new democracy”
It seems to me that this change is not simply one of description and a change of labels. It is the start of new thinking, a new paradigm about our society, a new approach to life and development. From a comparatively blind, unreflective construction of a desirable model of governance and the copying of discourse to modeling governance after one's own image and likeness (with individual borrowings from those societies that are most successful in some area). To my mind, this is the most significant change.

Kažoka goes on to say that one characteristic of the change she perceives is that Latvians no longer view other model societies uncritically, they see the flaws in such places as Germany, Switzerland and Scandinavia. The political scientist believes this can lead to a desire to do better in our own way, rather than a “cynical relativism” that says that if the Scandinavians have not fully eliminated corruption, it cannot be done in Latvia.
Kažoka lists what she believes are the good qualities of Latvian society, including:

-the ability to cope, adapt, change, search for and find compromises
-a pragmatic ability to learn from their mistakes, having self-esteem, involvement as values
-education as a value
-a growing intolerance for superficial glamour, Nordic modesty.

She then discusses three negative characteristics that Latvians have to overcome in order to advance along the path that she thinks is opening up. She calls them “three reflexes of helplessness:.

-a low level of mutual trust that the political scientist and commentator describes as “tragic”
-a culture of self-depreciating lamentation and “loser-ism”
-stagnant conservatism and an inability to think outside the box

In a rather upbeat ending to her post (perhaps my summary doesn't do it justice, Latvian readers or those who wish to amuse themselves with Google translate can check it out here) Kažoka writes:

I have not hidden the fact in earlier posts that I am skeptical about traditional development planning methods. I see some sense in them, but I don't believe that they are a decisive factor in the faster or slower development of a society. In my opinion, more important processes take place in people's heads, in their perception of the world, because it it is these that either encourage a person to action in the hope of some achievements, or put a brake on doing anything at all. In very general terms, things will be such as is our attitude.

No one can say for certain what the world will look like in 20 years. At the same time, it is clear that the keys to success for a society in this century are new technologies, the ability to learn and cooperate, and inner freedom for creativity. Let us take this into account and do everything so that people in Latvia will have these keys. In my opinion, Latvia as a society presently has the preconditions to become a society where people want to live (rather than leave at the very first chance) if we deprogram ourselves from three learned reflexes of helplessness (mistrust, “loser-ism” and traditionalism) we can be at the very forefront of change.

The Latvian saying “from your mouth to God's ear” is my first reaction to Kažoka's post. But in more critical terms, I would ask – does this analysis and possible future scenario fit the data? OK, I am not a social researcher, Iveta is probably better trained on such matters. The Eurobarometer survey she mentioned to me in a Twitter exchange shows that 78% of Latvians don't trust the government, 89% don't trust political parties and 82% don't trust the parliament. If this isn't dismal, perhaps it is better not to ever see dismal...
The other data that I look at are emigration and is corollary, depopulation. The region of Latgale has lost more than a fifth of its population (21.1%), even Vidzeme, often regarded as a kind of Latvian heartland, is down 17.5%. Among Latvia's cities, Daugavpils has lost 19.3% of its population since 2000, Rezekne is down 18,1% and even the capital Riga has lost 14,2% of its inhabitants.
Admittedly a lagging indicator, figures on the impoverishment of the nation from 2010 show that 46% of the Latvian population would be below the poverty line but for various kinds of social welfare payments. That could be considered a sign that the welfare system works in the country, but at the same time, that people are unable to earn a living wage in Latvia, hence the continuing emigration. Figures on household disposable income show it had fallen by 20% in 2010 compared to 2008, the last year before the economic crisis struck with full force.
There is also a recent study by University of Latvia researchers showing that the alleged Latvian love of work is a myth – the countryside population in many places has sunk into a culture of existing at a subsistence level on welfare and other transfer payments or doing temporary subsidized day labor. A culture of heavy drinking and alcoholism has also become endemic, with the result that employers – farmers and small businesses – cannot find suitable workers. The boozers and welfare dependents prefer their lifestyle to getting a steady job with taxes and social fees paid.
Another recently published “positive” figure is that the number of youth unemployed age 15 to 24 has decreased at the end of 2011 by over 7 800 from the end of 2010. Somehow I don't think these people all got jobs in Latvia. In fact, a fair guess is that most of them emigrated and only a few found work or started their own enterprise in Latvia.
Unfortunately, I don't think the data I see fits Kažoka's conditional optimism, nor, for that matter, that her conditional optimism is based on the data (unless she, whose day job is political analyses, facts, figures etc., has seen other data sets that I haven't seen).
As things stand, the paradigm for Latvia is stagnation (with some bright islands of progress in the economy, like the IT start-ups that gathered at the recent TechCrunch Baltics) and continued emigration simply because it is so easy to find places that are better governed than Latvia and where work is better paid and people better treated, in general, than here. That just comes from the facts and figures, it has nothing to do with whether I am a pessimist or optimist or cheering for Latvia to do better. In a race where your favorite horse is almost dead, it is this fact, not the cheering, that matters. 

10 comments:

Peteris said...

