Thursday, September 27, 2012

Are the forces of "crusading ignorance" preparing to burn books in Latvia?

It is getting seriously deranged in this country, and hard to decide whether this is the culmination of one of the many processes that make Latvia a kind of failed state/society lite, or the start of a censorship and book-burning campaign by crazed religious fundamentalists.
It all started with a perhaps expensive (more that LVL 6000 for 500 print editions, an internet version and a teachers’guide) translated Danish children’s book with stories of small children switching gender roles for a day. The general idea is to put children in the place of others, to think what it would be like to play a girl’s traditional gender role (play with dolls) or for a girl to do “boy” things like team sports.
When Latvia’s Minister of Welfare Ilze Viņkele presented the book and the gender equality program, she was angrily criticized by a group of fundamentalist Christians. Some 50 Christian and “pro-family” groups also wrote letters to the Prime Minister, other government ministers and the media denouncing the book and asking for Vinķele’s resignation.
The reaction of Latvia’s holy rollers was hysterical, with one man claiming to be the father of six children suggesting on television that a book burning be organized. Many comments on the internet by people who had apparently never read the book saying that it was aimed at teaching homosexuality. Others saw it as a plot to deprave Latvia (as if a girl playing European football and a boy wearing a sweater with glitters was the height of moral collapse). It is almost as if Vinķele’s presentation of the book opened the depths of ignorance, religious fanaticism, and anti-Western or anti-modernist rage. It is like a time portal opened to the 19th century, if not the Middle Ages in a country that is outwardly a modern democracy and European Union member state.
Vinķele herself said that she feared book burning or physical violence could be the next step in the outrage by a segment of the public over what they see as “homosexual propaganda” in the kindergarten. Nothing, least of all facts and the views of modern science will convince these people otherwise. It almost makes one think that there was something positive about the Soviet Union’s “militant atheism” and anti-religious campaigns. A little of that might be useful, though as much at odds with democratic values and an open society (committed to freedom of belief) as the Soviet’s totalitarian crusade to repress everything except the secular religion of Communism. 

Monday, September 17, 2012

What could be behind the "pro-life" campaign in Latvia?

Pro-Life or, if you please, anti-abortion movements aren't something I follow. Now, it appears that a relatively low-key pro-life campaign has started in Latvia, using the rather clever device of placing 27 statues of sleeping full term babies on the ground in a square near the Freedom Monument (a kind of entrance to the Old Town). Each of the babies had a small label in three languages, Latvian, English and Russian, stating what amounts to a kind of “Bioethics 101” problem along the lines of “my dad abused my mom, he drank, she had no place to go, no work...etc.”
Basically, the 27 bioethics “problems” (it is said that 27 abortions are preformed every day in Latvia) are meant to be thought provoking, though (I have glanced at most, but not all of them) they skip over such cases as rape, especially the rape of an underaged girl, incest and other examples where abortion is probably the only solution.
The installation also doesn't deal with issue of fetal viability, something best left to scientists, but basically a standard for determining that, up to a certain point in a pregnancy, the fetus is not able to live outside the mother, even with massive medical assistance. In other words, the standard determines that up to XY weeks of gestation, an aborted fetus would have no chance of living and its biological existence up to then must be weighed against the interests of the woman or young girl facing an unwanted pregnancy. 
What concerns me is that these pro-life thought provokers may have another agenda, more in line with the hard-core religious right. At least one of the organizers of the installation and campaign is former Soviet-era Latvian dissident Jānis Rožkalns. He is a very brave and decent man (did time in the Gulag for his actions and beliefs). However, in the past more than 20 years, Jānis has aligned with at least one right-wing religious cause – opposition to gay rights, gay pride parades and the like. I participated in debate against him and another religious hard-liner, the Riga City Council member Jānis Šmits and a retired Catholic archbishop and Cardinal, Jānis Pujats. I took a libertarian position, that any and all public expression must be permitted.
It would certainly be good if this particular “pro-life” action was simply one to make people think whether abortion is a desirable form of “contraception”. Indeed, the next step should be actions to address the social problems in some of the examples given – preventing violence against women and the sexual abuse of under-aged girls, broad sex education for children age 12 and up, and an acceptance that adolescent sex is inevitable, therefore contraceptives must be available if all other “restraints” fail --Christian chastity advocacy, non-sectarian sexual ethics lessons, whatever.
So, giving the benefit of the doubt, let's see where this goes. But I have a nagging feeling, that under all this are people who would like to see abortions banned, to declare that an inviolable life starts at conception and  that Latvia should be  made into a sexually repressive theocracy.  
I must say that abortion is a creepy thing for me. I would rather not have it as an inevitable choice for women or couples, but creepier, still, is the idea of law-mandated forced birth and the suspension of personal choice and autonomy for any woman the instant she becomes pregnant for any reason and under any circumstances. So given the choice, I tilt toward free choice.

