Sunday, July 31, 2011

The deeper roots of Latvia as a failed state lite

What are the historical and socioeconomic roots of the failure of governance and, to some extent, the failure of society that make me say that Latvia is a failed state lite? Why are the crisis in politics and the stagnation of the economy most likely intractable?
The deepest roots go far back in Latvian history. Maybe “600 years of serfdom” is a myth. The truth is that Latvian society was largely untouched by even a theoretical understanding of democracy and nationhood well into the 19th century. Subjugation and the serf mentality it created left a profound effect on national character and mentality.
At the start of the 20th century, Latvia was fortunate, despite being part of the Russian Empire, it had developed somewhat of an educated elite, sufficiently in tune with the movements and forces that had already changed or were changing Western Europe. These were classic liberalism, nationalism, scientific rationalism, to some extent Marxism, socialism and social democracy. 
To be sure, the majority of society were still subjects, not citizens, trading loyalty or favors for the good will of the German manor lord, the Czarist bureaucrat or Father Czar (caratētiņš). Patronage and corruption, such as it was, had not reached depraved proportions, though I may be wrong and am ready to stand corrected on historical issues from this period.
Multi (25+) party democracy?
When Latvia gained its independence, the liberal democracy foreseen by its constitution, the Satversme, was the product of the nation’s small elite, which today we would call “Westernized”. The constitution had to be implemented in a society with an underdeveloped and fragmented political culture. How else does one explain 25+ political parties? The country’s already diverse population found expression in having, in the Saeima at one time or another, Zionist parties who differed only on whether they split a certain religious or political hair vertically or horizontally, Old Believers (Russians with ZZ Top beards), the Fishmongers and Breeders of Dwarf Swine etc. Some of these are made-up parties, but if you check the Saiema rosters from back in the 1920s and early 1930s, I don’t think my creative guesses are far from the truth.
As for corruption, etc., I assume that the film Ceplis (Soviet-era made), showing the antics of the business and political elite of the interwar period,  was not an extreme exaggeration. Certainly, the culture of horizontal patronage among members of student fraternities (korporācijas) thrived, with some jobs or career advancements open only if you were a member of Ļurbalonia (sorry to insult all decent student organizations by avoiding naming any one in particular and making up this name)
After the bloodless military coup of 1934, it was back to being subjects again, this time of the Leader and Good Farm Manager (best try on labais saimnieks) Kārlis Ulmanis. Being a subject or follower of the good Vadonis (leader) also created, to my mind, a perverse version of that which is utterly lacking today in society’s attitude toward its institutions of governance -- trust. 
The few remaining Latvians who experienced the Ulmanis era as young adults or teenagers often speak of those times with adulation. What shines through is that all these people, back then, trusted the Leader. They trusted him not because he had their electoral mandate based on informed choices, or based on a record of rarely or never breaking previous trust, they experienced as trust being relieved of the need to make choice and follow up, critically and skeptically, the actions of those chosen. Whatever the Leader does must be good, because we all, or most of us, trust him in this sense. 
And so it was: I stay my place, you stay your place (to make a somewhat bizarre translation of what Leader Ulmanis said when the Soviet army rolled, unopposed, into Latvia in June, 1940). It quickly turned out that for Ulmanis  “my place” was an unknown grave somewhere in the USSR, while “your place” (for the leader’s subjects) was a lot of places, many of them horrifying (Siberian labor camps, the Riga Ghetto, Waffen-SS fighting hopeless battles in some Russian swamp, Red Army on the other side of the swamp, fishing boats to Sweden, semi-slave labor under Allied bombs in Germany, and a whole range of merry adventures). In other words, almost everything had been fine on the Leader’s watch, but he just happened to lose the country. 
Depradations of totalitarianism
And so, for the next 50 years, Latvian society was the largely unwilling subject of totalitarian foreign powers. The German occupation was relatively short, 1941-45, a different flavor of terror and terror with different targets than that of the Soviets in their first 1940-41 and subsequent 1945-91 occupations. 
