Still in deep water: Latvia 10 years later

Most tourists love Latvia. In their brief visits, they see Rīga restored to its old glory, fashionably dressed youths in its trendy bars and restaurants, and shops offering a range of goods on par with Western capitals. A quick glance suggests that this country is steaming ahead.

This view is not entirely wrong, because an enormous amount of change for the better has happened since 1991. However, beyond the cappuccini and the platform shoes, this is a country with deeply troubling problems in many crucial areas.

With Rīga celebrating its 800th birthday, and commemorations of the 10th anniversary of independence (marked without much fanfare), 2001 was a big year for stocktaking. And with national elections set for October, people are starting to think a bit about the future as well. In this article, I would also like to cast an eye on what has been and what may be.

Unfortunately, the view is not all rosy. To put the problem in a nutshell, come with me on a trip Rīga’s main public swimming pool at Ķīpsala, just over the river from the center of town. Walking over the Vanšu Bridge please note the multitude of cars inching their way into the city. Hardly a Soviet model is to be seen. The mechanical horde is a clear indicator that the standard of living has improved for many people.

Casting a glance back at Old Rīga, you will see a beautiful European city lovingly brought back to life. As we arrive at Ķīpsala, we are greeted by another positive architectural development: rows of townhouses built to accommodate the yuppies driving their Audis and BMWs over the bridge.

But if these budding capitalists decide to join us for a swim today, they will find themselves back in the Dark Ages. This establishment is such a minefield of useless rules administered by grumpy Brezhnevites that just getting into the water is a daunting obstacle course.

Forget about enjoying a spontaneous paddle and just remember whom this place is for (not you)…

Step 1: Go to one office and pay in advance for your next month’s swimming. You have to commit yourself to the exact days and times you will be coming for the next 30 days and you will be assigned a lane in the pool for each visit. Sign a piece of paper stating that you are aware of the numerous rules and regulations. Hand over a photograph that is fixed to your ID card to prevent you from doing something as outrageous as letting a friend have one of your sessions.

Step 2: Proceed to another office for feet checking. A grizzly matron will order you to remove your socks, and then inspect your footsies to make sure you are not bringing any fungus into the hallowed grounds. If you pass, she will bang a stamp onto the back of the id card certifying you are pox-free for the time being (you have to repeat this every month). I have swum in the Olympic pool in Sydney without anyone taking an interest in my toes, but maybe Australians just aren’t aware of the risk they’re taking.

Step 3: go back to the entrance hall and leave your coat, shoes and socks at the cloakroom. If you do not have a plastic bag for your footwear, you will be yelled at: "Is this a shop? Do you expect us to have bags for all of you?" If you don’t have a swimming cap, this is your last chance to buy one from the kiosk in the lobby. Without one, you will be abused for trying to infect the pool with your grubby follicles.

Step 4: Hand over your ID card to a woman in a booth, who will give you a token. Proceed down a corridor where an old man will take the token and hand out a locker key.

Step 5: Undress. Before pulling on your trunks, observe the instructions on a large sign ordering you to shower completely naked before getting in the pool. Remove your flip-flops and wade through a shallow pool similar to a sheep dip. Those fungi have no chance.

Step 6: Proceed down another long corridor and jump into your assigned lane for 45 minutes of aquatic bliss. Don’t miss the deadline, because the lady at Checkpoint A holding your ID card has a color-coordinated system for easy detection of cheats.

It is a sign of how Latvia has progressed that this bizarre routine is worth mentioning, because the whole country used to be run on similar lines. However, it is far from an isolated example of how much in Latvia has not changed, and points to what I believe is Latvia’s biggest failure: the fundamental failure of governments and their institutions to serve their people.

In the private sector, the people of Latvia have displayed an astonishing ability to learn new ways, to be energetic and entrepreneurial. Walk into any restaurant or shop and the quality of the goods and the service leaves nothing to be desired compared to the West. However, if you have dealings with the government—registering property, starting a business, applying for a passport, collecting a package from the post office, or doing 101 other things to make life tick over—you enter a Kafkaesque world where stamps and documents take complete precedence over common sense and human decency.

If this situation was just an everyday annoyance, it could be shrugged off as a curious cultural relic. Unfortunately, however, it has an extremely negative effect on people’s lives and on the future of the country. If on the off chance any candidates for next year’s elections are reading this article, I would like them to take a look at the statistics in the sidebar. Basically, they suggest that Latvia shows signs of becoming a third world country, and in almost every case government indifference is a major contributing factor.

