RIGA - Fearing that they could lose a golden opportunity to receive European Union structural funds, hundreds of people lined up outside the Latvian Investment and Development Agency for four days straight just to be assured that their application would receive due attention.
LIDA began accepting applications for 23.5 million lats (33.8 million euros) worth of structural funds at 10 a.m. on March 20. Three days prior to that, applicants began standing in line.
A man compiling an unofficial register of those lining up on March 17 said there were 149 names on his list, most sent by companies looking for a piece of the EU pie.
The number hadn't changed much by the time LIDA finally opened its doors on Monday. Within three hours, the agency had accepted 56 applications for funds close to the total amount allocated by the EU, according to Diena, Latvia's leading daily newspaper. An additional 37 million lats would be needed to satisfy the remaining 113 projects.
Most of the company representatives The Baltic Times spoke with outside of LIDA were actually hired "sitters" 's youth paid a bit of pocket change for their efforts.
Many were teenagers who said they had been hired by one consulting agency.
One young man named Martins was there on behalf of a firm looking to start cement production near the capital. He said those hoping for a piece of the action would be assessed on a "first come, first served" basis. "Half a million lats is half a million lats," Martins pointed out, adding that he was waiting in shifts with others.
President Vaira Vike-Freiberga was shocked by the images of people braving inclement weather outside a government office, and called the entire situation "illogical."
"The situation that has developed around the application acceptance process is illogical and doesn't adhere to the government's goals," she said.
Economy Minister Krisjanis Karins echoed this point, adding that, in the future, a repeat of the around-the-clock lines would be unacceptable: "The agency, taking into consideration business and NGO suggestions, must draft a proposal in order to improve the application process in the future."
On March 17, Karins asked LIDA to accept all applications for structural funds, not just for the 23.5 million allocated.
"The Ministry of Economy, together with the Ministry of Finance, is looking for possibilities to add more money to this program," said Ieva Ziberga, the economy minister's press secretary.
In August 2004, the development agency received its first allotment of EU structural funds, and there were no lines to deal with outside their doors. But this year, Ziberga said, companies are more confident they will actually get a piece of the cake and benefit.
"We're now seeing a very high interest among applicants," she said. "People are finally aware of the possibility to receive EU funds and the opportunity to develop their company."
In order to prevent future chaotic situations, Karins has asked LIDA for proposals on how to improve the application process. The Ministry of Finance is also working on a solution.
"We have slight possibilities to change the system due to time," Ziberga explained, adding that the ministry has until December to complete the application process. "If we make significant changes, it could take up to six months 's time we don't have."
But until a new alternative is developed, "first come, first serve" seems to be the mentality among applicants.
Oskars and Sandra, two friends who queued the entire weekend on behalf of manufacturing enterprises said that "music, girls and conversation" were their antidotes to boredom.
"It's like in the Soviet times when we were queuing, except that back then it was for sausage, and now it's for money," said one middle-aged man who refused to give his name.