The Soviet deportations of 1941 and 1949, the losses of population due to battle casualties on both sides (Latvian citizens conscripted by the Germans and the Soviets), the Holocaust killing of the Jewish population, and the flight of some 200 000 Latvians to the West as the World War II ended, had a devastating impact on the social structure of Latvia. A large part of the nation’s educated elite were lost as refugees, war casualties or victims of political repression.
Economically, the already damaged agrarian base of the country was practically destroyed by collectivization and political repression. The most capable and productive farmers, in addition to losing their property, were imprisoned or deported as kulaks.  The message of the early years of Soviet rule in Latvia was that any skills or behavior that would have been considered as entrepreneurial before the war or today were best hidden from the authorities. 
With Stalin’s death in 1953, there was significantly less reason for day-to-day personal fear of the government authorities, but people were still largely subjects of a regime beyond their control. Moreover, the Communist regime was obviously mendacious (or put simply, a liar) about its economic and social achievements. For most people in Latvia, the imposition of a centrally planned, command economy meant a decline in living standards and the quality of life, while Soviet official propaganda portrayed it as progress and advancement.
Latvians, who prided themselves as a nation of farmers, were shocked when collective farms or kolhozes, sometimes turned to buying bread at artificially cheap prices and feeding it to pigs because proper animal fodder was not available (delayed, misdirected or embezzled). The destruction of the market economy and the absence of competent management (as well as the intractable problems of managing a command economy) degraded labor productivity in almost all fields. Salary incentives often had little impact because there were few goods or services to be bought with higher income. 
By the time Soviet planners, desperate about the failure of the centrally planned economy to deliver what Communist slogans had been promising for decades, started experimenting with various incentives (aside from exhortations and bonuses in “wooden rubles” ) the “animal spirits” of enterprising Latvians and others across the USSR had created a dark, distorted “market economy” of favor and influence trading, bribes, stolen production and the “misuse” of socialist state property. 
Summing up the effects of Soviet totalitarianism, the late Latvian historian and political commentator Uldis Ģērmanis described the society created by Soviet rule as an “anti-civilization” (anticivilizācija) -- a tragic, at “best” black humor parody of what “civilization” is generally understood to mean. It was a fragmented, atomized, demoralized society under a false banner of internationalist unity and socialist construction that, in fact, engaged in industrial activities that have been described as “value destructive”  rather than “value-adding”. 
Informal communities of trust
With a lingering fear of the KGB and its informers or stukači, society fragmented into small communities of tenuous trust (family, close friends, school or university classmates) that also provided “safe areas” for officially unsanctioned or forbidden activities -- a cousin to sell sausages from the meat of a kolkhoz pig that never was put on the books (piglets die, nobody double-checks), a classmate to bring Levis jeans from a sailor in return for some other favor. This, too, was part of the anticivilizācija, since in normal, open societies, people at least had some trust of public institutions and could be open about other communities of trust they belonged to -- churches, clubs, circles of friends and the like. In the Soviet anticivilization, these communities, instead, formed an ad hoc underground of, if not deliberate, then defacto resistance to most, if not all of what the state represented.
Theft, embezzlement and double-dealing were the safest and most powerful weapons of resistance to the state, which was  seen as a dangerous, hostile menace. Few people would risk the penalties for raising the pre-war Latvian flag on the factory flagpole or of distributing “anti-Soviet” leaflets. But when it came to skimming the monthly production quota of some “deficit” goods, even the local Communist officials could be offered a cut and keep quiet about this offense to good plan execution. Often they were at the top of and even started whole “food chains” of pilferage and off-the books production (there were reports of informal “night shifts” at Soviet factories that produced for the benefit of the managers, while the “day shift” muddled about pretending to work).
This form of resistance also brought practical benefits in a society of chronic shortage and disfunctional official channels for getting anything done. Raise the red-white-red flag and get away with it-- so what? Nothing changed. Steal several rolls of good fabric and you are owed many favors by your elementary school classmate, now a seamstress, including making you a jacket from part of what you stole. Or arranging to see her sister, a dentist who is not a butcher. 