Saturday, September 01, 2012

Buffoon politics (?) appears in Latvia

If anyone thought the totally batshit side of Latvian politics was also on vacation this week, they were proven wrong by the antics of former TV comedian formerly known as Viesturs Dūle. Things started out innocently enough a couple of weeks (?) ago when Dūle, the Latvian rapper Gustavo and some other dude announced they intended to start a political party called Skaistā Nākotne or “Beautiful Future”. That should have been a hint that this enterprise would quickly tilt to the gonzo side of things.
And soon it did. After what must have been a hearty breakfast of hallucinogenic mushrooms, Dūle announced that was henceforth to be called Zuarguss Klororus-Zarmass. Gustavo, who was a stage pseudonym to begin with, will henceforth  be called Arstarulsmirus Arsujumfus-Tarus and the third dude - Jurgstulajstus Lajurgus-Urgurus. 
Now I have read a little about ketamine-induced highs, where people apparently are propelled into a different dimension where choirs of elves appear. Or perhaps it was DMT that did this to you. Anyway, the names of our new political party founders appear to have come from the lyrics of what those elves were singing. From here on, whatever these guys do is total crank-o-rama as far as I am concern. Believe nothing they say. Oddly, just like real politics. Which may be the point of the whole, as Latvians would say, balagāns. 
To be sure, what Zuarguss and his buddies are up to is nothing new. In Britain, the Monster Raving Loony Party  has been a part of the comic political landscape since the 1980s. It seems to have become a small business and a means of promoting various alternative and strange musicians. Nothing wrong with that. What is worse is when there are politicians and political movements that are geniunely wackbat (my word, derived from wacko and batshit), as illustrated by this New York Times blog on The Crackpot Caucus.  Perhaps the balagānšik formerly known as Viesturs Dūle should get back to exposing the real crackpots and cranks in Latvia, which I think he was trying to do in his satirical TV shows some years ago. In any case, Zuarguss has also cast a pall of unseriousness on his movement to improve education in Latvia. There are real, serious problems in Latvia that cannot be solved by yet another put-on political movement -- but at least one that signals that it is not for real.  At the same time, Skaistā Nākotne it has published some programmatic material (in Latvian) that appears to take a serious, if somewhat unconventional stand on the issue of corruption (those guilty of bribe giving or taking should be fined, not jailed, etc.) Too bad little of this can be taken seriously, now that Zuarguss and Arstarulmirus have been chanting with the elves. 

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Latvian society still needs freedom after 21 years of independence

By the standards of adulthood in some countries, the age of 21, Latvia has reached adulthood in its second period of independence. 21 years ago, in late August, 1991, Latvia’s independence was recognized by the brave little nation of Iceland. Others quickly followed, although it took a while for both the United States and what was left of the Soviet Union/Russia to get on the bandwagon. With that, the issue of formal independence was settled, followed by Latvia’s admission to the United Nations, to other international organizations, and, in 2004, to both NATO and the European Union (EU). Latvia has fully joined “the community of nations” and all that.
The reason Latvian engaged in a struggle to regain their independence was, in large part, because they were not free, not able to discuss the status of their nation without fear of arrest or persecution, they were unable to make key decisions of economic policy, they were not free to leave the USSR or even to travel internally with full freedom. With independence, many of these freedoms were renewed, at least at the national level. The nation state was free within the rules of the international communities it had joined.
Under the expanded freedoms of assembly and expression of the perestroika period of the late 1980s, Latvian society was able to vent 40 years of frustration and anger at the injustices, oppression and absurdity of the Soviet occupation. This meant that most “liberated” (unleashed, rather than free) expression was, in a sense, one dimensional. The system was bad, Communists were bad, the Soviet economy was unable to meet consumer needs, etc., etc.. By Soviet standards, to be able to criticize, even to rant against the existing order was an unprecedented form of “free expression” of opinions almost universally shared.  This was something quite different from what was understood as free expression in the West, that is, at times a cacophony of diverse voices and viewpoints.
To be sure, there were debates during the “awakening” movement of the late 1980s, among them, on whether Latvia should seek autonomy inside a reformed USSR (whatever that meant), or whether there should be complete independence (which happened, essentially, in the middle of this incomplete debate).  Independence was suddenly a reality, rather than a goal to which progress could be controlled or paced. There could be little more debate on this issue.
After 1991, so-called political parties were formed across the entire political spectrum, from ultranationalists to revanchists, who wanted a return to the Soviet Union, perhaps with some modifications. To some extent, there was free political debate among these parties, but it was largely based on superficial preconceived ideas of what conservatism, social democracy, even nationalism meant. After 40 years of occupation, preceded by six years of authoritarian rule, there was little or no practical democratic tradition in Latvia. The country had only been a rather shambolic parliamentary republic up to the bloodless coup in May, 1934, just 16 years after declaring independence from Czarist Russia, hardly a model of freedom and openness.
Latvia regained its independence never really having had any tradition of democratic societal debate (OK, historians may contradict me), at least not in modern times (post WWII) and therefore in the living memory of anyone except 90-somethings. Latvians, during the freedom struggles of the late 80s , experienced freedom as the license to vent their own, largely similar rage and pain, without having to listen to other, noticeably different voices. One was, after all, standing in a largely harmonic choir. Instead of respecting diverse different opinions, there was just “us” and a “them” whose power and authority was waning. “Them” were only capable of  responding with “Soviet” arguments and warnings of the dire consequences of separatism that largely fell on deaf ears or were laughed at. Such “debates” with darkly comical, pernicious buffoons (hard line Communists) hardly prepared anyone for serious and respectful political debate.
Later, debates in the Saeima also reflected this lack of democratic tradition, as well as the limited political and economic education (in a modern Western sense) of may parliamentarians. Certainly, the parliament was not a glowing example for society at large. Looking at present day attitudes toward free expression, non-conformity, opposing opinions – never mind such “hot” issues as gay rights – it is clear that 21 years ago Latvia regained its national independence, but in 21 years it has failed to become a truly free, democratic society. The independence came, perhaps, too fast and easy, the freedom is still struggling at the everyday, practical, interpersonal and intergroup level. Latvians are still “free” to rant at others, to vent their own rage, but reach for the tools of repression when others do the same, but from different positions. So thanks for the independence, but please, bring on some real freedom, the kind where people aren’t threatened by diversity, open debate and tolerance.  

Monday, August 20, 2012

Authoritarian society in Latvia tilts against Pussy Riot?

