A couple of events coincided and made me want to write something about the state of society in Latvia. The latest demographic statistics show that Latvia has lost some 340 000 inhabitants in the past 12 years, of which more than 211 000 emigrated and some 128 000 represented “negative natural increase”, a bizarre way of saying that, in fact, the Latvian population is slowly dying out.
Last year 30 380 persons, most of them of prime working age (including more than 4 000 children) left the country to move abroad more or less permanently. Net migration was just over 23 000, since some 7 000 immigrants (or repatriated emigrants) arrived in Latvia. Nonetheless, the emigration statistics show that precisely the part of the population that should be having children in Latvia and diminishing “negative natural increase” is the one that is leaving the country. As a total percentage of a population of perhaps two million, 30 000 may not sound like much (even though it is equal to all of Rēzekne packing up and leaving), but it is a larger percentage of the productive and fertile segment of the population – call it the life blood of a nation.
Why is Latvia bleeding out? I have discussed the issue before – and the reason is a complex set of circumstance that, at the end of the day, tell the mobile and ambitious part of the population that nothing is likely to change in the deep governance of society in the foreseeable future. By deep governance, I mean not only the behavior of government, but also the ability of society to self-organize and the way it has done so hitherto. In short, Latvia has failed to launch from being a wounded post-soviet society to becoming a modern, self-confident, educated democratic community.
The stubborn death of trust
Community requires trust and there has been little in the track record of those running Latvia to cause any trust in institutions (polls show that there has only been a slight bounce-back from levels of trust in socio-political institutions that could only be called a kind of pernicious anarchism). Meanwhile, as I believe I have written before, Latvia’s joining the European Union, coupled with cheap airlines and the capability of rich and frequent communication via the internet, have led to hundreds of thousands of Latvians exercising their choice of governance by emigrating, but still retaining physical and virtual ties with friends and family in the “fatherland”.
Indeed, some recent videos I saw of Latvians celebrating the midsummer Jāņi festival in the United Kingdom were eerily like my childhood as a child of political emigres in the US. Back in the 50s, Latvians in the Boston area who had been in the US for about as many years (4 or 5) as those working in the UK celebrated Jāņi by gathering at a farmstead with a large field and arriving, often, in the first cars they had bought once settled in. The videos of Latvians gathering at a rented farm field somewhere in the UK were almost the same thing – just some of the vans and cars looked like prosperity had come a bit more quickly to the Brit-Lats. And like my parents generation in the 1950s, they were young families with kids and an aura around them that, henceforth, this is what “being Latvian” will have to be. Unlike in the 1950s and 1960s, when Latvia was a Soviet occupied country, visits to Latvia from the UK or Ireland are no problem at all, which does not change the fact that these people are starting to form semi-permanent communities in their countries of emigration.
The easy growth of emigration 2.0
The interesting thing about the communities that formed in the post-war exile was that they could not really grow by adding new members from Latvia and many of them, due to processes of assimilation and aging, are at a tipping point of starting the slide toward extinction of their identities (the people aren’t going anywhere, there will be fourth and fifth generation kids with “strange” names and some inkling of why). The new emigrant communities are being fed by a constant flow of new arrivals from Latvia, giving them a different dynamic that the handful of 90-somethings gathering to celebrate 65 years of the Pigbridge Latvian Welfare Society (Pigbridža was a fictitious American town with a big Latvian community that came up in some satirical Latvian emigre writing).
Fundraisers will always be among us
As to what is happening back in Latvia , the Riga City Council has banned individual and small-scale fundraising starting August 1. There was a noticeable drop in the number of fundraisers around the Riga Central Station, a favorite gathering place for both mendicants and moochers, with the latter taking the upper hand. The daily dog encampment, grown to three animals and a variable crew of up to three misery marketers, was gone. Hippety-Hop, the young otherwise able-bodied below-the-knee amputee has not been seen for a while. One pathetic looking old lady (a station-area regular) was seen talking with her handlers...er..marketing consultants, but not actively soliciting donations. The municipal police have been firmly herding the fundraisers away, but only to have them return once backs are turned.
This is an insoluable problem and probably a waste of police time and legislative effort, since fundraisers would not be doing their job if they were had the means to pay fines and for the true supplicants, jail (showers, food, a bed) could be a blessing. The fundraisers who are backed by a crew (who can enforce getting their cut far better than the police can enforce a fine) will be temporarily harassed and scattered, as well they should be, but there the core crime isn’t fundraising (which really shouldn’t be a crime), but rather a domestic form of human trafficking. Here, I would be perfectly comfortable with some knees getting busted (but not the ones bent in supplication, rather, the knees and heads of those emptying the mendicant’s cup at the end of the day). Aggresive fundraising should also be punishable – two stern refusals by the prospect and the fundraiser/moocher deserves a kick in the teeth.
Broadly speaking, the fundraising is one minor symptom of the failure of Latvia to launch and of the discrepancy between macro-economic statistics and street-level reality (against the background of ongoing emigration). Beggary, to finally call it by its politically incorrect name, will always be with us in every kind of society or social order, if only because there is a small percentage of humanity who simply blow off the open cars as the train of history races on, and they cannot be gathered back.
Finally, I have seen the macro argument made by Edward Lucas that Eastern Europe should be dropped as a description or a concept, and most of his arguments are...logical. So why, in defiance of that logic, do I see Eastern Europe every day here in some aspect of Latvian life. More on that in later posts...