As the malaise of the centrally planned but nearly unmanageable Soviet economy spread to more and more institutions, bizarre relationships developed. Even as Latvians, enjoying perestroika and glasnost freedoms, shouted at public rallies for the Soviet Army to leave Latvia, Latvian kolkhozes unofficially traded food (meat, eggs, fresh produce) to nearby Soviet army bases in return for motor fuel. Soviet army conscripts were living on poor rations, sometimes the kolkhoz care packages filtered down to them, more often, the officers would send Latvian sausages, smoke meats and cheese back home to Russia for consumption or sale through one of their informal and hidden communities of trust (Uncle Leonid in Krasnoyarsk and his black market boys). Meanwhile, had there been a major military alert, many tanks and armored personnel carriers would not have made it far past the army base gate, because their fuel tanks had been siphoned to pay for inventory for Uncle Leonid’s basement meat emporium. 
Society as a thieves’ market
This society, a thieves market of fragmented, mutually suspicious informal little groups, all deliberately or unconsciously undermining the enemy state and its official economy, was what stepped into complete political and economic independence, somewhat unexpectedly, in August, 1991. The flags on the flagpoles changed, little else did, though much was expected, far much more than from the Communist slogans of the last time the order of things had changed back in 1945.
The Latvian leadership of the early 1990s were basically well meaning, inexperienced (at running free countries) and baffled Soviet people trying to be “ post-Soviet” (when “post” amounted to days or weeks). They inevitably failed. Bumbling mistakes were made, temptations “to grab a little” abounded. Society -- a rag quilt of these little groups of tentative trust -- took a few looks and concluded -- it is all the same. The state is still a hostile and incompetent force, failing to deliver the milk and honey that implicitly stood behind all the slogans and songs of national pride and independence. So fuck ‘em.
Oh, but there was milk and honey and five-star cognac in abundance, because the market economy kicked off in Latvia and the rest of the former USSR as one of history’s biggest yard sales. Millions of tons of inventory -- metal, chemicals, scrap, caviar, furs, you name it -- were there in the ownerless warehouses of ownerless all-Union enterprises. So people got to it, and were literally rolling in hard currency.
This was not entrepreneurial capitalism, but it sure looked like “ wow, I’m a millionaire”. What role models did anyone have for this? Certainly not the discreet charm of US or British “old money” where wealth was “flaunted” by funding a university library, opera house or scholarship fund. Try  Dallas  instead. 
By the mid-90s (around the time of the so-called G-24 loan fiasco, when millions in foreign aid loans were wasted and shamelessly embezzled) the first Western and European Union (EU) advisors started arriving in Latvia under the Phare and other programs. Sometimes stridently, sometimes unintentionally condescendingly, the advisors and consultants repeatedly told their “clients” that graft and stealing were bad, that bureaucracy had to be eliminated or made efficient, that government operations and finances had to be open and transparent, plus a whole shopping list of things that had to be done if Latvia wanted to join the “civilized” world and eventually, the EU. Much of this fell on ears that were open in the classrooms and seminars, but often deaf when it came to putting the lessons into everyday practice.
In the 90s (and still, almost 20 years later), it was often argued that Latvia could not be like developed Western countries because it was poor. Certainly, it could not afford to build massive new infrastructure, tear up its railway net overnight and adjust it to European gauge and many other things, but that was not the issue. Latvia didn’t do the simple things that were recommended over and over by the Western consultants and that cost little or nothing -- like stop embezzling, taking bribes, being harsh and unkind to people seeking public services,  treating employees as equals, not servile subordinates, etc. 
What happened during the late 90s and what continues up to now is that the remnants of the anticivilizācija simply shrugged off all well-meaning outside influences and went about their business. This showed up not only in the activities of significant parts of the political and economic elite, but also in everyday behavior by ordinary people. It has probably been underestimated to what extent much of the population is psychologically twisted, undereducated, and made passive-aggressive by both the Soviet legacy and the experience of the past 20 years. I have described these behaviors in other posts. 
