Monday, June 27, 2011

Narcotic summer effect and a two-wheeled jolt to reality

This is the time of year when Latvia, indeed, the entire Baltic-Nordic area blossoms into summer with long bright evenings and never-quite dark nights. The Midsummer or Jāņi festival is the pinnacle of "Latvianness" with its Līgo songs, beer, traditional cheese, bonfires and celebration. Everything looks rosy and this year, there was a long holiday weekend of four days to take a break from work.
With the sunny streets filled with tourists and the often glum population looking a little better, the summer in Riga can have a kind of narcotic effect, exaggerating the things that are good about life here and putting the deep, fundamental crises in the economy, politics and society in the background.
This evening I was shocked out of the mild euphoria when, while crossing at a green light (for pedestrians) on a one-way street, a burly man on a bike whizzed by narrowly missing me and turning into the street in the wrong direction.  I was so startled that I yelled after him the Latvian equivalent of "watch where you are going, motherfucker!" (Skaties kur brauc, mauka! -- the English translation expresses the emotional gist and is not literal). Anyway, the dude actually circled around to mutter something at me, but that was the end of it.
I have written about reckless cycling earlier and how it brings out a lot of contradictions. On the one hand, bike riding is "green" and makes economic sense for those who don't want to pay upkeep on a car or public transport fares.  A number of my work colleagues ride bikes and I would never wish them ill. I  may have earlier written (after some near misses by two-wheeled assholes racing and weaving down sidewalks) that I regard news of bike riders being knocked down by cars as "one less" (temporarily or permanently). That is a bit harsh, and the irony is that the urban bike cowboys usually aren't the ones who get taken out by motorists, they are usually someone out in the country, alone on a dark dirt road who gets mowed down by the local shit-faced (lopā for my Latvian readers) country boozehound weaving down the road in a car.
There has been a campaign to alert drivers to the increasing numbers of bike riders and their "invisibility", but I would not risk anyone's life on the assumption a series of TV ads will change the generally savage (though less than some years ago) attitude of Latvian drivers. In any event, there is really no place for bike riders. There are few bike paths and the riders forced on to the sidewalk by traffic probably have no choice. They do have a choice about their speed and the possibility to use a warning bell to indicate they are approaching to pedestrians.  Unfortunately Riga is not, in terms of infrastructure and societal behavior, nor will it be for decades, anything like Copenhagen or Amsterdam or even Stockholm, where there is a civilized order for both motor vehicles and bikes. Bike riders will continue to be a threat to the rest of us and some of the rest of us (in cars  and trucks) will menace those on bikes. The low-intensity conflict will go on, with casualties on both sides.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

A political weathervane and a fine, bland little gathering

The first organized public reaction to the dismissal of the Saeima and subsequent “merriment” was a rally called by TV personality Viesturs Dūle and others on an isolated, semi-artificial island in the river Daugava. The idea was to protest against the oligarchs allegedly running Latvian politics and also to “bury the oligarch within each of us”.

The latter part very much put me off from the whole undertaking, because I don't feel a bit like wanting to make a great fortune by skimming tax funds and using other advantages derived from state capture. I have nothing against a great fortune, but please, let it come to me by my own efforts on a law-governed, free market.

If the message was that the citizenry of Latvia is also responsible for the dismal state of politics, then it has nothing to do with any oligarch in any of us. Instead, it is the inability to learn from past mistakes in voting, to hold politicians to their promises (at least the executable promises), and to be ready to organize a democratic, non-parliamentary opposition/resistance movement when one realizes that the whole system here in Latvia is, to put it precisely, fucked.

Aside from that and the fact that the whole event on June 8 can probably be best described by the Slavic-derived Latvian word balagāns, (a kind of cheapo, shallow but still entertaining little carnival), it was a weathervane event, since as many as 8 000 mostly young people gathered to listen to a few speeches and watch a huge wooden symbol of “corruption” set afire. The thought crossed my mind that something like that would have more impact if a real symbol of the oligarchs were burned, like a barn or toolshed belonging to one of them (naturally, harming no physical person, in the spirit of the 1960s German Gewalt gegen Sachen /Violence against objects/ debate within the Ausserparlamentarische Opposition/APO). But we are still a few steps away from something like that, which, for various reasons, I doubt would have any desirable effect.