Thanks for a very interesting post, Juri! I, too, am rather cautious about Iveta's optimistic view on the matter. I, for one, see quite a lot of indications that the Latvian society (or polity, for that matter) is still "in transition". There are some signs of improvement (e.g., the fight against corruption is not seen as an extravagant occupation), but when it comes to attitudes, institutions, and administration among many other things, there, still, is a huge room for improvement. One critical point though: neither you, nor Iveta, really, have a clear point of reference (benchmark, if you will) - what counts as "society in transition" and what counts as something else than "society in transition". This leads to rather subjective reflections on the levels of improvement and therefore you run a risk that you don't take into account what has happened since, let's say, 1992. In my opinion, it would be advisable to present some comparative data, just to illustrate your thoughts. Has alcholism increased/decreased since 1992? Has the levels of mutual trust increased/decreased since 1992? Has corruption levels increased (or decreased) since 1992? I guess there might be some problems with getting comparable and reliable data for 1992, but still. Despite this nerdish advise, I think this is a great response! I did enjoy reading your post!

Peteris said...

Thanks for a very interesting post, Juri! I, too, am rather cautious about Iveta's optimistic view on the matter. I, for one, see quite a lot of indications that the Latvian society (or polity, for that matter) is still "in transition". There are some signs of improvement (e.g., the fight against corruption is not seen as an extravagant occupation), but when it comes to attitudes, institutions, and administration among many other things, there, still, is a huge room for improvement. One critical point though: neither you, nor Iveta, really, have a clear point of reference (benchmark, if you will) - what counts as "society in transition" and what counts as something else than "society in transition". This leads to rather subjective reflections on the levels of improvement and therefore you run a risk that you don't take into account what has happened since, let's say, 1992. In my opinion, it would be advisable to present some comparative data, just to illustrate your thoughts. Has alcholism increased/decreased since 1992? Has the levels of mutual trust increased/decreased since 1992? Has corruption levels increased (or decreased) since 1992? I guess there might be some problems with getting comparable and reliable data for 1992, but still. Despite this nerdish advise, I think this is a great response! I did enjoy reading your post!

Anonīmais Šakālis said...

Juri! You have lived and worked in very different countries and societies. Do you have any idea which ideas should we take from, lets say, Sweden — and make them work in Latvia? Otherwise we all are concerned with finding the right diagnosis for Latvia, but where is the cure…?

Stulbs Anglis said...

I admire Iveta's optimism but can see no foundation for it, although I agree with her about some of the problems.
I'm British, but have lived in Latvia for ten years and was a frequent visitor before that. I wonder how much experience Iveta has of life in rural Latvia?
Alcoholism is the norm amongst the male population. Not much sign of self-esteem here. Maybe she sees a growing intolerance for superficial glamour in Rīga - again, no sign of it here.
If anyone thinks beyond the acquisition of their next bottle of strong ale it's only to dream of the acquisition of a beat-up BMW. Look at personal ads for an idea of Latvian thinking "Wanted, pretty girl, slim, under 23" It would also never occur to a Latvian male that maybe he should sell his attributes rather than expecting a girl to rush to him because she feels she may meet what HE wants. And, in this society, maybe he's right. First level thinking is all there is here.
Television shows unrelenting dumbed-down crap all the time. You get crap all over the world but there's usually something of value. Not in Latvia. Even when we buy foreign shows we only buy the worst. Even the, oh so popular, news is simply cosmetic in coverage. No in-depth analysis or even background reporting. It's just aimed to go in one ear and out the other. Succeeds too! State control of media has simply been replaced with unfettered commercial control (by sponsors and advertisers) No one even recognizes that it's a problem. Neatkarīga my arse!
Uncontrolled consumerism rules. Every company suddenly decides it's cool to claim to be founded 100+ years ago. Sure, stick it on the packaging. No one's going to ask!
The government are like schoolchildren trying to govern themselves. Standards of education are a joke. Racism, homophobia and stulbi patriotism are rampant. Lack of education and knowledge mean that most people are ripe pickings for every pyramid selling scheme that comes along.
If you are Latvian and want to develop, my strong advice to you would be to get out of Latvia fast. The best hope for Latvia is that everyone leaves and experiences different societies, values and attitudes around the world then come back as more rounded individuals. I don't see many coming back though despite their protestations when they leave.
Sorry to sound so negative. I know it's not Latvians' fault. I know that many of you don't really understand what I'm complaining about. That's the real problem really "What's wrong with that anyway?" "Tas ir normāls."
One of the most worrying things for me is how many young children I meet who are like old men. They have the same blinkered attitudes as their grandparents. That has to change somehow.
God help Latvia if Iveta is correct and the country is no longer in transition. If she's wrong, at least there's still hope.

Iveta Kazoka said...

Thank you, Juris, for your excellent observations about my essay! And yet I'm still an optimist :) I believe that Latvia has finished its transit to democracy and is already a country that the rest of the world can learn from. C'mon, is there any other country (except Switzerland or some of US states) that has had 5 referenda in 5 years without people doing anything stupid? Is there any other country where people have basically voted the most powerful oligarchs out of power? :)

Of course, the economic indicators if we compare them to what they were in 2008 look quite bad (as well as emigration numbers). But I believe that it was something to be expected - provided that we have just survived a crisis and consolidation measures unprecedented for a developed democracy. The number will get better, if everything is more or less alright with Eurozone.