Opening the floodgates
2004 and EU accession opened the floodgates for people who wanted to get away from all this and move to where they were, first of all, better paid, and second, better governed both by the states where they moved and, often, in their new workplaces. The end result is that Latvia has lost some 300 000 inhabitants, in non-violent and, for those directly involved, even subjectively pleasant ways (I disagree with those who compare the population loss to a war, economic migrants are not refugees from conflict nor are they war casualties). TV shows on emigration often feature people saying that they are living dignified lives for the first time after moving to Ireland or England.
However, the emigration also took away a very significant part of the population that, had it been confined to Latvia by difficult immigration rules in other countries (no EU membership), might have formed a powerful political opposition to what has happened. A potentially revolutionary opposition was simply vented off like steam, thanks to Latvia joining the EU and many people choosing a relatively quick way to get away from, though hardly solve, Latvia’s intractable problems. It could even be said that many of the country’s best and brightest have been lost, simply because it matters to be good and bright elsewhere, but not very much in Latvia.
While we may not yet be scraping the bottom of the social and demographic barrel, we certainly are in the lower layers, and it even seems that it can be seen on the street level - the increasing numbers of worn-out, strange, haggard, desperate and sometimes criminal looking people on the streets. It also seems, looking at  some remaining young people, that the generation of fetal alcohol syndrome babies from the 1980s has started growing up. Yet another sign that the effects of anticivilizācija lingering 20 years after the USSR collapsed.
Anticivilizācija has left more than a physical condition. It has also hit at what I would call the “social DNA”  of the nation, the processes by which social behavior patterns, rather than physical characteristics, are transferred from generation to generation. Compare this, if you wish, to the operating system of a computer, the program that determines how all other things are done by the machine. Real DNA is like hardware, and there is nothing particular about the Latvians -- same as everyone’s and same as it ever was. 
Warped “social DNA”
The social DNA of Latvia, however, is badly warped. It predisposes people to a strangely post-Soviet paranoid inferiority complex. Being told that, or determining one’s self that one lacks something is not in and of itself  enough to develop an inferiority complex. A rational individual will look for ways of remedying one’s faults and failings. Add to that a paranoia fed by complex, overlapping and overlaid conspiracy theories and being told that there is something wrong is equal to trying to make things wrong or worse. No need to listen to these voices!
Moreover, the paranoia exaggerates the inferiority complex to its opposite -- not only are we victimized, but we, as victims, play a special role on the world stage with major figures such as George Soros and the better part of the Russian intelligence services (and most of the Russian population of Latvia) out to keep use down and make things worse. This paranoid inferiority complex -- sometimes mild, sometimes intense --blurs the view of or blinds the remaining population to seeking a way out of their lingering misery. Instead, with fewer and fewer educated and thinking individuals as part of the mix, society continues to chase phantom solutions and explanations for its problems -- a return to mythical autarky, a strong leader (appearing from where?), more wacko conspiracy theories, many of them fed by crackpot Russian websites and publications, since people able to critically read other languages have moved to the countries where they are spoken -- England, Germany, Sweden, etc.
So where does that leave things? Unfortunately, it looks like Latvia has slipped past some kind of tipping point, and what we will see for the many years is stagnation and slow decline. People who expect a great repatriation of the 300 000 immigrants are deluding themselves. What is there to come back to, to permanently come back? For those who emigrated to Western Europe, frequent visits are not a problem. Keeping up the language and culture -- ditto, if anyone wants to. An emigre middle class can afford its ethnicity and most of the trappings as a hobby -- the post-war refugees proved this. Latvian churches and centers everywhere. The new emigrants are duplicating this to some extent. They are saying that their presence in Ireland, England, wherever, is (semi) permanent. The only benefit they will bring to those remaining in Latvia is a steady flow of repatriated funds (remittances) and money spent when visiting “home”  from their real and socio-economically better homes.
I have seen the future, and it may not be there.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Sacking politics, witch doctors and the Ubermother

Overshadowed by the terrorist attack in Norway, almost 700 000 voters in Latvia voted by almost 95% to sack their parliament, the Saeima, on Saturday. Not that the event would have gotten all that much attention without Norway. When these domestic political dramas occur, Latvians think the whole world (or Europe, at least) is terribly interested and even take mild offense when little or nothing is reported in the foreign media.