The outrage against  the harsh sentencing of the Russian musicians and performance artists Pussy Riot seems to have passed by many Latvians (to be fair, there have not been mass gatherings or  riots in the streets in any other countries). What disturbs me is not the passivity on this issue, but the fact that a significant number of Latvians in social networks seem to support the punishment of the three Russian women, who have already been jailed for five months.
Latvia has been exposed to democratic values for more than 20 years. One could even say that the whole freedom movement of the late 1980s was based on a hope to once again be a free, democratic nation. But it apparently came at a time when the social fabric of Latvia was damaged beyond some critical breaking point, leaving an almost indelible Soviet mentality of  “ it is right to repress what I dislike” fixed in the personalities of many Latvians. I judge that by the response of people on Twitter and other social networks, where I suggested that the arrest and anticipated sentencing of Pussy Riot was a violation of the freedom of expression.
I was shocked – though knowing Latvia, only slightly shocked – how people who are knee-jerk anti-Russian on other issues (Russian language, Russian schools, the New Wave music festival) were so quick to align with the authoritarian Kremlin when it came to three young women causing less than a minute of disturbance in a largely empty Orthodox church. People carried on about how it was right to punish those who had “desecrated” a holy place (where, apparently, other non-religious events had taken place), how the behavior of the women was somehow despicable. There were also claims that Pussy Riot members had made a pornographic video and had participated in group sex (as if either of these actions lessened their freedom of expression with regard to the incident at the Orthodox Church). But mainly, there was a general belief that it was right to repress and punish those who do not agree with one’s own beliefs or some ill defined public morality and order.  The authoritarian personality lives on in  Latvia, it is one of the most persistent legacies of the Soviet occupation and, perhaps, also the authoritarian regime from 1934 – 1940. 

Friday, August 03, 2012

On emigration and the Riga fundraising ban

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 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...

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Anti-Semitic fog around Latvia's Jewish restitution issues may hide other agendas

That most Latvian of all holidays, the Midsummer Līgo celebration is over (technically, today, June 24, as I write, is still Jānis Day, from which the holiday derives its name of Jāņi). Normally this signals the start of a respite from active politics, since the Saeima (lovingly called the “Monkey House” by some journalists) is in recess. This year, on the eve of Jāņi, a moderate political earthquake hit as Minister of Justice Gaidis Bērziņš of the National Alliance resigned in protest over what he said was a dispute over government plans to deal with the issue of restitution of property seized after 1940 to some Jewish organizations.
By some accounts, the value of this property – buildings and land in Riga and other places around Latvia – is around LVL 30 million.  That is not some cash payment the organizations want (as sometimes misinterpreted), but the estimated value of the properties, some of which may be unusable and unmarketable and would have to be compensated in cash should the plan go through.
The National Alliance objects to the government’s plans to reopen the restitution process (begun more than 20 years ago) for the sake of one interest/religious/ethnic group. This is not in and of itself an unreasonable position. Even Jewish community spokesmen have said that they would welcome the government allowing other ethnic, religious or social organizations to recover property that they are entitled to, but have not managed to claim to date.
However, the debate has stimulated a very ugly torrent of hateful, anti-Semitic comments in Latvian news portals. To what extent this reflects the views of society or just of a small core of crazies using different pseudonyms is unclear. But the stuff they are writing is pretty deranged:

Damned Jews!  Those (obscenity censored by the portal’s bot) sent money from the USA to Hitler to run his war machine. That’s how they got their state. Asking compensation from Latvia which belonged to the Urals or Germany. Wrecked banks! And now they ask for their property? Adolf, where are you?

If you are a Jew, it is best if you immediately shoot yourself.  Jews are the bloodsuckers of other nations.


Not without reason this nation was hated during Czarist times and they were deprived of all rights. The Soviet system allowed them to awaken and rename themselves with Russian last names and make up the name Hebrews, because the name Jews(žīdi, neutral in Latvian, but reminiscent of the abusive “zhid” in Russian)sounded derogatory to them. The Jews throughout history have done more harm to the world than all wars taken together. If someone were to add up all the owners of capital in the world, a not very pleasant scene would be revealed – we are all dependent on their greed.

While these rantings rarely get translated and presented outside of Latvia, anyone reading the portals uncritically could get the impression that Latvia is a profoundly anti-Semitic country, distorting the debate over restitution to Jewish organizations as a purely “anti-Semites against the Jews”  issue, which it is not.
The issue is one of making an exception for organizations that have some break in their historical continuity to recover property after established deadlines. In the case of Latvia’s Jews, with much of the community destroyed in the Holocaust, it is no surprise that some Jewish organizations had no direct “heirs”,  even if they were reconstituted in the years since Latvia regained its independence in 1991. It is also claimed that the Jewish organizations seeking to regain properties mainly have Russian Jewish immigrants as their members, and have little or no continuity with the Latvian Jewish organizations that were expropriated in 1940.
One analogy that could be drawn (hypothetically) is that of an Irish Catholic congregation in the US that has some of its property taken illegally in, say, 1970, and drags the case through the courts and other institutions for more than four decades. In the mean time, the Irish Catholics are replaced by Latin Americans, who are no less Catholic, but of a different ethnic background.
This will not really work in Latvia, because when it comes to “ethnicity”, the current Jewish community is seen as “Russian” and representing the “occupation” (even if many moved to Latvia during the Soviet era because it was seen as one of the least anti-Semitic areas of the USSR). A few persons associated with “anti-Latvian” causes, such as Vladimirs Lindermans, one of the instigators of the referendum to make Russian a second state language, is understood to be Jewish. So is Aleksandrs Giļmans, an ex- politician who has cast doubt on the historical condemnation of the June 14, 1941 deportation of thousands of Latvian citizens (including a disproportionate number of Jews). That, for many Latvians, is the equivalent of Holocaust denial for Jews.
By creating a medium intensity political crisis (not quite toppling the government), the resignation of Bērziņš comes as a confluence of the worst possible factors – perceived and real anti-Semitism in Latvia, issues of restitution for the Soviet and Nazi eras (it was actually the Soviet occupation that confiscated Jewish property, the Germans didn’t get their chance) and suspicions that the whole thing actually is a symptom of bigger (?) political sharks fighting under the murky waters.
The National Alliance seems to be shrugging off the anti-Jewish tempests in several internet teacups that its move has set off. The party alliance itself cannot be labeled as anti-Semitic, even though one of its former(?) spokesmen, Jānis Iesalnieks, triggered a discussion of the possibility of “intelligent anti-Semitism” – whatever than means? Is it criticizing Israel’s policies (a legitimate issue, but Israel is a state, not some hazy entity called “the Jews”). Or what?
What the National Alliance may be hoping to gain is threefold – to have the government retreat on the Jewish restitution issue or open the matter to “all” ethnic and religious organizations, to replace Bērziņš with its new candidate for Justice Minister (keeping that post) and to perhaps unseat Daniels Pavļuts of the Reform Party as Minister of Economics. The Harvard-trained minister’s party, according to the latest voter polls, would get 1.8% in an election held today, putting it well below the  5% threshold for being seated in the Saeima and making the party political “ dead meat” waiting topple over when the next Saeima elections come.
Who else may be behind the scenes? There have been guesses that the beleaguered Ventspils mayor and oligarch Aivars Lembergs could be pulling the strings. His main benefit would be political instability and bringing international attention to “anti-Semitic Latvia” rather that to his case. A Latvian court said it would enforce a British court ruling freezing some USD 135 million in Lembergs assets. It could be the beginning of the end, and he is using his waning political influence to pull down as much of the house around him as possible.
As for the Jewish properties, the picture is not clear. Conflicting lists exist of what is in question – some properties have already been returned (Bikur Holim hospital), while others look abandoned, in bad shape or in the hands of “owners”  who seem to have obtained title to them from the Latvian state by murky means. What this may actually expose – whether that was the purpose of the Jewish community’s requests or not—is the mess or “bardaks”  that still exists concerning unclaimed and “difficult” properties 21 years after Latvia regained its independence.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

