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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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

***

Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.