By contrast, when foreign analysts, advisors, educators or whatever show up and sometimes mildly, sometimes frankly suggest to Latvians that they have let their country become a corrupt, incompetent or "best of both" socially and economically disintegrating soon-to-be "Osteuropa" (in the bad sense) backwater -- then of course, shut up, we know best, you didn't live here for those 50 years, who are you and basically we are a planet of our own.
So now we have one end result of that defensive arrogance bred by a simmering inferiority complex. As Arnis Kaktiņš, an astute political analyst and opinion pollster said, the near-95% vote could also be considered a total rejection of the political system and most, if not  all that has happened in Latvia over the past 20 years. Pretty impressive. But what next, what then?
As many as 300 000 Latvians have already made a choice and moved to other countries that are better able to govern themselves. Not perfectly, by far, but producing far better results, basically by doing for years and, in some cases, decades or even a century or two, that which all those foreign know-it-alls were talking about for those same 20 years, when the outside world was giving Latvia its share of aid and advice.
Some of the advice was about matters that cost nothing -- like not stealing and wasting taxpayer money. Like not running the institutions of governance like a cross between "lets have a nostalgia for Soviet-style bureaucracy day five days a week" and the game of "who is the biggest cretin?". Like not making both petty and awesome scale bribe-taking pretty much standard procedure.
So we are left with a largely failed state, society and economy. too poor to pay for decent police or education or medical care, but merrily building a nearly-billion dollar bridge where small change like LVL 80 million (USD 160 million) can't be accounted for, just like change that fell out of your pocket on the bus. Who wouldn't vote against all that?
But what next? As usual, Latvians are largely at a loss. The country made it into NATO and the European Union (EU), though perhaps it didn't deserve the latter, but then Brussels was convinced that once in the door, the post-communist shambolistans would get their acts together, which they didn't. So once those goals were reached, and we could send soldiers into purposeless battle against a near-Stone Age Muslim society, while the folks back home went batshit all the way to the bank, pushed the pedal to the floor as politicians told them to do, and contributed to the worst economic crisis the nation has faced since the 1930s Depression. Or worse, since Latvia claims to have  sailed rather well through that one, if you believe that an autarkic, authoritarian system was an effective remedy.
It is not like nothing is happening, to be sure. Former president Valdis Zatlers, who successfully dismissed the Saeima (once the popular vote was in), started his own party, the Reform Party or Zatlers's Reform Party, symbolized by a logo of a Red Cross (yes, the medical symbol and the one for the folks who show up after typhoons and earthquakes) with an arrow-thing sticking into it. Whatever that means.
Basically, the ZRP (Zerp?) as it is abbreviated is yet another clone of a we will do it better centrist reform, clean government and nice smart people party.  It sound a bit like New Era (Jaunais Laiks) or, for that matter, Vienotība, the chimera being patched together from Jaunais Laiks (the original reformers party founded by mildly(?) wacko Einārs Repše), the Citizens Union ( a kind of nationalists lite)  and the Societ for a Different Politics ( a kind of social democracy lite).
Well, good luck to them. So far, reforms have been nothing but false dawns, and the electorate seems to know and have expressed that truth.
The day after Zatlers founded his party at a place appropriately named "The Dream Factory" (Sapņu fabrika), it was back to normal in Latvian politics as a witch doctor (healer) calling herself Virsmāte or the Ubermother founded her own political party dedicated, also, to healing the country and bringing on better days for everyone. Just like Zatlers.  In fact, there are probably as many witch doctors in Latvia as there are bright, Western educated 30-somethings ready to step up and join the ex-president's team. So, with just about six weeks left until the extraordinary elections (a system dismissed by 95% of the population, according to Kaktiņš), the merry band of pranksters -- the ex Pres and his boys and girls, the badly battered Vienotība, the ever-faithful to the accused criminal Aivars Lembergs Green and Farmers' Union, and, of course, the witch doctors-- can set off on yet another race for the discredited halls of power in a failing state. As always, it will be sad fun to watch and very hard to cast a vote and still take oneself seriously.

