Having an odd time: a postcard from Europe's crisis capital

  • 2009-10-22
  • By Philip Birzulis

MAN WITH A MISSION: Aldis Tilens stands guard outside his embattled Old Riga shop.

RIGA - From afar, brutal GDP and unemployment numbers make Latvia's recession look like a tragedy. But inside the country, there is plenty of comic absurdity to ease the pain.
A heated dispute over a tiny souvenir store is a case in point. Australian-Latvian Aldis Tilens moved to Riga in 1993 and created an innovative business combining traditional Latvian designs with Western marketing flair. Over the years, tourists have snapped up his locally produced t-shirts, mugs and knitwear. But he has not been sheltered from the country's economic woes. At the end of 2008, caught between broke wholesale clients and the pricking of the property bubble in which he had over-exuberantly dabbled, he was forced to open a retail outlet to get some cash flow.

He chose to locate the venture in a low-rent corner of Old Riga called Maza Monetu iela - literally "Small Change Street" 's and came up with a novel idea to bring in customers: positioning brightly painted old bicycles with arrows pointing to the store at the laneway's entrances. Unfortunately, camera-toting visitors weren't the only ones to notice. Before long, Municipal Police officers appeared almost daily, bearing infringement notices for not having shop-signs in Latvian, failing to post the opening hours  on the door, and above all for those two-wheelers. The cops insist the bikes are advertisements, set up without permission. Tilens thinks something more sinister is afoot.
"My impression is that for some mysterious reason someone doesn't like my shop and they want to exterminate it," he said.

Notice the present tense, from an interview conducted a few weeks ago. For while a less determined man would have just scrapped the bikes a year back and got on with life, he has wagered everything on proving his point. Repeated refusals to comply with the city's orders have led to the accrual of thousands of lats in fines. Tilens says this will send him broke, but he is confident of winning a court case starting October 21.

"In Latvia, the whole system is not based on the rule of law, where if something is not illegal it is allowed," he said. "Here the main thing is about forming relationships, and there are many ways of doing that, of which corruption is the most extreme."
Other events also led to conflict on Maza Monetu. For many years, a French-owned bar called Belle Epoque has ruled the roost there. But in early summer, a Gallic rival opened another dive, Celsijs, a few doors down. The resulting price war, with beer going for as little as 0.50 lats (0.70 euros) a plastic cup, attracted young drinkers from miles around.

For a while it was the cheapest, wildest party in town, but the cocktail of maverick entrepreneurs and carousing students led to over-the-top policing. Officers dished out fines like candy at Halloween to scores of revelers, including the author of this article, for trivial offences. However, while it would be easy to view this as a classic case of law enforcement gone feral, and to cheer for Tilens' as the little guy battling an evil system, life is rarely so clear-cut. Tilens reports a change in attitude from the police towards the end of summer, after a reorganization of Old Riga policing. This may have been in response to his campaigning, he thinks. But rather than claiming a moral victory and letting things go, he has stepped up his activities. He set up a blog, www.laujmanstradat.lv, to highlight abuses by the Riga police. In early September, he held a theatrical "funeral service" for his store and decked out its display window with protest slogans. The stunt attracted considerable attention from the media and opposition members of the Riga City Council. The sight of someone doing more than just grumbling about choking bureaucracy clearly cheered the hearts of many Latvians.

The store (and coincidentally Celsijs as well) finally closed at the start of October. Tilens is left with a sense of grievance and a cause over which to give his own inner demons free reign. But perhaps life would be easier if everyone behaved a little more like grownups. Certainly, police officers and other standard bearers of Latvian officialdom must stop harassing honest citizens and open their eyes to real dangers. Within shouting distance of Maza Monetu there are a slew of nightclubs in which countless tourists have been ripped off by the staff, but despite promises from the mayor on down, nothing has been done. This, rather than a few old bicycles, is a major threat to public safety and the future of the tourism industry.

For their part, Tilens and some other expats would be advised to stop moaning for a second about every aspect of the country they choose to live in. The Latvian instinct for forming relationships is not all bad, and a policy of live-and-let-live is a major reason why there has been so little public disorder during an awfully painful economic meltdown. Another nationality might have burned down the Parliament by now and felt better for having done it, but the Latvians just get on with surviving. It's a major reason why this small nation has managed to tough it out for millennia in a very hostile geopolitical neighborhood.

In other words, following the maxim "when in Riga, do as the Rigans do" does not have to mean selling your soul.