What will happen to "fundraiser" Hippety-Hop?

Fundraisers (why say beggars? Same thing.) around Riga's Central Station are nothing new. You get to know them by sight after a while. There is the cat and dog colony kept by one or more bums at the entrance to what I call the “Stockmann tunnel” (which leads from the Central Station square to the Stockmann department store and the Forum Cinemas multiplex). Also on the steps are an old woman sitting impassively and another woman who suffers from some neuromuscular disorder. Standing by Riga's and some say, northern Europe's busiest pedestrian crossing are a number of amputees, one with a crutch, the others double amputees in wheelchairs. There have been a number of “bum fights” between the man with the crutch and at least one of the guys in a wheelchair. Apparently there are territorial issues. The shouting during the fights is in Russian.
One of the most intriguing characters is a relatively young man (20s) on crutches with a a below-the-knee amputation, who I will call Hippety-Hop, because, until recently, he was a very forward and aggressive fundraiser, actually going out in traffic and hopping up to stopped cars to solicit alms. He also spends hours standing at one or the other of his favored positions (one is at the steps leading down to the Stockmann tunnel). Hippety-Hop can be there for hours, standing. Street-level fundraising is a full time job for him, as it is for many of the others. But given Hippety-Hop's stamina and vigor (until recently), one wonders what exactly happened to the man and why he is doing what he does – hopping around and plaintively fund-raising in Russian (or so I suppose). I saw him last summer when he was almost exclusively working the traffic lights and stopped cars.
Losing part of a leg is a major trauma, but it cannot compare to the disfigurement and degradation of the double amputees or the alcohol-ravaged bums. Why was Hippety-Hop, whatever his level of education, not offered some kind of rehabilitation and work? If the dude can stand for hours or hop around on his crutches, why not do factory work, if not in Latvia, then Ireland or the UK? Most European countries have programs to put the lightly (and in some cases, even the most severely physically handicapped) to work. In a call center, no one knows how many legs you have.
I don't think Hippety Hop has the language skills for this kind of work. Lately, it seems, he is on the downslope. His face shows signs of what I suspect is drug abuse. My guess is heroin, I have seen him in what seems to be a “nod”, eyes closed, impassive, face looking more ravaged than ever before. Last summer, when fundraising among the cars waiting for then lights to change there was even a vigor to his hop-step and an earnest look on his face as he almost demanded something from the drivers. Now it looks like the dude is down and out.
It looks like there may never have been a chance for Hippety-Hop to get back into a normal life after losing part of his leg, neither through the efforts of Latvia's rock-bottom impoverished social welfare system, nor through assistance from charities or non-governmental organizations. Of course, I don't know the full story, or, for that matter, any story about Hippety-Hop. For all I know, his injury may have been the result of recklessness, part of a stupid, risk-taking lifestyle.
Certainly heroin is not a good choice. Latvia doesn't, as far as I know, have open, non-judgmental needle exchange or methadone programs (I don't know because I don't hang around with any junkies). So every time Hippety-Hop snorts or shoots up, he risks overdosing, or, if using the needle , HIV or hepatitis.
Will Hippety-Hop last out the summer? Who knows? Ironically, he may go down before his fellow fundraisers, the bums wallowing in the dog and cat colony, the old lady, the woman with the neuromuscular thing, even the double amputees and bumfighters. I know almost nothing about social work, but at least some months ago, it may possibly have pulled Hippety-Hop off the street and out of this particular form of fundraising.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Urban cattle and swooping bikes are back!

