A fresh approach in turbulent times

  • 2009-09-24
  • Interview by Philip Birzulis

In a watershed moment for Latvian politics, Nils Usakovs became the first ethnic Russian mayor of Riga following the Harmony Center Party victory in municipal elections in June. Philip Birzulis recently spoke to the 33-year-old about tourism, language policy and the challenge of managing the city during the crisis.

We are an English language paper and a lot of tourists read us. Unfortunately, many tourists in Riga have been victims of fraud. You said recently that no more tourists will be ripped off in Riga by Christmas. What steps will be taken to achieve this?

I won't go into details about how exactly we will do this, because we will battling against structures which are ready for a fight and which have good lawyers. We will get the result, but I won't go into the instruments we will use. We will use the legal system and our administrative resources, in the first instance against the 12 notorious bars listed on the U.S. Embassy website and which are clearly visible if you walk around Old Riga. We will also clean up the taxi industry, because there are honest taxi drivers working 18 hours a day, but there are also drivers who rip people off.

You've also stated that British stag parties aren't welcome in Riga….

What I've actually said is that it would be highly desirable to attract greater numbers of other types of tourists, so that the stag party tourists are an absolute minority, not that they shouldn't be here at all.

How can Riga attract more tourists who aren't just looking for beer and girls?

One thing we are doing now is working on our winter season program. From Christmas to the end of January the city will be spruced up, illuminated, so that it looks like a real Christmas city. There will be special events in conjunction with private partners. During my recent visit to Moscow, I arranged with the Moscow city authorities that we will be able to advertise Riga to attract Russian tourists. Because despite the crisis, people have a great desire to go somewhere on holidays, but they want value for money. There are also some ideas about advertising in the West to attract visitors. But to attract them in the long term, we have to seriously develop our local entertainment sector. We will be looking for investors to develop an entertainment centre. Concert halls so that Madonna comes to Riga, not just Tallinn, for instance. There is a market of 200 million people, from Scandinavia to Russia, within two hour's flying time from Riga. Riga can do well in this market, considering we have a good airport and other technical infrastructure.

You've said that Riga could capitalize on the ban by the Russian government on casinos in Moscow and St. Petersburg by building a casino. Where might this casino be located?

I can't say exactly where it will be. But one of the conditions is that access to the area will be limited, so we will find a place which is nowhere near schools, residential areas and so on.

There have been previous unsuccessful attempts to restrict smaller casinos and slot machine halls. Is this back on the agenda?

There are no plans at present to disrupt local businesses, including the local gambling industry. It will be a matter of competition, and we'll see who stays in the market.

Do you think striptease clubs belong in Old Riga the gateway to Latvia and a UNESCO World Heritage site?

We can't ban striptease clubs outright, but the question of where they should be located in open. My personal opinion is that they should be somewhere in the city center, but not in Old Riga.

Will you take steps to move this business out of Old Riga?

I told you my personal opinion 's they should be outside Old Riga. But we have to consult with experts and council members, both from Harmony Center and our coalition partners, Latvia's First Party/Latvia's Way. 

You've said that one of your favorite cities is Amsterdam. But in Amsterdam, like in many other cities, you can't just put a strip club or a brothel wherever you like, you have to follow city regulations. Why can't Riga make a strategic decision on where these establishments are or are not permitted?

I wouldn't say it's my favorite city, but I do like Amsterdam. But in Amsterdam the red light district is in the Old City. I'm not sure that the Amsterdam city authorities are overjoyed at what is there now. Maybe tourists like this kind of area, but I'm not sure if the people of Amsterdam feel the same way. As I said, I don't think these places should be in Old Riga, but the question is whether they should be concentrated, whether we should form an entire district of them.

On a number of key issues, you are a new phenomenon in Latvian politics. You have said that you are a leader who will represent all the people of Latvia without regard to nationality. Would you agree with the description that you are a "post-ethnic" politician?

I don't know about the label "post-ethnic," but from the start Harmony Center has been an inter-ethnic political party, where Latvians and Russians can work together. We believe that only those parties that represent all ethnic groups have a future, the ones which represent all of the people of Latvia or Riga regardless of their native language, nationality, religion or social status. As we saw this year [in the municipal elections], it's important that people don't vote through an "ethnic filter," choosing a party based on whether it's Latvian or Russian. We want to break this habit and we have done this in Riga. When and if the next step will be taken, we will see in next year's parliamentary elections.

Do you want to be prime minister of Latvia?

Not now. I will not be a candidate in the 2010 elections. I have been elected to the Riga City Council and I will remain here.

You have expressed the view that Russian should not have the status of a state language in Latvia, but it should have official language status. Can you explain how you see this?

