In Latvia, Riga has become a ghost town

The third-poorest country in the EU, Latvia punitive welfare conditions and the exclusion of Russian-speakers from surrounding nations has lead to a depopulation of 30,000 a year.

Early this year, Latvia’s parliament voted to join the eurozone. The country has endured two economic shocks in recent decades – in the early 1990s and in 2008, when it had the deepest recession in the world. Growth and eurozone membership in January 2014 are supposedly the reward.
Some measure of Latvians’ real feelings can be taken in the results of the local elections in June, won decisively by the social-democratic Harmony Centre, which ran on an antiausterity platform. Yet Latvian national politics is marked by a division between ethnic Latvians and the Russian speakers – people of Russian, Belarusian and Ukrainian descent –who make up a third of the population. Thousands of these are denied citizenship and do not have the right to vote.
Harmony Centre is dismissed as a Russian party by the ruling coalition of neoliberals and the far-right National Alliance and remains in opposition, despite winning more seats than any other single party in the 2011 parliamentary election.
Latvia is the third-poorest country in the EU; 12.8 per cent of the adult population is unemployed. The dole lasts only nine months. Youth unemployment has almost halved from a peak of 42 per cent in 2010 – but soon the government, apparently following the UK’s lead, plans to turn welfare into workfare, with forced jobs such as road sweeping. The result has been depopulation. Approximately 30,000 people a year are leaving Latvia. Those who migrate are young and often well educated.
The effects are visible in the capital, Riga. A few minutes by tram outside the old town, which is showered with public money, a different reality emerges. Areas such as the Moscow District are crammed with crumbling tenements and emptywooden houses; it could be the set for a ghost town in a low-budget western. The dereliction is leavened only by alcohol and second-hand clothes shops. Among this are budget hotels to cater for the stag-party trade, which completely ignores the deprivation all around.
Official history is sliding backwards, too, with rising ethnic nationalism leading to events such as the absurd annual commemoration of Latvian Waffen SS divisions as a necessary evil, undertaken to fight the Soviets.
The anti-Russian politics is only a veil. Behind it is an attempt to justify privatisation and austerity. Despite its crisis, the eurozone has a special attraction for the former communist countries that have found themselves among the happy few in the EU since 2004. Estonia, Slovakia and Slovenia all joined the euro – this was proof to some that they had finally vanquished the “ghosts of communism” and were showing their true worth.
Latvians are often compared favourably with the Greeks as thosewho meekly accepted austerity and are now reaping the rewards. Yet that lack of resistance stemmed from the cynical manipulation of ethnic differences – which is now dividing Latvian society. 
A man walks by a currency exchange in Riga. Photograph: Getty Images.

Agata Pyzik is a Polish writer publishing in Polish and English in many publications in the UK and in Poland, including the Guardian, Frieze and The Wire. Her main interest is (post) communist Eastern Europe, its history, society, art. She's finishing a book on postcommunism called Poor But Sexy for Zero Books. She lives in London and has a blog.

This article first appeared in the 19 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Why aren’t young people working

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Who'll win the Richmond Park by-election?

There are three known unknowns that will decide the contest. 

It’s official: Zac Goldsmith has resigned as the Conservative MP for his Richmond Park seat, and has triggered a by-election there, where he will stand as an independent candidate.

Will it be a two-way or a three-way race?

The big question is whether the contest will be a three way fight between him, the Liberal Democrat candidate Sarah Olney, and an official Conservative candidate, or if CCHQ will decide to write the thing off and not field a candidate, making it a two-horse race between Goldsmith and Olney.

There are several Tory MPs who are of the opinion that, given that latitude to disagree on Heathrow has been granted to two Cabinet ministers, Boris Johnson and Justine Greening, similar leeway should be extended to Goldsmith. It’s win-win for Downing Street not to contest it, partly because doing so would put anti-Heathrow MPs, including Johnson and Greening, in an impossible position. Theresa May isn’t averse to putting Johnson in a tricky spot, but Greening was an early supporter of her leadership bid, so her interests come fairly high up the prime ministerial radar.

But the second reason not to contest it is that Goldsmith’s chances of re-election will be put in a serious jeopardy if there is a Tory candidate in the race. Everything from the local elections in May or the Liberal mini-revival since Brexit indicates that in a three-way race, they will start as heavy favourites, and if a three-way race results in a Liberal Democrat win there will be bloodletting.

Although people are talking up Goldsmith’s personal vote, I can find little hard evidence that he has one worth writing home about. His performance in the wards of Richmond Park in the mayoral election was actually a bit worse than the overall Tory performance in London.  (Boris Johnson didn’t have a London seat so we cannot compare like-for-like, but Sadiq Khan did four points better in Tooting than he did across London and significantly outperformed his general election performance there.) He did get a big swing from Liberal to Conservative at the general election, but big swings from the Liberal candidate to the Tory were a general feature of the night, and I’m not wholly convinced, given his performance in Richmond Park in 2016, that it can be laid at Goldsmith’s door.

If he wins, it’ll be because he was the Conservative candidate, rather than through any particular affection for him personally.

But will being the Conservative candidate be enough?

Although on paper, he inherits a healthy majority. So did Robert Courts, the new MP for Witney, and he saw it fall by 19 points, with the Liberal Democrats storming from fourth to second place. Although Goldsmith could, just about, survive a fall of that magnitude, there are reasons to believe it may be worse in Richmond Park than Witney.

The first is that we already know, not just from Witney but from local council by-elections, that the Liberal Democrats can hurt the Conservatives in affluent areas that backed a Remain vote. But in Witney, they barely squeezed the Labour vote, which went down by just over two points, or the Green vote, which went down by just under two points. If in Richmond Park, they can both damage the Tory vote thanks to Brexit and squeeze Labour and the Greens, they will win.

Goldsmith's dog-whistle campaign for the London mayoralty will particularly help squeeze the Labour vote, and thanks to Witney, the Liberal Democrats have a ready-made squeeze message. (In Witney, Green and Labour votes would have been more than enough to elect Liz Leffman, the Liberal candidate.)

But their good performance in Witney and Goldsmith's mayoral result may not be enough on their own.  Ultimately, the contest will come down to the big question that will decide not just the outcome in Richmond Park but the future of the Liberal Democrats.

Have the voters forgiven the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition?

We know that Brexit can help the Liberal Democrats at the direct expense of the Conservatives. What we don’t know is if Brexit is enough to convince 6,000 Labour voters in Bath to vote tactically to get Ben Howlett out in exchange for a Lib Dem, or for 7,500 Labour voters to back a Liberal candidate in Hazel Grove to defeat William Wragg.

One of the reasons why the Liberal Democrats lost votes directly to the Tories in 2015 was fear: of uncertainty and chaos under an Ed Miliband government propped up by the SNP. That factor is less live in a by-election but has been further weakened due to the fact that Brexit – at least as far as Remain-backing Conservatives are concerned – has brought just as much uncertainty and chaos as Miliband and the SNP ever would have.

But the other reason was disgust at the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition with the Conservatives. If they can’t win over enough votes from the parties of the left, we’ll know that the party still has a way to come before we can truly speak of a Liberal revival. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.