Urban Cattle II - more observations

“Urban cattle”. the phrase I coined, was accepted by the Urban Dictionary ( I submitted it because it amused a friend from back in the day, now safely living in California, but never been to Latvia, nor even Latvian. Is the dictionary listing the reason they seem to be propagating, increasing in numbers here in Riga? 
They were out in force on the weekend, along a major thoroughfare, Brīvības, which is a very wide boulevard for most of its length. Probably, therefore, a great place for urban cattle to wander out, stand on the white center line, oblivious to traffic or to meander across perhaps 50 meters from a legitimate pedestrian crossing.
At real pedestrian crossings, such as the one by the Riga Central Station, said to be the busiest in the Baltic area, the urban cattle mingle with the ordinary pedestrians, who watch and wait for a countdown indicator. For this subspecies of nimble urban cattle, any number below minus 10 is a signal to jump the curb. With red-light running a very commonplace event, never mind racing on yellow, it is a wonder that I haven’t seen any urban cattle taken out.
The nimble ones, I have noticed, are young and usually look spaced on some cocktail of addictive substances. With a loping gait and eyes watching some chemical cartoon version of the reality around them, they set off, oblivious to blaring horns as cars swerve around them. I mean, Lonja the urla or his Latvian counterpart (can’t tell cause the cattle don’t speak very much) are on the move, the deck is rolling and it is another day of solvent sniffarama or whatever they are into.
Then there is old Zonko the geezer, who crosses and wades into a line of cars, so that he is hidden from the next lane, where folks aiming to do a right turn only can’t see him. Surprise!
Further out of town, we see Dancin’ Dan, who is traipsing, fucked up on rotgut, along the center line, waving at some cars, shit eating grin on his face. I still wait for the return of Meatface the mobile phone man, but maybe he has been taken out, though hitting him with a vehicle would do as much damage as whacking a real, and not so small cow. Not recommended.
Somewhere closer to the Alfa shopping mall, the airhead teeny boppers start appearing, also traipsing or teetering on the white center line, but unlike Dan, sober and stupid as a fencepost as Latvians would say. Favorite meandering area for these urban cattle is also within sight of an elevated walkway where you can cross the street any time you want. 
Then there are the tourist cattle, more often than not Swedish, lumbering along the sidewalk or crossing the street with technical correctness, but unaware that this is not fucking Stockholm, folks. They don’t stop -- the cars. Maybe they swerve,  they may honk and if old sheep-brained Sven and his wife notice, they will live another day with no casts, no crutches. 
Back on the sidewalk, the bikes are out in numbers, to them, pedestrians are just slalom poles to be weaved around at high speed. To the bikies, we are all urban cattle. 

Friday, July 15, 2011

Able-bodied beggars, urban cattle and the assless anorexic

Every day, I keep seeing strange and stranger stuff here in Riga at the ill-defined but somehow "street level" of observation. Most of it points to this society continuing to slither into further disintegration and degeneracy.
Let's start with the beggars. They have been around for a while, they are a symptom of both socio-economic and personal problems. They exist, to some degree, everywhere. You get used to most of them around the central station in Riga (railroad stations attract the wacked-out and weird everywhere). The two one-legged dudes, one on crutches, the other in a wheelchair, prone to periodic bum-fights. The various dudes, so clueless about misery marketing as to wallow in one of the pedestrian tunnels with one or more dogs.
Don't get me wrong, the wretched (who are such for whatever reason) certainly deserve at least the companionship of a dog. Dogs seldom propose getting drunk or shooting heroin, so they may even be better companions than the kinds of pals one acquires by persistently being in lumpenproletarian circles. But for fuck's sake, don't bring the dog out to beg with you because it clearly says that any alms will be split with a)the seller of rotgut (krutka), for drugs (that should be decriminalized and available at maintenance clinics), for some kind of food, and for the dog??!!
But what disturbs me more is that there are able bodied beggars not showing many, sometimes even no outward signs of addiction, misery and depredation. These guys should quit begging when they have enough to buy a Ryanair ticket to the UK or Germany, where they might be able to find work.
