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.