Let’s start with those areas where, unfortunately, Latvia is the statistical world leader. According to data from numerous organizations, compiled by The Economist magazine, Latvia will have the world’s lowest crude birth rate (the number of live births per 1,000 people) from 2000-2005. It has the world’s lowest number of men to women, at a proportion of 86:100. And, beaten only by a few other postcommunist states, it is in fifth place for having the world’s slowest growing population from 2000 to 2005, a very marginal improvement from its fourth place in the preceding five years.

Add this to the fact that it is 10th internationally for having the oldest population (the percentage aged 65 or older) and you have a small nation that is rapidly getting smaller still. Much richer countries are fretting over how they will deal with their "gray revolutions," so how Latvia will pay all the pensions from a rapidly shrinking workforce is going to be a daunting challenge. Ethnic politics is a touchy subject in Latvia because Latvians fear that they face extinction. If their numbers continue to decrease, the issue may acquire even sharper edges, with unpredictable consequences for political stability.

It is beyond my competence to analyze all the varied factors contributing to these trends, but it is probably fair to say that economics is a major one. Latvia is in ninth place, between two war-torn African countries, for recording the slowest economic growth from 1990 to 1999. It is in the top 10 for having the slowest growth in industrial output and agricultural output over the same period. As a result, it has lower Gross Domestic Product per head in purchasing power parity (PPP) than Botswana or Turkey. (Roughly speaking, PPP is the amount of things people can buy with their income on a scale calculated to take away exchange rate differences.) It’s no wonder people aren’t having many children.

The population decrease may also be affected by Latvia’s being one of the world leaders for certain causes of death. A newborn baby in Latvia is in 16th place in the world for having a chance of dying from a heart attack. The same infant is globally fourth in line to get killed in a motor accident, equal in Europe with Greece and Portugal. But leaving aside the theoretical chances, and looking at the rate of people killed in motor accidents, Latvia takes fifth place in the world. Its closest rivals in Europe are Turkey in 20th place and Albania in 21st place. If those candidates for office are still paying attention, can you please try to answer one question; Why are Latvians at least three times more likely to die on the roads than other Europeans?

Of course, statistics can always be misleading. For one thing, we cannot be sure that the Soviet economic data, the base from which Latvia’s plunge in GDP is measured, is accurate. As anyone will tell you about purchasing power parity, in the old days people had money in their pockets, but nothing to buy with it. And, after a huge fall in the early 1990s, economic growth has been quite healthy in the last few years. Some individuals, social groups and regions have done much better than others in grabbing a slice of the good life, so a 30-year-old accountant in Rīga will have a different perspective to a pensioner in Daugavpils.

Additionally, you cannot entirely blame current politicians for inheriting the mess the Soviets left or for all of the problems that transformation handed to them. But they could have done much better, and their performance today is still not good at all.

In recent years, some left-wing economists have started attacking what they call the “Washington consensus” on economic policy in postcommunist countries. In brief, the argument goes that 10 years ago the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and other Western policy organizations had to decide what advice to give to countries trying to move away from communism. They prescribed rapid privatization, trade liberalization, sharp budget cuts and other measures in the belief that by getting big government out of the way, private enterprise would fill the vacuum with efficiency, ideas and investment.

But while private business has certainly taken off in most former communist countries, this has been achieved at a frightening human cost. With the benefit of hindsight, the critics say that a lot of the pain could have been avoided if policies had been more closely tailored to the needs of individual countries. Instead, they were all diagnosed with the same disease, for which the cure was an ultra-right-wing ideology that no Western government would dare inflict on its own citizens.

A lot of Central European governments went along with the medicine, and Latvia’s still does. It is telling that the big newcomer for the elections, former Bank of Latvia President Einārs Repše, has said his policies will mean lower taxes, less state spending and less regulation in the economy. It is a bit odd that the man touted as a breath of fresh air in Latvian politics is promoting the same ideas that have been government policy for the last decade. As for the left-wing parties, in the six months the Social Democrats have been in charge of the Rīga City Council, they have proved to be as adept at making scandals and dishing out favors to their cronies as the right wing groups. Across the spectrum, there is a decided lack of thought and imagination as to how things could be done differently.

In opening up the economy and creating conditions for private business to operate, Latvia hasn’t done too badly. According to the Economic Freedom Index, a scale on which five means governments interfere completely in private business and one means a great deal of freedom, Latvia scores a respectable 2.65, ahead of Israel and Poland. However, by other measures, human beings have been left behind by all this liberalization. The Human Development Index is a scale created by the United Nations Development Program that combines GDP figures with those on adult literacy, years of schooling and life expectancy. Although Latvia’s score of 77.1 places it in the category of "medium human development," its ranking is lower than those of Mexico, Panama and Cuba. In other words, in factors that are critical to people’s lives, Latvia has to catch up with Latin America before it can even start to compare itself with Western Europe.

