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Latvians hitting the road raises big questions back home

  • 2011-11-10
  • By Philip Birzulis

RIGA - At first glance, Ita Zviedre would seem to be an unlikely candidate for emigration. With a successful Riga medical practice, a busy social life and a close circle of friends and relations, there would seem to be plenty of reasons for her to stick around in Latvia.

But she is indeed packing her bags. In December, Zviedre plans to move to Bergen, Norway, where husband Janis Zviedris is already living. As one of Latvia’s leading optometrists whose specialized knowledge in fitting contact lenses draw patients from as far away as France, Zviedre has much to lose and will undoubtedly be missed by many.

In bitter contrast, Zviedris discovered that impressive qualifications do not give their holder immunity from the economic crisis. A professional musician and engineer, he worked for a foreign construction firm until the real estate bubble burst and the company closed its Latvian operations. He found another position with a Latvian firm, but when that employer cheated the staff on wages and social security contributions, he quit in disgust. Then a Latvian friend offered him a job as a courier in Bergen; he got on a plane and hasn’t looked back.

That was two years ago. After an awkward period of shuttling back and forth, Zviedre decided that being with the man she loves takes priority over all else.
“It’s not like I’m desperate, because I have a successful career and I’m training my colleagues to keep the business going. But my husband is away and we can’t have a normal family life here, so I am choosing my family over my career,” she says. “Are we are angry at Latvia? No, but it is terribly sad that everything is stacked against us remaining here and I feel more secure in a foreign country.”

Disappearing act
At least the couple won’t be complete strangers in Bergen, because, according to Zviedre, there are already some 1,000 other Latvians residing in Norway’s second biggest city. This community is just a small part of a diaspora which has mushroomed since the collapse of the Soviet Union and shows no sign of fading away soon.   
It is hard to say just how many people have gone, says Ilmars Mezs, head of the International Migration Organization’s Latvian office. In an age of open borders, few bother to tell the authorities they are leaving, and place of residence declarations are not an accurate reflection of where people really are. According to Mezs, the best method is to look at the difference in the total population from one census period to another, minus the natural increase, or in Latvia’s case, decrease. Provisional results from the 2010 census indicate there are now around 1.9 million people in Latvian, so approximately 250,000 have left over the last decade alone.

While every individual is unique, economics plays a big role in most decisions, and it makes getting people to come back an uphill battle, says Mezs. The disincentives increase the longer people are away and the further they go, and even if Latvia’s unemployment figures come down, the difference in wage levels between Western Europe and Latvia will continue to be a disincentive. There may be more hope with a group of perhaps 50,000, whom Mezs describes as “people on wheels” because they work for periods abroad but come home regularly to see family or go to the doctor.
At the very least, he urges the government to take steps to slow down the rate of departures. A recent reversal of a much criticized policy which forced returnees to pay the difference between Latvia’s income tax rate and that in the country where they worked removes an obvious reason to stay away.

In any case, he says the country faces some stark choices. The generation born during Latvia’s last baby boom in the late 1980’s has now reached working and reproductive age, but many of its members have emigrated. A severe drop in the birthrate in the 1990s means that in a few years’ time, there will be few youngsters replacing them, making the greying of the population even worse.

Rather than encouraging immigration, Mezs wants Latvians to have more babies. As a father of four, he is a co-founder of an organization called the Future Foundation, which lobbies the government to make life easier for families. Fiscal policies that mean having children greatly increases the risk of poverty, a lack of childcare and Latvia’s status as the only EU country which does not give state funding to artificial insemination all deter would-be parents, or encourages them to raise their families abroad. Mezs likes the promises made by Latvia’s new government, but he wants to see them put into action.
“The politicians we have now are better than previous ones, whose first thoughts were always about how to make themselves or their friends rich, but I am still concerned about their short-sightedness,” says Mezs. “There are actually some magic solutions to these problems, and they are farsighted policies with less corruption.”

No place like home
The pretty town of Cesis, 80 km east of Riga, is one corner of Latvia where the authorities are trying to manage change, instead of lamenting that people are leaving. Cesis does well at attracting tourists to its cobblestone streets and al fresco opera performances in the park near its Medieval castle. And, according to its City Council, a steady flow of permanent new arrivals compensates somewhat for those who leave. The town’s official population fell from 19,260 in 1997 to 17,915 in 2010, but this drop is below the national average, says Dita Trapenciere, head of the council’s Development Department. She admits that these figures, which are based on declared places of residence, are far from perfect. But she also asserts that young families are moving to Cesis because of generous local childcare provisions, quality secondary schools and a healthy environment.

According to Gatis Taurins, spokesman for an NGO called “Cesinieku klubs,” or the Club of Cesis People, the trick is to maintain links with locals who have gone off into the wider world. With neither heavy industry nor a university, people from Cesis will always be seeking opportunities in bigger Latvian cities or abroad. The fact that a recent survey of 11th and 12th grade students in Cesis showed that one-third want to live overseas after graduating, and just a quarter will remain in their home town is nothing to fear, he thinks, because Latvia has experienced and survived many earlier waves of emigration. Taurins himself works as a PR specialist in Riga and comes back on weekends to his ancestral family farm near Cesis, and he welcomes the natural ebb and flow of people. 

“Cesis is a small town, but you see parents walking down the street with their children and it is by no means dead,” he says.
The club presents an annual award to former Cesis residents who come home after wandering the Earth. She is not one of these prize winners, but Ilva Sinta is one local who has journeyed back. The 26-year-old grew up in the countryside around Cesis, but a love of the Spanish language grew into periods of working and studying in Spain. In 2008, she had actually packed her bags to move there permanently, but fate had other plans for her. She managed to lose her travel documents around the time that things got serious with the man she would eventually marry, Janis Sints. Suddenly, staying in Latvia seemed like a more attractive option.

After the couple had trouble finding work in Riga, a friend offered them a space to open an art gallery in the center of Cesis. Selling the couple’s own hand-drawn postcards and wood sculptures, “Pie Augusta” is breaking even. After many frustrations, Sints, a philosophy graduate, has settled into a job in an architectural office. Sinta makes ends meet as a translator and Spanish teacher, and says the couple has no regrets about moving to Cesis, even if the gallery’s New Wave French cinema evenings have yet to attract many local fans.

“I’ve always loved Cesis and wanted to spend some time here,” she says. “It has everything you need for a successful and pleasant life, and in some ways it’s even better than a big city.”
With her sister living elsewhere in Latvia, one brother working in England and another recently returned from Scotland to live with their mother in Cesis, Sinta’s own family reflects the range of choices people make. But the charms of Cesis are not strong enough to hold many other young locals. Sinta says that of the 30 members of her high school class, just two besides herself live in Cesis permanently, with half the remainder in Riga and the rest overseas; there is a sizeable community of Cesis folk in Norway. Jobs in Cesis are scarce, rental apartments lie empty, and while the town still manages to function, many of its surrounding villages have been “wiped out” by emigration Sinte observes.“Janis and I joke that eventually we’ll be the only ones left here,” says Sinta.

As for Ita Zviedre, she doubts she will be coming back any time soon. She will be able to work in her profession straight away, using English until she becomes fluent in Norwegian, while Janis Zviedris wants to pay into the pension system so that he can eventually retire comfortably. But it’s not all about money. Zviedre says that her husband’s last job in Latvia encapsulated the things they dislike about their native land. While Norwegians may be a bit dulled by their high standard of living, Zviedre wants to live in a place where people happily pay their taxes, get good services in return and generally treat each other with respect.
“Despite everything, we are still patriots of Latvia, but we would rather live in a society where people matter more than material possessions,”she says.