• 2006-05-03

cartoon by Jevgenij Cheksters

It is seldom when a Baltic state makes headlines around the globe, and for the international press to pick up two stories is almost unheard of. Yet this week the bylines "Vilnius, Lithuania" and "Riga, Latvia" will be printed far and wide as the cities are both hosting high-profile events. In Lithuania, several heads of state and the U.S. vice-president will meet at a key summit dedicated to the Baltic Sea and Black Sea regions. It is expected that the conference 's "Common Vision for a Common Neighborhood" 's will result in a grand pronouncement about regional integration and the spread of democratic values.

Considering that the conference is essentially a follow-up to the pivotal 1997 forum that produced the so-called "Vilnius spirit," and that it will take place amid energy squabbles with Russia and calls for further NATO enlargement, we can expect a slew of provocative sound bites.
In Riga we will be treated to a wholly different spectacle, in form, substance and duration. Indeed, if Vilniusites enjoy two days of international attention, Rigans will get three weeks. Alas, the World Ice-hockey Championship will finally begin after bottles ink and vitriol were spilled over the past three years. A great many doubted the ability of Latvia to pull off the event, and with the multitude of scandals that surrounded the tournament 's a shoddy construction tender, conflict of interests among organizers, municipal buy-out of private land plots near the stadium, supposed Russian sabotage (what a gas that was) 's it will be nothing short of astounding to see the national hockey teams fly into Riga International Airport and take up their positions on the rink at Riga Arena. If the stadium doesn't burn down…

That's to say, if the localized fires blazing across Latvia due to gross negligence don't converge on the capital. Already five people have perished and some 60 homes destroyed thanks to the local tradition of **kula** - or burning old grass before the start of the sowing season. This practice, inherited from Soviet times but quite common anywhere the agrarian sector is destitute, was supposed to vanish with the arrival of EU membership, but as the past week has shown, it has only intensified. Like everything else in Latvia, farmers' expenses have also risen, so to economize on labor and fuel they solve their spring grass dilemma by lighting a match and setting fire to the lot. The result has been catastrophic, and forced the president and prime minister to address the issue.
Like so much else in the Baltics, the problem boils down to mentality. It's not just enough to pass the law; the law has to be enforced. Unfortunately, that's not being done, and for a variety of reasons 's not least of all poor leadership. If politicians and bureaucrats were doing their job, they would anticipate the problem and take the appropriate measures (not unlike the annual campaign in June against drunk driving awareness).

The spring fires phenomenon is reminiscent of Latvia's recent crisis with money laundering. For years everyone griped about Latvia's banks, how they gleefully cleaned dirty cash from the East, but no one did anything about it. Ministers, bureaucrats and prosecutors passed the buck with elan. Finally, however, the U.S. government stepped in and said, "If you don't tackle the problem now, we will, and it won't be pretty." Eventually the Treasury Department did just that, and Latvia's government learned its lesson.
Taking an example from Washington, might not, then, Brussels get involved and throw a little weight around on this destructive kula, threatening to withhold a few million in agricultural aid? They should. Otherwise, one of these years Latvians might just burn half their forests to a crisp.