The Guardian 7 December, 2005

Letter on Latvia

Latvia, once the Soviet Republic with one of the highest living standards, is sinking into penury. In 1990, GDP stood at 4,736 billion lat (in 1995 prices), but in 2000 GDP amounted to only 2,950 billion lat. Industrial production in 2000 had fallen to 46.2 % of its 1990 level, and agriculture to 35%.

Officially unemployment vacillates between 8% and 10%, but according- to trade union investigations real unemployment is 1.8-2 times higher, and in Latgale it has reached 28%, according to Alfred Rubiks, leader of the united left faction in the Sejm, which won 24 seats out of 100 on October 5, 2002.

The most remarkable achievement over the past 15 years is the emergence of a new generation of anti-Russians. The country’s cultural level has declined, its horizons have shrunk from what was, once, a truly multicultural society towards a narrow, American-­oriented preference for music, films, the English language — and money, money, money!

As Latvia is now a member of the European Union and NATO, Russia has ceased being a threat — consequently, Moscow can be treated with contempt and rudeness.

Not that the Kremlin takes much notice, but it affects the Russians living in Latvia, some 600,000 of the total population of 2.3 million.

Putin’s official position is, that Latvia is now the responsibility of the European Union, and he is "not interested" in complicating relations on Russia’s Western borders. "Very interested", however, are Latvia, Poland, and other countries bordering with Russia, and so is the United States.

Everyday relations between Latvians and Russians are, marginally, not much worse than they were last year, but mutual hostility is growing. Russians are barred from 60 professions, including pharmacists and the fire brigade.

Prices for water, electricity, rents, telephones, rise with astronomical speed, from 15% to 20% to 35%. Protest demonstrations are mainly attended by Russians and other nationalities, but never by Latvians, although privately they also complain. The Latvian Government does everything possible to cause conflicts with Moscow. It is impossible to buy Russian newspapers in Latvia (so much for the "free press" slogan!), and trade with Russian newspapers is FORBIDDEN!

TV programs in Russian are not transmitted directly, but combined and selected over a number of days. A telephone conversation with Moscow costs five times as much as with America. The sale of Russian-manufactured pharmaceuticals and medicines is FORBIDDEN (most likely at the instigation of Western manufacturers).

And who benefits from the exchange rates of 1 Lat = 0.69 Euro = 0.53 dollars =54-55 Russian roubles?

Is it a matter of politics, or is there some economic advantage, asks my Moscow friend.

The "Latvienisation" of schools progresses with great speed, today already 60% schools teach in Latvian, 40% still in Russian. The importation of Russian language school books is FORBIDDEN! Whatever is available in Latvia is old and at a very low academic level. How could these students ever enter a Russian university?

The European Union strangles Latvia’s rural economy — everybody understands this, but they are still proud to be part of Europe, and they laugh contemptuously at Russia’s economic woes. Median earnings stand at 170 Lat, median pensions at 114 Euro (in Estonia 147 Euro) per month.

Three Latvian SS divisions were fighting on the Soviet front in Byelorussia, 1941-1945. They are responsible for the slaughter of 71,500 Latvian Jews (from a total of 75,000). But today they are OFFICIALLY recognised as "fighters for liberation" against the Soviet ally. Today they are national heroes.

Russians who were not granted "official" status as citizens now have their passports marked "ALIEN", and that is the majority, regardless of whether native-born or otherwise. Russian investment capital — 80% of total coming into Latvia — is of criminal origins, looking for a safe haven, and does nothing for the Russian community.

Both Olga and I now have jobs, and we hope to save enough money to spend next summer’s holiday in Latvia, with relatives. However, coming from Russia, we shall have to produce banking evidence of US$50 per person per day, for the duration of our visit! We wanted to stay for one month at the Baltic seaside but, of course, we just do not have such funds, and it looks as if in 2006 I shall not be able to visit my father’s grave, who gave his life for the liberation of Soviet Latvia from Nazi occupation.

It is bitter to see former Latvian SS-men marching in the streets of Riga again. Today they benefit from German war pensions.

Translated by Vera Butler

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