Latvia’s very own Bono?

  • 2011-04-13
  • Interview by Jared Grellet

When Africa needed help it was Bono and his aging rocker cronie Bob Geldoff who came to their aid. Now Latvia has its own Bono in 22-year-old law student Matiss Bartulis. Amongst some of the more absurd ideas that have been put forward recently as a quick solution to paying back Latvia’s debt to international money lenders, Bartulis is attempting to implement his own plan to pay back a portion of the… euro debt. Focusing on the 1.68 billion euro loan from the International Money Fund (IMF), Bartulis believes that by relying on the goodwill of others, he can raise the money required to pay back the loan. Setting up, Bartulis is attempting to fundraise the 1.68 billion euros from donations made to the Web site. At the time of this writing, the Web site has raised 2,615.48 euros since Feb. 23, leaving Bartulis with a long way to go before he realizes his goal. What has been heartening for the campaign is the support it has received from some quarters of the Saeima, with various members of the Latvian parliament donating to the Web site to have their names added to the ‘saviors list.’ Amongst the quick fix solutions being bandied about, can a 22-year-old student succeed where his fellow Latvians have failed? The Baltic Times put some questions to Bartulis to see just how much thought has gone into this latest solution to paying back the debt.

First of all, what was it that inspired this idea?
The chance to unite the people of Latvia for a common good and to find out how many people would be ready to do something for the future of the country, and not just whine and do nothing. This is why I created a system where anyone can take part and provide support, without spending time or energy.
Secondly, I didn’t want to admit that the situation in Latvia is hopeless and just go abroad, hoping it will be better there without trying to make things better [here]. I am the young man who stayed and wants to take action.

As part of the plan, you said that there are certain things that the government must do before you will hand over the money. What are these things?
The government will be asked to develop a fair tax system, fair salaries, good conditions for entrepreneurship, an arranged educational system, welfare for pensioners, families, etc. It all depends on the money raised during the “Save Latvia” campaign. The usage of the donations will be decided by voting. At the end of the campaign voting forms will be placed on the Web site.

In a way, it sounds like you are holding the government for ransom. What do you think they will have to say about your idea?
There are probably mixed opinions about the idea itself, but I will find out these opinions during the campaign, because I have started filming a documentary series about the things that are happening. In this documentary I will try to find out the opinion of celebrities, members of the government, the parliament. If the goal will be reached, I am sure we will find a compromise with the government.  

Excuse me for being a skeptic, but many people, particularly those outside of Latvia, would say that it was not just the government (democratically elected), but the people of Latvia who got themselves into this mess in the first place by excessively borrowing money. Why should others help them get out of it?
I hope that others will be interested in supporting me and my efforts to see what results this campaign can bring.

The IMF is not the only institution lending money to Latvia. Why don’t you include loans from the other groups - The EU, World Bank - in your plan?
Because the conditions of the IMF loan are the strictest and the most talked about. 

Some may see this as an irresponsible solution. What lessons, if any, will Latvians learn from their experience if they are simply to put their hand out for aid?
The lesson is this: the sovereign power in a country belongs to its people and together we can. There is a feeling that [the] people’s power appears shortly before the elections and disappears after the elections. If most people of Latvia will not be in the list of Latvia’s saviors at the end of the campaign, it will be a clear answer to the question why things are as they are.

In the long term could it be beneficial for Latvians to pay back the money on their own accord, therefore having to suffer and ultimately learn from their mistakes?
I think the people of Latvia have learned their lesson and the country has learned a lot from the international creditors. But a debt is a debt and it has to be returned. And the quicker we give it back, the quicker we will be able to breathe freely.

If your plan works, this is going to solve the short-term problem of at least getting Latvia back onto level ground. How about long-term? The plans seems to do little to address the real problems in Latvia including poor quality higher educational institutions, corruption in society and structural problems that are not being addressed in government. What are Latvian’s going to do to help themselves to assure the country remains out of the deficit?
Giving back the loan might be a short-term result, but the agreement with the government will be made in a way that it is beneficial in the long-term. Attention will be made to improve the national economy and welfare. The environment in the country has to make people want to learn, work and live here.

This comes across as a simplified solution. Why do you think no other countries, for example the majority of African countries, have not also tried this (excuse me if they have, but in my research I have struggled to find evidence of this)?
As far as I know, no one before me has done anything like this. This is one of the reasons that motivates me. And other countries do not do anything like this probably because there is no Matiss Bartulis in other countries.

What does Matiss Bartulis stand for?
Matiss Bartulis – that’s me. I stand for a favorable setting to live in Latvia.

Is this a one-man show, or who is on your team, what skills do they bring to this effort?
I lead the campaign alone. This way I show that to do something significant you don’t necessarily have to be “there.” I am glad to cooperate with determined and purposeful people. At this point I cooperate with the future film producer Vadim Zaikovsky to film the Save Latvia documentary series. The series will be a chance for people to follow what happens during the campaign. Soon cooperation with responsive regional culture centers will be started. Other collaborations are in mind, but all in good time.  

Most people lack disposable income and have limited money to give to charity. Why should they choose to give their money to Latvia instead of, for example, the Japan and Christchurch (New Zealand) earthquake appeals or perhaps to help rid Africa of drought-induced poverty, or to another irresponsible EU country such as Ireland?
Only people who can afford to donate the minimum amount will do it. There are many possibilities to donate, and everyone has to evaluate what addresses him or her more.  
My campaign is different from the others with the fact that I organize it all by myself. And thus, I am responsible for everything, not a group of people or an institution which shares the responsibility. Reports will be published on the Web site. I promised to make a press conference when the donations reach 10,000 euros to show the transparency of the campaign. Official bank statements will be presented, etc.

Ainars Slesers has also put forward a somewhat revolutionary idea of offering one million euro citizenships. Some would deem this irresponsible and naive. What are your personal thoughts on the idea?
On the one hand, you should admire a person who is not afraid to come up with ideas. But speaking about the idea as such, I am not sure whether we can do such a thing, according to international laws.

Even after receiving these international bail-out loans, Latvia’s total government debt should be around 60 percent of GDP. This is fully manageable. As Latvia’s credit ratings are now improving, why not take the normal route for a country paying off debts by letting the government turn to the capital markets to roll over the loans?
The government will definitely use state instruments and go the classic way; there is no doubt about that. I created my plan to help the country deal with the debts more quickly. At the same time it would be a great opportunity for the society to express its will in front of the government and exchange the gathered resources for certain things the government must do.  

What have you learned from this economic crisis and how can Latvia prevent such a recurrence in the future?
In my opinion, we have learned to be more rational. We have learned to save and to successfully structure organizations and businesses. All this will be useful in the future. We have to learn from our experience so we do not make mistakes in the future.  

Can you see yourself paving a way into a political career in the future?
Time does not stand still, and young and active people will be needed in politics. Young people who have a vision about the country, who are not shy to come up with good ideas and who are ready to work and work again. That is why I do not deny the fact that I might get involved in politics. 

For more information about Bartulis’ ambitious solution, check out