The trust in Latvia's institutions is nothing to be proud of, but they are not dismal - actually not that far from EU average. It really depends on how you approach them - whether you are or are not prepared to describe some 6-7 additional EU member states as failed states. The trust in political parties is around (EU average - 14%) - the same as in Hungary, Slovenia, France, Italy, Greece, Czech Republic, Lithuania. Trust in government - 19% (EU average 24%). Higher than Greece (8%), Spain (16%), Romania (10%), Lithuania - 18%, Slovenia (12%), Czech Republic (15%). Trust in parliament - 14% (EU average 27%). The same or higher than in Czech Republic, Greece, Italy, Lithuania, Romania.

Basically, we're doing fine, provided the circumstances. We've never had more professional and less corrupt people in government and forming majority in parliament. I do believe it sets the scene for higher growth in the future. We have one neighboring country there to catch - and I mean Estonia, of course. It's THEM, not Latvia which is the odd country out of the former Soviet bloc. I would even say that the real question is not what makes Latvia deficient (because we are not - neither globally, nor regionally), but what makes Estonia exceptional. Just look at their numbers! Trust in parliament - 40%; trust in government - 49% (EU average again: 24 %!) So they are definitely doing something right. Better than the rest, we included. That means at least theoretically we can as well. But at first we have to lose the loser mentality - we are not a failed state; we're totally a success story in the eyes of people living in Ukraine, Moldova, Romania, Armenia, Bulgaria, and India. In some matters – in the eyes of people living in ANY other country :)

John Christmas said...

I find it funny that the author wants Latvian people to trust the Latvian government.

I believe that Latvians should trust honest people and should distrust dishonest people. There is no point encouraging Latvians to trust people who are dishonest.

If Latvia has "rule of law" in the future (i.e. all of the oligarchs are in prison) then Latvians should trust the government. Not before.

Līva said...

I believe one can always find the necessary numbers to prove that nothing has ever been as terrible, futile and just plain bad as it is today. Nothing could be easier. Take US, UK, Sweden or any other non-"failed state" for example, and similar themes that describe their country growing ever worse with each passing moment can be read in almost every newspaper. And, yet, we look up to these countries, somehow believing here all is wrong and there all is swell. Yes, a lot of numbers are bad, but a lot of them are good, and ultimately we have gone a very, very long way in the right direction from where we were 20 years ago. It is deliberately misleading to not recognize that.

I think Ivetas article was great, as it tried to pragmatically identify our common faults as a society, but also to define our strong points. Even if the observations are subjective and deal with psychological, not economic aspects, still, one could say that is was a pretty good starting point for a Latvian SWOT analysis. I'm sorry if that sounds too harsh, but your post only invites that traditional Latvian wallowing in pointless self-pity, and if we talk about stagnation, I believe this attitude is the main reason behind it. More action and self-criticism, less wallowing and self-pity, and I believe the road will lead upwards :)

Pēteris Cedriņš said...

I find both takes interesting, but I tend toward Juris's view, and that of Stulbais Anglis. Juris didn't even get to education, which is a mess. Consider reading habits:
Latvijas skolēnu attieksme pret lasīšanu sliktāka nekā Āfrikā. Consider research papers: The sorry state of higher education (and research). Even if we put Estonia aside as a stellar exception, look at Latvia's R & D expenditure. All of these dismal things will have consequences even if the course changes -- and most of all, the demographic collapse will. One can foresee other problems in the areas so optimistically depicted. The lack of ethnic conflict, for example. True enough so far, and admirable. We have an extremely divided society nevertheless -- and that divide seems to be growing, not diminishing, as the loudness of the referendum rhetoric would indicate... and support for co-official status for Russian, anathema to most Latvians is more prevalent precisely among the young (troubling even if we consider it a protest vote). There are, of course, plenty of wonderful things, some of them flourishing since the crisis brought us down to earth. There's a notable increase in alternative culture that's less formal and more self-reliant. But even in such areas -- serious darvas pilieni: Izļodzījies vai izļodzīts?

izhnannyk said...

Two decades of independence after WWI, two decades of independence after the collapse of the USSR. During the first independence, the education system was excellent; now it's a disaster. During the first independence, the economy was pretty good, and even during the Depression better than most; now it is in a depressing rut. During the first independence, there were real political parties; now there are cheering squads for self-seeking exploiters. So far at least there has not been a coup to install a dictator, but in other respects the comparison is not encouraging. Have there been any studies of *why* Latvia was such a success story between the World Wars and why post-Soviet LV has not done as well?

Edgar said...

To izhnannyk,

The first independence was fought for and won by Latvians,the patriotic value of winning a war and freeing your country is quite substantial, thus the democratic process was fine tuned and ready to start it's engines properly, the second one however was a miscarriage, which left the country severely malnourished, unhealthy and on the brink of death, not to mention the 50 years of totalitarian communist oppression.