A generation after breaking with the Soviets, the mood in Riga is far from upbeatby Mary Dejevsky / October 12, 2018 / Leave a comment
Membership of the European Union, it is widely accepted, transformed the economic fortunes of the countries of East and Central Europe, helped consolidate their independence and brought them into the European mainstream. If you visit almost any of those nations that joined in 2004 and compare them with how they looked, felt and functioned as communism collapsed across Europe, the transformation is astounding. To take the three Baltic states, their capitals are now jewels of restoration. Most of all, though, these small countries, incorporated against their will into the Soviet Union, now feel free.
But the transformation has not been without difficulties, as October’s parliamentary elections in Latvia showed. Popular dissatisfaction with banking scandals, corruption and unemployment convinced voters to forsake the governing coalition, boosting support for Harmony, a party that favours better relations with Russia. It is a measure of discontent that a pro-Russian party could potentially enter government in Latvia, barely 30 years after the Baltic states began to break free of the Soviet Union.
In the capital, Riga, the effects of the sluggish economy are apparent. The gap between rich and poor, between the new economy and the old, is glaring. Renovation and rebuilding appears, if not stalled, then stuttering. While there are smart new shopping centres and eateries, there are also derelict sites, and some new buildings are starting to look prematurely old. Although a few new-style businesses are proudly Latvian, the bulk are foreign franchises.
How much any of this has to do with the fact that Latvia has lost nearly 20 per cent of its population to emigration since 2000, including many young and educated people, is debatable. But the mood seems less upbeat than it was. Similar, though less dramatic, trends can be observed across the region.
Yet there is one place where this is not happening—and it is in Russia itself. Just before visiting Riga, I had been back to the central Russian city where I had spent a year as a British exchange student in the 1970s. Voronezh, like many Russian cities beyond Moscow, took a while to recover from Soviet penury, and its biggest material changes took place in the late 1990s and early 2000s. But the change I observed on this visit was both a visible step up in…