One beggar stood out -- a young, cleanly-dressed woman (early or mid-twenties), showing none of the signs of decline of the other young women who claim to beg for their children. What is worrisome that she looks able-bodied in another sense, that is, potentially approachable by people wanting to buy sex. In other words, she is potentially one step from prostitution (which, with some qualms, should be legalized) and the risk of being trafficked. Why doesn't she simply get the hell out of here before some else arranges to have her taken to elsewhere in Europe.
Now to urban cattle. I am not talking about the urban cattle of India that one sees simply moving about cities in traffic, standing, wandering, stopping and flicking the flies with their tails (or so one sees them in TV documentaries). Maybe I am wrong, but the idea of cattle to me means --dumb. The urban cattle I see day to day in the streets of Riga are the folks blithely, cluelessly wandering into traffic, doing the most outrageous things.
Take one guy. He is standing halfway in a traffic lane.  I am driving and slow down, gesture for him to cross. But what does Zork the Zombie do? Nothing. I drive around him and shout something like cross, for fuck's sake! (pises pāri! in Latvian). But there are more bizarre things ahead. I spot a guy standing on the white line in the middle of a major street (Avotu). This is a favorite grazing area for urban cattle who simply go out there and then dumbly watch the traffic, hoping to cross when the fancy strikes them.  Is he one of them?
No, the dude, lets call him Meatface, is standing and talking on his mobile phone. OK... We drive on to a place nearby to look at a used office chair. This means -- park, climb five flights of stairs, talk to the seller, determine that the chair is not for us, politely say goodbye, walk back to car and drive back to the paid parking lot where we keep it passing the corner of Avots and Lācplēša and what do we see-- Meatface is still standing in the middle of the street, talking on the phone. WTF?
Then there are the more nimble cattle, the darters, who dash blindly into the path of traffic in one of those gaps in the flow of cars. Cars do slow and sometimes stop, so the darting cattle are not often removed from the gene pool.
Urban cattle, to be sure, are not a Latvian phenomenon. My "favorites" in Stockholm, on the subway system are the ones who wander up to the top or bottom of an escalator and simply stand and stare. Stå och stirrare - stand and starers, they could be called in Swedish. Simply unable to unfuck themselves and made a decision -- Down or Not Down (the strange Swedish way of labeling escalators Ned and Ej ned).
An so to the the assless anorexic. She was walking ahead of me in one of the pedestrian tunnels, like a large, ultrathin Barbie doll come to life. Instead of legs, she seemed to be walking on thin, flesh-colored stilts. No hints of any body under her skirt, where the stilts disappear. Assless.
Anorexia, like anywhere, is a problem in Latvia, little talked about with probably no medical and psychological resources to deal with it. It is a first-world ailment, Latvia is moving toward being its own version of third-world lite. 

Friday, July 01, 2011

One reason I am looking for a Plan B jobwise

I try not to take things to the level of personal issues,  except when they reflect greater issues affecting Latvian society as a whole (such as street level observations of reckless bike driving, drunks, degenerates and wackos on the street). This case in point, however, illustrates how journalism is done in Latvia, both the deficiencies under which I consciously operate and the faults of the system by which news is processed.
One of the aspects of Latvian news agency work is sometimes covering events simply because they are happening and concern issues of possible interest. You simply sit through whatever it is and try to get some kind of readable angle on the event, often because stories are written simply to generate volume rather than quality (this is especially absurd in business journalism, where I believe a story has to a) move markets, which is not possible in Latvia or b) provide information that gives readers some form of business decision support). That is the way it should be, but to keep one's numbers up with those running the news machine, you sometimes write stuff based on ..well, WTF not? Just keep it accurate, if not meaningful.