In my opinion, Latvia doesn’t need even less government involvement in providing public services. Rather, it needs fresh ideas as to how they could make government institutions work better. It is notable that while Latvia has those horrendously high levels of deaths from heart attacks and motor accidents, it also has figures comparable to Western countries for the number of doctors and hospital beds per head of population. That’s all well and good, but they obviously aren’t doing a good enough job of keeping people alive. This is not to denigrate the efforts of doctors and nurses who do their best with limited resources. Indeed, Latvia has lower rates of infectious diseases than France or the United States, suggesting that in some ways the system does work. But there are plenty of ways in which things could be made a lot better.

While there is obviously no easy solution, I can name Latvia’s biggest problem in one word: alcohol. Now, I enjoy a drink, but the free market has gone mad when hundreds of 24-hour stores in Rīga sell vodka for five bucks a bottle at four o’clock in the morning. The shopkeepers never ask for proof of age, or God forbid, give a thought as to whether the purchaser is about to get behind the wheel of a car. Some Latvian towns, notably Valmiera, are experimenting with nighttime bans on the sale of hard liquor, and this should be tried in more places. The usual argument put against this by the alcohol lobby is that it will only drive people into the arms of bootleg traders. However, in my opinion those people who are prepared to go to some seedy cellar to buy pure spirits are beyond help anyway. Combined with a curfew should be a very active program of drugs and alcohol education in schools. You might just end up with fewer road deaths. Perhaps fewer people might drop dead from heart attacks, and families might have an easier time if dad has more difficulty in getting soused.

It also is notable that for many of these statistical indicators Estonia and Lithuania seem to be doing better than Latvia. Estonia’s economic figures are much better than Latvia’s, and on the Economic Freedom Index it is in company with Western countries. Although Estonia has its own problems, the bottom line is that its government has got the public-private balance better sorted out, and this shows in its people’s living standards.

Latvians seem to have an inferiority complex toward the Estonians, believing that they are doing much better. Some explanations as to why this is so include the large amount of foreign investment Estonia has received from Scandinavia, or its longer exposure to Western influences (for example, people in Tallinn were able to watch Finnish television long before the Soviet collapse). But instead of blaming geography or historical determinism, Latvians would be better served by learning from the Estonians in a number of policy areas.

We may well ask why our northern neighbors have a slightly higher rate of car ownership but a much lower number of traffic deaths. Part of the answer may be found in the behavior of Latvian motorists heading up to Tallinn. They speed before reaching the border, knowing they can easily bribe the Latvian cops with LVL 5, but slow down on the other side because the Estonian police have a reputation for being virtually incorruptible. Canadian-Latvian political scientist Juris Dreifelds suggests this is because a few years ago a large part of the Estonian police force was fired, and the remainder had their salaries doubled, thereby promoting efficiency and honesty.

Dreifelds has half-jokingly suggested that the Latvian government should set up a "Watch Estonia Ministry." The idea is not a bad one. The Latvians could certainly learn a great deal about how to market themselves as a tourist destination. The Estonians have a well-funded, well-planned, imaginative advertising campaign going, while numerous scandals and slip-ups have meant that Rīga doesn’t even have a regular ferry line to Stockholm. Get that in place, with a good promotional campaign, and the city’s attractions would have Swedes coming over in droves.

Getting online is another area for catching up. Why is it that Latvia and Estonia have roughly the same number of telephones per head of population, but the number of Internet hosts in Estonia is higher than in Germany or Ireland? Part of the reason is an interesting private-public partnership in Estonia called the Tiger Leap, which has raised funds and conducted education campaigns so that today virtually every school in Estonia has a computer with Internet access. Rīga has many Internet cafes, but the only campaign the Latvian government has involved itself with was to set up a few terminals around town for tourists during the Rīga 800 party—and they are all gone now. Latvians had a one-off tourist gimmick. Estonians have a resource that will guarantee their children a better education.

The phone system in Latvia has improved a great deal. To make an international call five years ago, you had to go to a post office. Now, most people can do it from their homes or from any phone booth. But with global telecommunications changing so rapidly, that is not the end of the story. If Latvia wants to stay competitive, it has to make the Internet available to many more people.