It's spring and they are back, or have been back for a while – the urban cattle and bike-riders. The former are clogging the sidewalks again, shambling along in small bunches, wandering into traffic, gathering in pedestrian bottleneck and making them worse, or creating bottlenecks where there were none before.
The bike-riders are out in great numbers, often a danger to the urban cattle (they swerve around them), to other pedestrians (zooming by at high speed, no warning) and to themselves (few helmets, bells, reflectors or lights after dark)
Don't get me wrong, I understand the need to ride a bike – it is cheaper than public transport, much cheaper than driving, good for physical fitness, the (urban) environment, etc.etc. All that is correct and I have friends and workmates who ride bikes. But I also see bike-riders in Riga as a hazard. There is no bike-riding culture, one could almost say that Latvia lacks both the infrastructure (bike paths) and the level of civilization to have the same level of urban biking as in Copehagen or Stockholm. Maybe in 25 or 50 years, but not now.
As for urban cattle, they are everywhere, almost a universal phenomenon. There were some in London, shambling along as one tries to purposefully go somewhere. In Stockholm, as I may have written before, the local urban cattle specialize in what I call “ stand and stare” – gathering where others want to pass and simply staring into space or at some signage that normal, conscious people can read in seconds and move on. Tourists are often behaviorally indistinguishable from the local urban cattle, but then again, being a tourist is being – urban cattle in foreign city, moving about in small herds, aimlessly, though not always wandering into traffic or boorishly blocking the movement of those walking with purpose as the local cattle do.
I bear no ill will toward bike-riders as a whole, though I sometimes wish a evil fate on those who narrowly miss me at high speed. There is no reason to zoom down a sidewalk at 40 Kph. However, it seems few urban riders are injured or worse. Most fatal bike accidents occur in the countryside, it seems – shitfaced motorist takes out equally shit-face bike rider, riding as if in the middle of a wartime blackout (no lights, no reflectors, no helmet).
So one faces another summer of trying to walk from point A to point B, getting past or through clumps of urban cattle heading for a point best designated by an imaginary number, and glancing over one's shoulder to see if any bikes are swooping down. Enjoy, I suppose...

Monday, February 20, 2012

More on the Latvian referendum and the Nisei Russians

Well, the balagāns (carnival) of sorts is over. The outcome of the referendum was clear to start with. More interesting are the results of the referendum when analyzed as a kind of survey or popularity poll. Clearly, something is the matter in Latgale, the eastern region of Latvia, and it is not only that most people there seem to be happy speaking Russian. Even before the vote, Latgallians were dissatisfied with new government rules preventing the daily crossing of the Russian border to bring back cheaper motor fuel, cigarettes, alcohol and other goods. For many “bordertown” inhabitants, this essentially “legal smuggling” for resale was a means of survival. According to some reports, when the new policies were announced, there was a near-riot in Rēzekne.
In the long term, ways have to be found to create jobs in Latgale and to at least slow down the emigration that has taken around 20% of the region's population since the last census in 2000.
The point has also been made that something has to be done to resolve issues with the so-called Russian speakers. Mostly it seems to a kind of Rodney Dangerfield complex (the late American comedian known for his repetitive line: I don't get no respect). Since just what this means, exactly, is hard to define, maybe people should talk about it.
I suspect the Rodney Dangerfield thing is something that afflicts sovoks a lot more than it affects the part of the population I called the Nisei Russians (like the second and onwards generation ethnic Japanese in the US). The Slavic Nisei are people who are fully aware that they are no longer living in the Russian motherland and, for whatever benefits their country of residence offers, there are certain sacrifices. One is that Russian is not the state language, but that it is respected or at least benignly neglected as long as you can communicate in whatever the local language is.
When Latvians arrived in the US as refugees after World War II, they learned English, and when many Latvians moved to English-speaking countries to seek work in recent years, they also had to speak English. No one is going to make their language the new state language, although countries suddenly facing significant numbers of Latvians are taking pragmatic steps to ensure that important matters are explained to them in Latvian – basic laws and regulations, procedures for dealing with the authorities, perhaps safety rules at some workplaces.
This is nothing new – countries with large migrant labor communities provide services in their languages, be it Turkish in Germany, Finnish or Serbo-Croatian in Sweden. However, by the second or third generation at the latest, the descendants of the immigrant laborers are fluent in the local language, sometimes, perhaps all too often, at the cost of their “native language”. For this reason, places like Sweden even offer home language teaching. This leads to bizarre employment ads seeking instructors (with higher education) to teach an obscure African language spoken mostly by illiterate goatherds.
What I mean to say is that there is a range of options short of adding new official languages for dealing with a significant and often permanent population that doesn't speak the local and indigenous language. In the time of the Nisei Russians (who had been there for generations) in Latvia, the Russian language was also handled pragmatically. Latgale, already a problem child back then, prevented Latvian being enshrined as a state language in the 1922 constitution. Someone wanted the Latgallian dialect (with different spellings and pronounciations) also made a state language. Latvian was later made a de facto state language in practice and by later legislation, but as I understand it, made it into the constitution only in 1998. In the Saeima, where most deputies were multilingual, indigenous languages such as German, Russian and Yiddish could be spoken, bu the transcripts of proceedings were published in Latvian.
Back in the 1920s and 1930s, except for some historical irritation with the Germans, the local ex-lords and landowners, languages had largely co-evolved, with only Russian being briefly pressured on certain parts of Latvia at certain times under the Czars when it was decided to russify the non-Slavic peoples of the Russian Empire. So no language, except for German, was politically loaded and even then, it was resented rather than resisted because no one was forcing on free citizens in a free country.
It was the Soviet Union, led mostly by Russians cowering under a fearsome Georgian, that weaponized the Russian language and turned it on the non-Russian peoples of the aptly named prison of nations. Russian was going to be the common language of a Soviet people to be forged, first by the subtractive terror of executing, deporting or imprisoning national elites and national bourgeois elements, then by “gentler” proactive methods of teaching a Soviet newspeak that closely resembled Russian. Along with it, to Latvia, came the first speakers of Soviet Russian, many of them descendants of ethnic Russian or other Slavic peoples who had already had been put through one or two runs of the Soviet grinder.
The result was that the Soviet Russian used in publications and official speech also embodied or in various ways served the totalitarian regime that the Soviet occupation brought with it. It was, after a while, the Slavic language of sovokshomo sovieticus by another name – but often, too, of lowlife and criminals (maybe I am mistaken, but the Soviet industrialized Baltic states were a place of work release for large numbers of Soviet criminals finishing their sentences for ordinary crimes). The Russian of the Soviet era (OK, I don't speak a word of it, so I am told and have read) became the carrier of totalitarian lies and nonsense in one aspect of a pretty unpleasant life, and the bljed! suka!bellowing drunk ex-jailbird neighbor pounding on the door because his wife has locked him out again in another side of Soviet reality.
Latvia's Nisei Russians, who for the most part were ordinary folk who celebrated Christmas in January and celebrated Easter for hours with kissing all around, were buried under the sovok avalanche dumped on the country under Soviet rule. They were lumped with the Russian-speaking sovoks and I have spotted a few Nisei in my circle of aquaintances. Back in the day, most Russians in Latvia spoke at least some Latvian, and it was not a threat to what they were.
However, the new Soviet world permeated by sovok-Russian was a direct threat to Latvians and Latvia's indigenous nationalities, it was a weaponized language aimed at making sovoks of everyone, with real Soviet Russians being just a bit more equal that others.
It is this attitude, that of Soviet Russian privilege, that has survived the end of Soviet rule in Latvia and has not been moderated in many cases by attempts at “integration”. Even without examining the practical effectiveness or theoretical validity of Latvia's integration efforts, it seems obvious that while immigrants can, in many societies, integrate “upwards” from the “lower” status of new arrivals to being accepted or even part of the elite (see how Latvian-born Laila Freivalds became a minister in Sweden), it is harder, if not impossible for self-proclaimed or self-deluded elites to “integrate” in a direction they perceive as downwards. For Tovarsich Bljed-Suka adjusting to a free Latvia where he had to speak the Dog Language was a serious challenge. In many cases it still is. That is what the referendum was about for many Latvians.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