I went to a meeting of broadcast-media related folks arranged by the Latvian National Electronic Mass Media Council (NEPLP for short in Latvia) to discuss the preliminary stages of drafting a new model for public service electronic media in the country. Tim Suter, a British expert, led off the presentations, talking about issues related to public service media governance and the different media models it can apply to. Suter has worked as a radio and  television journalist for the BBC, including "Newsnight", as an editor with the BBC, then with the British Department of Culture, Media and Sport, then with the British broadcast media oversight authority OFCOM,  and as the founder of two private consulting companies with such media organizations as the BBC, BBC Trust, News Corporation, ITV, Five, Time Warner, The Newspaper Society, TwoFour54, UKTV, Federal National Media Council (UAE), Discovery, Microsoft, the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, the Council of Europe, the European Commission.
As a preface to my description of the specific problem (how a so-so, but accurate and printable story got killed), suffice it to say that based on his background, Suter probably knows what he is talking about when in comes to European broadcast media and has some idea of what the budgets of European broadcast organizations are like. In addition, he was presumably briefed on the situation in Latvia by his host, the deputy chairperson of the NEPLP, who said how pleased she was to have met Suter while at EU-related events and had thought of bringing him to share his knowledge on public media governance issues with the audience in Riga,
Suter gave a common sense description of the issues, but nothing in the nature of run down the hall shouting "stop the presses" as one did back in the day. There was a second presentation of the possible models emerging, in general terms, from the fog of what do we do next? that was made by a lady from Ernst& Young. Again, there are just so many ways you can line up the ducks if you are given three ways to do it. Nothing that would have deserved any bells back when wire services ran on teletype machines (I remember those times),
Then there was a discussion where someone, I believe it was an executive from Latvian Television, asked what Suter thought of the funding level (i.e, budget) of the Latvian broadcast media. Suter said that he had seen Latvia's figures "in outline" and it seemed to him that such a level of funding was "unsustainable" and would present the public service media with very difficult and perhaps irreconcilable alternatives of fulfilling the public service mission or engaging in commercial activity to maintain adequate revenues.
Bang! There was the basis for a best-effort story. I headed back for the office as I didn't have all day to spend at the event and would be replaced covering the conference by another reporter from the agency. Of course, I had no chance to ask Suter in a one-on-one interview exactly why he had doubts that Latvian public service media funding was sustainable, but given the constraints of the situation, I considered his background and authority in the field sufficient basis for publishing his snap opinion and adding that the heads of Latvian TV and radio have complained in the past about inadequate funding from the state. So it was a real issue, seen not only by the British expert.
The best comparison I could make is watching a sports TV show where, for some reason, a famous sports doctor makes a comment that, after seeing some short videos of a tennis player's last match, he suspects that the player may be about to suffer an injury. The doctor's opinion, heard on TV, would make adequate agency news copy based on the doctor's experience and record. He need not say that the way X served indicates he is protecting arm muscle such and such because it hurts him. If the doc says it, it is news, and it may be best practice, but not always possible, to call the doc and get an explanation in detailed medical terms, of how what was seen in two or three video highlights tells an experienced medical eye that something is going wrong.
Well, what happened was that a news editor demanded and insisted that the story contain Suter's detailed reasoning for why Latvian public media financing was unsustainable, or it was unfit to run. Given other stories and work and practicalities, I didn't think it was worth the effort to try to find out and said, look, the guy is an authority, not an idiot, and the issue has been raised before. It is an adequate, debate stimulating story. In fact, it contains elements of the reporter generated "exclusive" where you call up side A to tell you that yes, they still believe white and do a follow up with side B saying, outrageous, we think black and a third story by a political commentator saying that the nation is yet again debating black vs white showing that political polarization is growing. I mean, why not, everyone does it and the point is, it suffices that these views are real (even if dormant when you make the call) and accurately reflected.
What it ended with was that I chopped everything Suter said and ran only what the Latvian consultant said (nothing special) and e-mailed the news editor -- as far as I am concerned, fuck it, kill the whole thing. Which apparently happened. An ignorance-based decision, IMHO.
Having said that, it is yet another reason to get out of a situation where I find myself doing half-assed journalism for an often half-assed news product. Any reasonable job offers will be considered -- preferably for English-language media outside Latvia, inside Latvia, or, all else failing, some other media in Latvia. Maybe IR needs someone to do telecoms and high tech?