Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Riga Is a Ghost Town

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Riga Is a Ghost Town

Article excerpt

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 anti-austerity 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. …

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