Anyway, I hope that many of those on the AB Dambis island went away from the event committed to doing something more than just shooing away the oligarch within them and voting on hypothetical and real issues on an internet website. Heck, with a little help from some experts, I (or anyone else) could put up a website where we could vote on the merits of intergalactic flight or anything else. As far as the real oligarchs in Latvia are concerned, I am afraid that they best fit in with a bizarre Facebook event scheduled for exactly 10 days later, on June 18, National I Don't Give A Fuck Day. That is how the powers behind this country's bozo parliamentarians look at public opinion in Latvia, like it or not.

On an everyday basis, the social degeneration continues apace. I had to take a bus to the airport to retrieve the family car, since my wife had flown away to Sweden for a few days and left it in a long-term lot for me to pick up and use over the weekend. The first thing that happened on the good old No. 22 bus was that the traffic wardens or whatever you call them boarded the bus and checked everyone's electronic tickets. Then, knowing almost no English on the one bus route most frequented by foreigners, they hassled an air Baltic pilot (I think he did register his e-ticket) and got a LVL 5 pay-off from him. It was either that or delay his flight to Baku.

Next on board was a shirtless junkie who spent the whole trip up to the next to last stop before the airport nodding (actually bowing at times, almost to the floor) and leaning as he rocked back and forth on a young mother and her kid, or almost bumping into the already fleeced pilot standing across from him. The junkie was joined by two or three criminal looking friends at one of the last few stops before the airport, but then the whole lot proceeded to hop off at a stop in the middle of nowhere just before the airport. To what purpose, I don't know. Driving back in my car, I saw Joe the Junkie waiting for the bus back to town, still in his own quadrant of outer space.

Personally, I think you have to be pretty much a degenerate fuckwit to develop a heroin habit. Politically, I think they should legalize the stuff, register addicts, give them prescriptions, clean needles, shooting areas and decrease the crime rate from addiction related thefts, burglaries and robberies. None of this will happen in Latvia this century...

Another thing brought back to me at the anti-oligarch (but nice, please!) rally was the fact that even Latvians with some sense of purpose are unable to think through any issues that concern them. I don't think I am breaching any confidences by writing about someone who approached me as the rally was breaking up (a man of around 60, roughly my age) and wanted to talk abut some things. The core of it was that he wanted to set up an NGO for Latvian families. So I asked – fine, to what exact purpose? One of things bothering him was that ethnic Latvians had been given fewer opportunities to privatize their apartments than ethnic Russians (post-war migrants) who mainly lived in Soviet-era housing. Many Latvians lived in older buildings that were denationalized.

Assuming we cannot turn back the privatization or denationalization process, I then said that the issue was one of building housing. That didn't move the discussion ahead, as the person believes that there are ex-KGB and Communists everywhere whose specific purpose was to derail any such initiatives. I asked whether, perhaps, the former KGB, if still under control of Russian intelligence, might have other missions under present-day circumstances. Sabotaging initiatives to build housing for Latvian families did not seem to be at the top of the global priority list for anyone running stay-behind networks out of the Kremlin, IMHO. Neither did that move things anywhere.

I then suggested that some people could solve their family housing problems by working abroad, but then the person said that the people he was concerned about didn't even have 5 LVL to buy a cheap Ryanair tickets out of here. Well then, said I, the problem is really extreme poverty, which can have a number of personal and structural causes – lack of education, addiction/alcoholism, lack of jobs, etc. But that also didn't focus things. I am still not sure what this proposed NGO will do, how it will affect anything and how it will define the root problems that it wants society or the government to deal with. There seems to be a total lack of education in problem solving and the critical thought (what are the issues? what are the causes?) needed for it. To be sure, the person was sincere and not really a crackpot (not that public gatherings lack for those). But this is the level of things here. The ones who can get their heads around issues have already done the socio-economic math and are out of here. On that note, please look again at my video CV and spread it around, as I have serious doubts, very serious doubts, about staying on here: