A man walks by a currency exchange in Riga. Photograph: Getty Images.
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.