Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Life in Latvia Is Looking Up

I noticed some time ago that the Russian media, even the "democratic" and "liberal" parts of it, are not exceptionally objective, let alone positive, when it comes to covering the situation in the Baltic states. All the reports we get here deal with the suffering of Russian minorities, economic difficulties and occasional elections, where extreme nationalists (or ex-Communists) always seem to win.

I hadn't been in the Baltics for a year, and my first encounter with the new regulations was rather unpleasant Getting a visa to Latvia is a nightmare: the crowd at the consulate is enormous, prices are high (up to $60 for a multiple-entry visa) and the maximum validity of the visa is only three months. It's far easier for a Russian citizen to go to Turkey, or Holland, or almost anywhere else than to Latvia, and that's ridiculous.

When I finally got to Riga, though, everything looked much brighter than I thought it would. One incredible achievement, leaving a Russian citizen in the state of hopeless envy, is the total absence of inflation. The prices are high (higher than in Moscow), but they have not risen since the beginning of the year. Actually, some things - like dairy products - are gradually getting cheaper. The local currency, the lat, is firm against the dollar and shows more stability than, say, the British pound.

The side-effect of monetary stabilization is unemployment. No longer subsidized by the government, but not yet privatized, most big plants and factories are on endless vacations.

Unlike in Estonia, where controversial laws have been adopted and the nationalities have become polarized, in Latvia the ethnic majority/minority issues are extremely confused. I guess that the country's authorities are somewhat torn between nationalistic sentiments and pragmatic calculations. The latter clearly suggests that Latvia's best economic opportunities lie in the country's perfect location as the link between Russia and Western Europe. Thickening the border in the East doesn't make any practical sense.

An impressive example is Jurmala, a big seaside resort near Riga, which used to be one of the funkiest vacation spots in the Soviet Union. The summertime population used to get as high as 1 million. Now the place looks really sad and abandoned, with gorgeous beaches hosting occasional lonely visitors in the middle of the summer.

Another peculiar thing is that most business activity here is conducted by ethnic Russians. I was invited to make a short lecture at the Yuppie Club of Riga (driven there in a red Porsche, of course) - a comfortable Saturday-night hangout for young entrepreneurs and business students. There was no Latvian spoken; When I asked about the national make-up of the club membership, the figures were: 60 percent Russian, 30 percent Jewish, 10 percent Latvian. Which also seems to be the proportion in general money-making activities.

Crime, unfortunately, is on the rise: Very recently the president of a local bank was killed by gunmen and the owner of the biggest escort and "intimate services" agency was blown up in his car. Apart from that and widespread car theft, the streets and squares of Riga look much safer and far tidier than Moscow's unlimited flea market.

In the Old Town there are nice open-air cafes everywhere. At one cafe we had to leave, and couldn't find the waitress. A Latvian friend of mine simply left a $5 note on the table. Haunted by Moscow paranoia, I suggested that we wait, because as soon as we leave, somebody would pick the money up. No, it's alright, said the friend, I leave it like this all the time and it's safe, unless the wind blows it away. Lucky them.

Unfortunately, Riga's biggest summertime attraction of the past few years, the Untamed Fashion Assembly - probably the craziest clothes show on Earth - has been postponed because of sponsorship difficulties. However, the Assembly's producer promises to hold it in February - bigger and weirder than ever.

Other upcoming events include the visit of Pope John Paul II in September and a concert by two ultra-popular Swedish bands, Ace of Base and Army of Lovers, this week. The latter show is organized by Radio SWH, Riga's one and only commercial FM station.

To complete the brief report I must add that Riga now can boast a couple of live music clubs, three Chinese restaurants, strongly improved locally-produced beer and a flood of Western cars, now outnumbering Ladas.