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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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.