Bringing life to Soviet leftovers

  • 1999-06-17
  • Sandra L. Medearis

VALKA – In Vizdeme, the Soviets' work bench until 1991, small rural towns hold the bag on empty buildings that once held Soviet factories. Small towns are trying to turn history around to their benefit.
In Valka, 150 kilometers north of Riga, seedlings of companies are trying to fill and maintain huge factories as the town tries to outlive its history. A meandering into the city center past small shops leads to the real center piece of the village, an enormous, yellow Soviet army headquarters building without window glass standing in the middle of a weedy lot. The town hopes to make the monstrosity into a hotel, but they have no money.
In neighboring Strenci, business people are doing their best to draw economic development into the town using history as a showcase.
"We are trying to give people something to come to Valka for," said Martins Gaigals.
Gaigals heads a team who stage a timber rafting festival in the late spring to remember the time when water moved logs through river towns like Strenci and down the mighty Gauja River to the Riga port. The town needs to build up its reputation under the poking and prodding of Valka's professional log drivers, Gaigals said. These images should overshadow Valka's limited reputation as a town with a mental hospital.
"We need a real face for our little town. For 20 years after WWII, Strenci was the capital of river floaters. Here and in Valmiera were the best floatmen. When the logs entered the Gauja upstream, it was the job of farmers for about two weeks each summer to bring them to Strenci, but professionals had to take them downstream through very dangerous rapids. We have the last of the best professionals in Strenci."
The festival brings hundreds for the river skills competition, a raft auction, a crafts fair. Still these activities pale for the district's hunters standing outside the school to hear the winners of the mounted antlers competition. Inside, deer and elk racks line the walls.
Surrounding forests yield economic development as well as game with upgrades to hunting lodges left by the German barony. One such is lakeside Mednieki Lodge which the Juris Biezais family keeps in apple pie order for hunters, fishers, office picnics and tourists who row out to hear the call of the cuckoos and nightingales.
In the forests, the lucrative growth of choice pine can propel the town's economy into the millennium if a market can be found for wood products, Biezais of Valka said.
"We are rich in natural resources. We have mushrooms, berries and wood, but the pine can make money."
Biezais is with the Valka district land reclamation program. As a member of Valka's business leadership in Valka Rotary Club, Biezais is happy to show visitors around the town's enterprises.
One thing that would help us would be a common market for the three Baltic states," Biezais says, looking over the food counter.
"There would be the same prices for fuel, electricity and other materials. Then there wouldn't be quarrels over borders, over chickens, eggs and pork. It is good to have Estonia next door. It is not good to have the border."
Business people in Valka's twin city, Valga, on the Estonian side are taking the initiative to make the two towns, which used to be one city, a Free Economic Zone.
A common market in the Baltics isn't going to happen soon, Biezais concedes, so Valka and similar towns must try to build a sustainable economy in the vacuum left by departed Soviet subsidies.
Furniture manufacturing company Valkas Mezi has long-term leases with landowners for cutting wood. The firm makes simple, strong, household furniture - chairs, tables, book cases and bed frames. There is material and labor, but finding a market is hard, said the company's head, Edgars Gailitis. The Danish market has lost its value because stiff competition has made the Danes ask for lower prices. Wood used to go to Finland, but Russian transport prices have closed off a route through Russian territory to Narva for export.
The company has been able to sell some furniture to Riga distributors at wholesale, something new since independence.
"It used to be that the marketer would take it to sell while we waited for our money. Now we sell the goods wholesale and get the money immediately," Gailitis said. Cash and carry works in Latvia, but transportation to European wholesalers is difficult, he said.
Biezais' car rolls through lush fields into the shadows of forests falling on the country lane and back into the sunny farm land.
"Look at it," Biezais said. "More beautiful land lying fallow, no planting, no growing."
Long empty sheds sit heavy, rotting on the land. Once the greenhouses for Soviet collective farms, they stand empty with burlap and other course fibers blowing in and out of the windows. Biezais sees outside investors, maybe the Danes, buying the collectives and making them into clothing factories, he said.
"The last thing Latvians want is to be part of a collective," said Latvian-American nursing professor Irene Kalnina, along for the ride. "Latvians want to have their own small operations, so they have no further use for these buildings now that the Soviets left."
Imants Steins heads a privatized enterprise in Valka in the corner of a huge factory that used to make farm machinery.
"In Soviet times the chief industrial base was to support agriculture. Now we have to diversify. Agricultural reform has destroyed agriculture because the market is not protected," Steins said. With its Polish partner, the factory still makes agriculture machinery for export to Lithuania, Estonia, Russia and Lithuania.
Steins and a Korean partner have a new line of goods: polyurethane foam sheets for packing merchandise. That the material could be in demand for insulating building renovations is in his dream scheme. The company, Valkas M. D., is targeting markets in Latvia and Estonia.
The car lopes through a field of mud bordered by green trees-a peat bog called Kaiser's Swamp. Low prices in foreign markets closed the bog until ja recently signed contract with Holland sent workers backto cut blocks at seven santims ($0.12) a cubic meter. Still, the operation uses only 130 of the 1,000 acres.
"Wolves live in this territory because it is surrounded by swamps. There are dens with babies. Geese migrating from Russia stop here."
His car bottoms out in the muck as Biezais takes his hand off the wheel to gesture at the horizon.
"These forests and this bog go all the way to Pernava on the Estonian side," he said. "The Estonians want to take their peat to our port in Salacgriva for foreign markets, but Salacgriva isn't ready yet."
Biezais shakes his head.
"We're also making a cranberry bog to make another saleable item. It's our third year. We're trying to find markets in Riga."