The referendum and Latvia's Nissei Russians

So the vote has started in the language referendum. The effort to make Russian a second state language in Latvia is doomed to failure. There is no real need for it, anyone who is monolingual in Russian can not only get their daily business done (with a bit of hassle in some places) but they can also enjoy a broad spectrum of local Russian culture and information (theater, radio, local TV) as well as a massive amount of Russian-language electronic media from Russia (both on local cable channels and with satellite dishes).
Indeed, the default choice in putting together cable TV program packages is a few local channels and almost everything else but CNN and BBC World (if available) is either in Russian or with a Russian soundtrack. Even Lattelecom, the national telecoms and pay TV operator, recently replaced the English-language History Channel (which I think could be switched to a Russian soundtrack) with a monolingual Russian science channel Nauka. It is impossible to switch languages on this, even when the Russian soundtrack seems to have been laid over English in some kind of adapted segment.
A number of commentators have said that the underlying causes of the referendum are unresolved ethnic issues after 20 years of independence and should be seen as a strong signal of failure to build a unified society based on multi-ethnic solidarity. As “let's all sing Kumbaya” - desirable that may seem, suffice it to say that there are few societies on the planet that have achieved this. That includes the US, despite the 1940s war movie Army squads where the Italian guy, the Irish kid, the wisecracking Brooklyn Jewish guy, the Scandinavian farmer's son and the college kid from Philly all joined together to fight the evil buck-toothed Jap (more on that later).
I am sure integration would have worked had Latvia been towed away in 1991 and anchored as a large island next to Tasmania, off the coast of Australia. Completely isolated from its ex-aggressor and occupier neighbor, the island republic would be a happy nation of Latvians of different ethnicities, with Russian as a home language (as were Latvian, German, Greek in hypothetically neighboring Australia) for part of the population.
This, however, was not the case. Latvia and its Russians remained under the powerful, sometimes chilling political and increasingly state power-elite-controlled media shadow of an unrepentant Russia. Vladimir Putin's outrageous statement that the collapse of the Soviet Union (prison of nations, anyone?) “was a major geopolitical disaster of the century”. How do you say WTF?? in Russian? The ethnic Russian and non-Latvian Russian speakers (Belarussians, Ukrainians, other “Soviet nations” represented here) were enveloped in a separate Russian media bubble that was hostile by default to the Baltic states, portraying them as cryptofascist apartheid societies.
Latvians, in the early and mid-1990s, frankly, had other concerns than being hypersensitive to the needs of a nation or national minority that they saw as the oppressor nation for the previous 50 years. Never mind that those concerns were making a Charlie Foxtrot of their politics and economy with incompetence, corruption, bungling, you-name-it. The perception of Russia and what Russians in Latvia represented (whether individual Russians themselves had chosen to do so or not didn't matter) was determined by hard, recent historical experience. The Latvians and Russians shot down by the OMON paramilitary police in January, 1991, were not shot by Samoans, in case anyone hadn't noticed.
Which brings us back to the Japanese and the US in 1941. I think one of the unseen and sad aspects of the ethnic situation in Latvia has some rough parallels with the way US citizens of Japanese ancestry were perceived after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Latvia in 1940 had an indigenous, integrated Russian community, all were citizens, served in the Latvian military, had their own fraternities, the Russian Orthodox or Old Believers churches, etc. Then the “motherland” of Latvia's ethnic Russians, in a series of actions led by Russians from Russia (and aided by Latvians and other nationalities, to be sure) committed the long, drawn out atrocity of the 1940-41 and 1945-1991 occupation of Latvia. As a result “our Russians” who had lived here for centuries were overwhelmed in the consciousness of Latvia's Latvians and other victim nations by the image of the Russian as conqueror, occupier and oppressor.
In the US, in the space of a few hours on December 7, 1941 and in the years of war that followed, the “mother nation” of the Japanese in the United States became a treacherous aggressor, killing American boys on a Sunday morning, marching them to death on Bataan, and fighting with the perceived savagery of mad dogs on Pacific islands like Tarawa, Iwo Jima and Okinawa, where soldiers had to be burned in their caves by Marines with flamethrowers and Japanese mothers shot by snipers to keep them from throwing babies off cliffs into the sea. A slightly different image than the mild-mannered math teacher at a California high school or the family running a grocery store on Hawaii.
By no means was the internment of Japanese Americans justified, but it can be explained by the shock of what Japan did to the US (and by no small measure of racism back then). Latvia has done nothing of the kind to its Russians (including the huge contingent that were moved in during the Soviet period). Think of the mild-mannered hypohetical Mr. Nakamura being replaced at Santa Monica High by 20 samurai-sword waving wanna-be Tojos (that is the military leader of the wartime Japanese government). Something like that happened in Latvia, and it lasted almost 50 years. So maybe don't blame the Latvians too much for the referendum having a number of ironic and even absurd angles to it.
That is my quick take on things as voting gets under way. I have to go off and do some work for a a foreign newspaper as a one-off freelancer. More later.