The Estonian government itself has gone online, making all cabinet documents accessible to the public available in almost real time. Prime Minister Mart Laar spends a portion of his day reading messages from citizens, who are invited to send him e-mails. (Laar, in his second tour of duty as prime minister, announced last month that he plans to resign Jan. 8—ed.)

Meanwhile, communications between the rulers and the ruled in Latvia are still very poor. A major reason for this is a paradox in the way ordinary people involve themselves in politics. In some ways, Latvians take much more interest in current affairs than Westerners do. They vote in large numbers. Turnout at the last Saeima elections in 1998 was 71.9 percent. They are enthusiastic newspaper readers. Watching the nightly news show "Panorama," which covers local and international issues in considerable depth, is almost a religion for many people. And they are keep their own eyes wide open about what is going on around them.

As a result, as anyone who has talked with the locals in Latvia will know, they are well informed and have detailed opinions about a wide range of issues.

But on the other hand, they don’t get involved much in trying to change things they don’t like. Diena, the most respected national newspaper, publishes about three letters to the editor every day, compared to the whole page that its Western equivalents devote to the public’s opinions. Few pressure groups lobby the politicians, and strikes, pickets and other forms of direct action rarely take place.

This situation is partly a holdover from the Soviet era, when people were adept at reading between the official lines, but felt they couldn’t do anything. It is safe to say that today a large proportion of the population still do not trust their politicians, and the numbing frequency of corruption scandals contributes to a vicious circle of apathy: the more arrogant politicians get, the less the public feels it has input in the process, which makes the pols think they can do anything they like, which leads to tax evasion, and so on.

President Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga’s annual open-air speeches on November 18 are just about the only instance where the leadership gets out and tries to communicate its views. Most parliamentarians do a whirl of baby-kissing during election campaigns, and then disappear behind closed doors for the next four years.

A few years ago I covered the Saiema as a journalist, and what I saw made me think that its day-to-day routine exacerbates the gulf between politicians and citizens. I must admit that it has been a while since I have set foot in the place, but nothing I have seen or heard would suggest that things have changed. Its subsidized dining hall offers cheaper meals than school cafeterias do, while the taxpayer-funded Mercedes Benzes parked outside are a world away from how ordinary people live.

Unlike Western legislatures, which let everyone from school kids to pensioners come and watch debates, Latvia’s seems to want to want to keep them out. To get inside, you must first receive a special permit. After that, intimidating and rude security staff, variously dressed in black, green or blue military-style uniforms, examine the permit and your ID documents (only government-issued ones with photos are acceptable). This process may be repeated in a similarly abrupt and unfriendly manner at various points inside.

The most annoying thing about the procedure is that at no point are visitors searched or made to pass through metal detectors; indeed, some deputies have been seen carrying pistols in the Parliament chamber. In other words, the whole silly game does nothing to improve security. It’s a bit like the pool mentioned at the start, except that here we’re talking about the workings of democracy, not about having a swim.

Unless something in this situation changes, Latvia is not going to get either the politicians or the policies it needs to deal with its problems. Perhaps entry into the European Union will bring some change, but maybe it will just mean that power shifts to an even more inaccessible location—Brussels. Perhaps in a second term President Vīķe-Freiberga will involve herself more actively in domestic policy, in addition to the great work she is doing as a foreign representative. And perhaps the younger generation will feel freer to express its views, but for the moment young people seem even more apathetic than their parents.

Some electoral reform might help. Bringing in a voting system so that at least some members are elected from constituencies would make politicians more directly answerable to voters, unlike the current system where you can only vote for a party list, with the result that a lot of unknown non-entities get elected off the backs of a few big names. But such reforms would require political will that neither the voters nor politicians seem to possess right now.

Signs are that things may be changing. The campaign to restore Rīga’s Freedom Monument, which was organised and financed by a wide range of individuals and community groups, was a fine example of civic pride and responsibility. One political faction, the People’s Party set up by former Prime Minister Andris Sķēle, has recently set up a system in which party officials regularly make themselves available to hear citizens’ views. These are steps in the right direction.

Furthermore, Latvians have a great track record of political action. Some of the demonstrations for independence in the late 1980s involved a quarter of the country’s population. This grass roots movement sustained its energy for four years, and achieved even more than its objective—it both freed Latvia and helped bring down the Soviet Union, thereby changing the whole world for the better.

The time for mass protests is over. But today, if people apply the energy they showed a decade ago in other subtle and creative ways, 10 years from now Latvia could be an example to the world in how to build a prosperous and democratic society.

Jūrmala scene

From the Gulf of Rīga and throughout the country, says commentator Philip Birzulis, Latvia still is in deep water. (Photo by Andris Straumanis)

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