Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Having Shed Red Yoke, Latvia Battles Red Ink, Black Market

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Having Shed Red Yoke, Latvia Battles Red Ink, Black Market

Article excerpt

FIFTY yards from Latvia's first McDonald's, laughing children sled down the side of the low Bastejkalns hill opposite where, in 1991, Russian gunfire struck down most of its victims.

This tiny country wedged between Russia and the Baltic Sea has had a difficult path to follow since "The Days of the Barricades" in January 1991. Then, tens of thousands of Latvians gathered around key government buildings in Riga's medieval Old Town, armed only with their bare hands, songs, and an icy determination to resist Soviet oppression. They came in response to appeals by the pro-independence government after the Soviet Army shot 14 unarmed civilians in neighboring Lithuania.

A little more than seven months later, their hopes would be fulfilled when Latvia and its neighbors, Estonia and Lithuania, regained independence after a failed coup in Moscow on Aug. 19, 1991.

Today, European-built Fords, VWs, and Volvos crowd out the Ladas, Moskvitches, and Zaporozhets from the Soviet era. The air in Riga, the capital, is polluted, and the streets sometimes gridlocked by all the new traffic, but the downtown air no longer has the "Soviet" smell of hundreds of cars burning 76 or 92 octane Russian fuel.

Commemorations of the Barricade Days, always solemn, seem especially muted on this fifth anniversary. People here say that national unity is gone forever, replaced by a pessimism about the future and cynicism about independent Latvia's present-day conditions.

At night, the downtown is lit with bright lights from hundreds of shop windows, offering everything from Whirlpool washers to Lay's Potato Chips. But for the old, and those unwilling or unable to adapt to the often-harsh market economy, the 1991 slogan "Freedom, even if it is in peasant's clogs" is now reality. With the average pension and minimum wage at around $60 a month, a large part of the population can't make ends meet.

Tens of thousands have simply not paid their "rent" (a nominal fee for living space, plus hefty charges for heat, electricity, gas, and hot water - sometimes as high as $100 for three rooms in the winter) to the public authorities that still manage most Latvian housing. …

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