Harmony Center's position is that Russian should have official language status. This status means, firstly, that you can have your first name and surname written in your passport on a separate page in the original form. This is important both for psychological comfort, and also legally. Many people with Russian names have relatives in Russia, and if your name is transcribed from the literary Latvian version back into Russian, then you have an "s" on the end of your name and it can be hard to prove to a Russian bureaucrat that "Petrov" and "Petrovs" is the same person. This is in no way a threat to the Latvian identity or the position of the Latvian language. A second issue is that you must give people the opportunity to communicate with the local government on social issues in their native language. For example, Estonia has a very strict state language law, but when people go to social service agencies in Tallinn, under the questions in the forms the text is written in small print in Russian. This in no way threatens the status of the Estonian language in Tallinn, and if we used the same system in Riga it wouldn't threaten Latvian. Thirdly, with regard to the language used in secondary schools, the main requirement should be that the person graduating from secondary school knows Latvian at a good level. How this is achieved by the teachers, whether the subjects are taught 50/50 between Latvian and Russian or what specific subjects are taught in Latvian or Russian, should be left up to the schools. For example, if they have a good mathematics teacher who can teach in Russian or a good physics teacher who can also teach in Latvian, the school can make its own arrangements. There should be a centralized exam at the end, and if, say, for two or three years running a school gets bad results in these exams, then the school's administrators should be changed. The 2004 education reforms were wrong psychologically, and they are to some extent threatening the quality of education. Our policy allows schools, and if necessary the local government, to make the key decisions. These are the three main things that we include under official language status.

A few hundred meters from the Council building is the Occupation Museum of Latvia. What are your feelings about this museum?

I went there many times when I was a journalist, and I know the expositions quite well. I have always had one objection regarding the museum. The section covering the Holocaust is very small, maybe a single stand. The Jews who were murdered were citizens of Latvia, just like Latvians and Russians, and like the Latvians who were deported. There were also many Russians deported in the first wave in 1941, White Russian emigres. I don't think it is fair that only one stand is devoted to World War II, a terrible period in Latvia's history.

Recently there were wide-ranging international debates based around the 70th anniversary of the start of World War II. A broadly expressed view was that Russia should apologize for the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and the role of this pact in causing the war. What is your opinion on this?

With regard to today's Russia, I will say just one thing. Russia under President Boris Yeltsin was one of the first countries to recognize Latvia's independence. While Russia hadn't given its recognition, recognition wasn't forthcoming from the United States or other major countries. Russia did this, putting a full stop on the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and the consequences of the pact. 

Would you agree that with regard to school history books, public statements and so on, over the last decade under President Putin and his nominal successor Medvedev Russia has backtracked from such an admission and is imposing an imperialistic view of history?

That's the first time I've heard that Russia, at a state or presidential or prime ministerial level, would be threatening Latvia's independence in some way. Their attitude towards history is a different matter, and every country has the right to have its own attitude toward history. But with regard to the present  or the future, I see no signs that Russia is threatening Latvia's independence.

Returning to issues affecting Riga. It's no secret that the previous council was responsible for a number of projects which were expensive and maybe unnecessary, such as the Southern Bridge which by some estimates is the costliest bridge in the world per square meter. How will you as the mayor ensure that Riga's financial resources are better spent?

As mayor of Riga, I will simply make sure that money is not spent on costly, unnecessary projects. That's my job. But the Southern Bridge has to be completed.

Your coalition partner Deputy Mayor Ainars Slesers is a controversial figure. Some view him as a populist: despite the crisis, his campaign promises included 800 lats (1,140 euros) salaries for municipal employees and jobs for all. In his previous job as Transport Minister he was noted for having conflicts of interest. Do you think that it is possible to effectively and honestly manage the city in cooperation with Mr. Slesers?

Yes. We have been officially working with Mr. Slesers since July 1, and we have had highly effective, fruitful cooperation. In our two-party coalition, we are resolving issues, discussing problems from social affairs through to economic development plans. Sometimes it's hard to tell who is from which party, everyone is at the table resolving problems. This is commendable. With Mr. Slesers, I feel like we are working as a team, and this is very important for the city in these difficult times.

This winter will be very hard for many people, and their situation might get even worse. Is the Council ready for this?

When we amended the 2009 budget, the only area with increased funding was social services.  And with regard to the 2010 budget which is being planned at present, this is the only area that will remain unchanged. Other areas will have funding cuts of up to 70 percent. Next year revenue will fall by 20 percent according to the most modest forecasts, which is a lot - we will be back at the level of 2004.

But you recently stated that Riga won't have a budget deficit.

We don't have a deficit in the sense that we need to borrow money. We're not borrowing money. It's a deficit on paper but we have the money to cover it. With regard to social issues, we've also increased funding for the municipal police who will start patrolling near all schools, and a special unit with foreign language skills has been set up to work with tourists.

When this crisis ends and the opportunity is there to develop infrastructure again, what will be the priority areas in Riga?

The port and tourism. We can only develop tourism infrastructure for the entertainment sector in cooperation with private investors. And we need to very energetically market the port of Riga, in the first instance to Russia and Belarus. We're holding talks with Belarus to get ahead of Klaipeda, because if you look at a map Riga is closer to the Belarus border. We'll also fight to get Russian cargoes, and over the last two months we've seen growth in this area. To a certain extent that is connected with the change in coalition in the Riga Council.

We all have little mishaps in life, and a few years ago you lost your license for a few months for speeding. In that period you cycled to work in the Parliament. From this perspective, what must be done to make Riga more bicycle-friendly?

Things are far from perfect in this area in Riga, but we have to accept that we will never be like Amsterdam or Scandinavian cities where people ride bikes all year round. We have quite a bad climate and we can't ride bikes in winter. Denmark has the Gulf Stream; in winter the coldest it gets there is minus 2 degrees. We have minus 10, snow, and riding a bike through the snow is hard. So for four or five months of the year bicycles are not a transport option. But the infrastructure should be developed. We must have major bike routes, like we already have in various parts of the city, but we won't have a Scandinavian-style network where virtually every street has a separate bike lane.