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 . 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. 

Sunday, January 29, 2012

The 2011 census of (eventual) doom?

Maybe it is just a kind of scientific fallacy, but it is said that some large animals, when shot by hunters, will keep moving or attacking even after they have suffered fatal injuries. The damage is done, but for various reasons, it can take many seconds or even minutes for the animal to die. Given a “freeze frame” image of the animal just after it was shot, a veterinarian could say that while the creature is very much alive when the snapshot is taken, it is just a matter time before the injury it has suffered will kill it or at best severely cripple it.
The 2011 Latvian census, sadly, is this kind of snapshot. A nation isn't exactly a charging rhinoceros, so the analogy is poor, but it is a living socio-economic and historical organism. It can suffer fatal damage that is visible, obvious, yet will take time to work its ultimate effects.
The 2011 figures show that Latvia had a population of 2.068 million, down 13% from the last census in 2000 and down 22.4% from the 1989 census, the last before Latvia regained its independence. In absolute numbers, this represents a population loss of 600 000, more than the losses suffered to political repression (including deportations), combat in the Second World War, and refugee flight to the West.
At first glance, these figures would appear to be evidence for the strident claims that Latvia's 20 year period of independence has amounted to “genocide” in excess of anything the national has every experienced. This is not true. Of the 13% population loss since 2000, 190 000 are emigrants. Presumably most of them are alive and many of them are better off economically than their cohorts in Latvia. 119 000 represent deaths in excess of births, but very few of these deaths were violent, although some could be considered premature by European life expectancy standards. So to speak of “genocide”, except in some peculiar metaphorical sense, is a misleading exaggeration.
However, it is not an exaggeration to say that the end result of Latvia's demographic decline will be further depopulation in coming decades and the eventual unsustainability of the Latvian nation as such. In other words, there will not be enough people of working age to support a growing number of pensioners and, indeed, to prevent economic stagnation. Labor immigration may be the only way to remedy this, reversing the depletion of the active labor force by emigration and low birth rates.
Who or what is at fault for this? I would say that the Latvian political elite over the past 20 years is responsible for, in effect, keeping open and “salting” the deep wounds ripped into the nation's fabric by 50 years of Soviet Communist occupation. Not the least, most of Latvia's governments since 1991 have, to a greater or lesser degree, perpetuated the Soviet mentality and Soviet way of handling matters. Most notably, they have largely ignored the advice (sometimes not well presented) of Western countries and during the European Union accession process to do a number of things that require little or no spending – stop bribery, end other forms of corruption, run government cleanly and efficiently. I have expounded on this before.
Now that Latvia has failed to do what it could have done to heal and mitigate the wounds of occupation, it has, in effect, turned these into self-perpetuated wounds that have now turned the nation into a ticking demographic bomb that it is probably too late to disarm. Latvia is well on its way to becoming, and will probably inexorably become a territory with a shrinking, aging, demoralized population and a stagnating, most likely shrinking and unsustainable economy. That is the brutal reality of the census.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Latvia: A drab, grey nation in midwinter

I am writing these recent impressions of Latvia while visiting the US East Coast (the Boston area). While life is no picnic here at all, there are “shiny happy people” around instead of what I saw just before departing. I will be going back to the drab, gray nation on Friday.

One of the things I have been doing as a hobby is to walk around Riga and photograph people, buildings, street scenes and the like. A place I have gone a couple of times with my camera is the Riga Central Market, with its former Zeppelin hangar halls and open-air area. To get there, one way is to go through the Central Station, which has partly been turned into a multi-level shopping center with clothing stores, electronics shops, restaurants, newsstands and a supermarket.
To go from this modern 20th or even 21st century environment (shops selling iPads etc.) into the Central Market is a remarkable and depressing transition in terms of the people one encounters. It is a socio-economic leap to another world of mostly old, haggard, grey, apathetic and resigned faces and bodies. Listless, old, greyish-pale expressionless or ravaged faces abound, almost like a contingent of people shuffling away from some disaster just around the corner or over the horizon, too burned out to move very fast. Is this the Third World, the photos of Somali or Ethiopian war victim and refugee faces, only white and better nourished?
The impression one gets is of a society from which the life-spark has vanished, or more precisely, emigrated. There is only a scattering of young people in the otherwise old and worn masses shuffling about the market with tattered plastic bags (almost like the Soviet era, except that then plastic bags were a sign of privilege, net bags and cloth abounded). The young are tourists or shoppers seeking fresh, organically grown vegetables and other foods from the countryside. The sellers, too, for the most part are babushka type country women, with a bit higher energy level than their often morose shoppers.
I fear this somehow illustrates the state and fate of the Latvian nation (including non-Latvians, too). Drab, haggard, impoverished, drained of any hope for the future and of an age when, given the overall demographics and state of health care, there probably is little time left for many of the individuals one encounters. All this just a few hundred meters from the modern center of Riga, where tourists and somewhat better looking locals gather, as well as the significant but visibly dwindling young, who are often livelier and happier.
What is going on? As a colleague working for a foreign news agency said, it appears that the local Latvian media don't really care. Poverty and long-term unemployment statistics are big news in many other countries. A shift in the number of poor generates considerable media attention, analyses, searches for root causes and the like. Not in Latvia. Even the annual Human Development report seems to focus on issues of identity and emigration/immigration (to be honest, I have only skimmed parts of the document).
It would be facile to say that the root of all this is the transition to a capitalist market economy. There were similar scenes in the Central Market of huddled, grey masses of socialist citizens waiting in huge lines (sometimes crowds bordering on mobs) for a piece of gray frozen meat to be hacked off a huge block with an axe. One of the roots of the seeming exhaustion and demoralization of Latvia's people is fifty years of occupation and a totalitarian, centrally planned economy that did provide a dull, monotonous subsistence for most people living under the system. It was the era of stagnation, shortages and little apparent hope that anything would change, though with a certain reliability that rents would be low, electricity cheap, bread, fish, potatoes and other basic foods generally available and the occasional sausage or fruit waiting at the end of a long queue if you were lucky. Being a victim was nothing new to Latvians leaving socialism and entering the new system of the 1990s.
The problem was that the new “system” in the 1990s consisted of most of the ex-Communist elite of an entire country trying to imitate the behavior and lifestyle of characters on the American TV show Dallas, since this best approximated what they had been taught about capitalism. The idea was to immediately spend money – the more, the better – on huge houses and big cars. Dishonesty and cheating – whether on wives or business partners – was part of the deal.
To be sure, stuff like that happened in the real world, so that the picture of how things were in non-socialist economies as presented by Dallas was selective, but not entirely inaccurate. There was no show made called Central Committee, which could have shown the depravity (now documented) of the Communist elite running a state-owned, planned socialist economy and succeeding poorly, sometimes pointlessly and often sloppily at providing what are still the promises of socialist movements everywhere – free healthcare, free education, and full employment.
It is obvious that a grab-whatever-you-can economy will generate inequality, or rather, exaggerate existing inequalities among a population that had been indoctrinated that complete equality was possible and that, indeed, a semblance of it existed in the low, but barely adequate standard of living shared by most of the population. Among the old and hopeless, memories of this have turned to nostalgia for “better times” under the old system.
Why is Latvia turning into a society with a significant, even dominant population of the aging, passive and helpless poor? Some would say that the cause of poverty is the failure to equally distribute wealth, bringing us back to the socialist argument that all one needs is a centralized system for equally distributing resources in a planned way. This works, more or less, in organizations that are smaller and somewhat less complex than society as a whole. The best example, in rough and general terms, is the military. All soldiers have more or less the same uniforms, weapons, food and medical support and can be relied upon, as a whole, to carry out centrally issued orders and instructions. The military is, looked at this way, an organization that produces the outcomes for its members that are promised by socialism – equality in the fulfillment of all basic needs by central planning and allocation.
However, it can also be argued that the root cause of poverty is low productivity. Here the military analogy breaks down, because functionally “socialist” armies do not produce what they consume. They are not, strictly speaking, “economies”, and it is economic systems that create wealth, multiply and refine resources. Latvia's poverty stems in part from a failure to form an economic system that increases its own productivity and, thereby, the wealth available for “redistribution”, should anyone choose to do so.
Productive and evolving economic systems also need strong institutions that ensure the rule of law, the enforcement of contract and the orderly elimination of non-productive economic entities in favor of those that are innovative and more productive. With all their imperfections and failings, Western European countries have created such economic systems based largely on private ownership and market relations among economic actors.
Since the early 1990s, Latvia has had a long parade of advice and instruction on how to reform and transition society from a failing socialist economy to a modern market system, including the necessary institutions to underpin such an economic system. To be sure, a lot of the advice given to Latvia over the past 20+ years has been condescending, oversimplified, overoptimistic, and presented with little understanding of how the presumed audience – homo (post)sovieticus saw the world. But at the end of the day, or rather, the two decades, Latvia was given almost all of the basic and much of the sophisticated knowledge on reforming its society that was needed to build a socio-economic system that would increase productivity and increase the total wealth of society.
So it can be said that much of the poverty in Latvia, exacerbated by the emigration of productive and potentially productive individuals, was caused by a failure of politicians and institutions and, to some extent, society as a whole, to learn the lessons repeatedly given to them since 1991. They can be summed up as – don't bribe, don't steal, deal honestly, pay fairly, invest for the mid-to-long term, educate your workforce, streamline government, make bureaucracy small, smart and efficient, make the benefits of tax-paying visible and obvious, keeping taxes moderate, etc. etc.
Too little of this has been done. Instead, the political elite has discredited itself to an extent unheard of since modern polling methods have been used. The collapse of trust in institutions in Latvia is very likely irreversible and has already mutated into a kind of social paranoia as witnessed by the run on Swedbank. The end result is that we have a society that, at least by street-level observation, is ravaged by poverty and has failed to implement the practices that would have significantly reduced that poverty. It is too late to retrain the older part of the population to do the work, say, of five Chinese while getting paid three times Chinese wages (probably a bad comparison), and the young are making decisions every day to leave a country they perceive as failing and futureless. The drab, gray, haggard, exhausted, aged population that one sees behind the socio-economic divide of the Riga Central Station (and probably in many rural areas) is the result of a series of choices over the past 20 years that, whether intentional or simply clueless, have resulted in an act of “futuricide” agains the Latvian nation.