Life in the slow track

  • 2000-11-23
As Latvia's larger cities become wealthier the countryside is sinking further into poverty, says the United Nations Development Program. With government policies falling short, can a derelict land be revived by accession to the European Union? Nick Coleman reports.

This was where we held dances and festivals, says Anita Jurkova, pointing out a grassy clearing in the center of Saviena, a village in Vidzeme, eastern Latvia. The space is now as desolate as the defunct milk processing factory behind. Along the road is the house from which, two years ago, Anita and her family were evicted for failing to pay the rent. It is now an empty shell.

Anita, her husband Valdis, and several of their 12 children now live in another house outside the village, though it too may be repossessed, by owners who recently inherited it from a relative in the United States. The couple are irregularly employed by a local wood processing company, but were laid off throughout October. At such times the family relies on child benefits, totaling about 30 lats ($48.15) per month, says Anita. Only one of the children - who range in age from six to 28 - has a permanent job.

The Jurkovs family is certainly larger than average (as a "hero mother" Anita was given a medal in Soviet times) but their situation is typical in Saviena, which was part of a collective farm during the Soviet era.

Pensioners are the village's richest inhabitants, according to Astrida Matesa, manager of one of the two village shops. "Everyone else shops on credit," she says. "If the pension age continues to rise, my shop will collapse in ten years."

Selling produce is no longer a viable option in Saviena, says Anita Jurkova.

"It costs more to prepare the ground than we could make by selling what we grow," she says.

"We used to sell potatoes and beetroots at 15 santims per kilogram.

Now the price is two santims per kilogram."

Summertime is easier, she adds. "Sometimes we can make 20 lats a day between us by picking berries in the forest."

Poverty like that in Saviena can be seen throughout the Latvian countryside, says Inita Paulovica, program manager at the United Nations Development Program. In the Latgale region, east of Vidzeme, disposable income per household member was 45.54 lats per month in 1998, compared to 73.98 lats in Riga region, according to the United Nations Development Program's latest human development report issued earlier this year. The picture is worse if pensioners, curiously the wealthiest segment of the population and whose numbers are highest in the Vidzeme and Latgale regions, are discounted from income calculations.

The incidence of tuberculosis is increasing in several regions, and in Latgale alcoholism is widespread, says the report.

"In the poorest rural households (homemade) alcohol often becomes a parallel, or even the exclusive means of paying for various agricultural services," the report reads.

Dismissing the Latvian government's plans for accession to the European Union, the Jurkovs family fondly recall the security they felt in the Soviet era.

"We could buy boxes of sugar, cake and lemonade in the local shops," says Anita. "We were happy when Latvia declared independence, but we didn't know what would happen. Now we have to choose between sugar and bread. Joining the EU won't help. Small farmers will be pushed out by big businesses run from Riga."

Rural people have so far seen little to persuade them of the benefits of Latvia joining the EU, says Janis Rozentals, vice-chairman of the Latvian Farmers' Federation.

"The act of wishing to join the EU has lowered prices," he says. "The lowering of taxes on imports has caused a tremendous drop in pork prices, for example."

The gap between Riga and the eastern regions reflects Latvia's over-centralized character, says Morten Hansen, an economist at the Baltic states' Eurofaculty and the Stockholm School of Economics in Riga.

"Riga is too big a capital for a country of this size," he says. "Administration and better-paid, skilled employment is concentrated in Riga, whereas the rural towns are seriously small. The city's market economy generates a lot of income which is spent in the capital. Few foreign companies have operations outside Riga unless they're also based in Riga. There is almost nothing between Riga and Daugavpils (near the south-eastern border)."

Near to Riga, faith in the country life can still be found, however.

"In the countryside the air is fresh, unlike in Riga, and the scenery is beautiful," says Vizma Jansone, who helps run church activities in the village of Krimulda, 50 kilometers from Riga in the Gauja National Park.

"If you have a cow, potatoes and beans, you have everything."

Having a secondary school, swimming pool and arts center also helps, she adds.

Commercial farming is not viable in Krimulda, confirms parish priest Austris Ravins, but better living standards have come with the establishment of modern timber-processing factories, as well as furniture factories, and preserving factories which export berries and mushrooms to Scandinavia. Half the village commutes to Riga, he estimates, while others work in nearby Sigulda, where the castle is a tourist attraction.

But depression and alcoholism are still a serious problem, says Ravins, as teachers at nearby Turaida Middle School confirm. A quick survey of final-year students suggests they have little idea of what the future holds.

"Improvements here are very slow," says Andra Circenis, teacher of history and Christian ethics.

"Children here are living in great poverty. Most have no hope of going on to study elsewhere. State funding of university places is insufficient and they fail their exams anyway. Students hold each other back. There is a culture of failure."

Such comments suggest that rural people may currently be ill-equipped to participate in rural development, or to take advantage of funding to be provided for the purpose by the EU.

EU rural development funding is guaranteed until at least 2006 under the SAPARD program. The first installment, due next year, will be 21.8 million euros ($18.63 million). The program will focus on modernization of farming technology and on the diversification of employment as fewer people are needed to work the land.

"People who are unhealthy and uneducated are not going to become an educated workforce," said the UNDP's Paulovica.

"Farming families are spending less on education and health. There is a lack of pre-school education, or parents have to pay for it, so educational levels are lower from the start. This has serious implications for the future."

The skills shortage in the countryside was highlighted recently in a speech by Ingrida Bluma, chairperson of the board of Han-sabanka in Latvia, speaking to a conference on wo-men in business held in Riga on Nov. 9.

"There is considerable potential to develop new businesses outside Riga," she told delegates, "but people don't have real clarity about business."

The bank recognizes some responsibility to help people draw up business plans, she told The Baltic Times, "but business understanding has to come from entrepreneurs themselves. The government needs to help by providing con-sultancies."

The government's regional development strategy has so far been inadequate, says a report by the European Commission on Latvia's readiness for accession to the EU, published on Nov. 8.

"Regional development will require dedication from the government and spending from the state budget," said Gunter Weiss, head of the European Commission's delegation to Latvia, speaking to journalists at the report's presentation.

A specialized institution is needed to oversee the work of the several ministries and local authorities involved in regional development and the allocation of EU funding, says Ivars Gaters, director of the regional development department at the Ministry for Environmental Protection and Regional Development. But the formation of such an institution has yet to be approved by the Cabinet of Ministers.

Help from international financial institutions such as the World Bank has so far produced only limited results, says Talis Tisenkopfs, head of the University of Latvia's sociology department.

"It's a cliché that World Bank projects in rural areas have been successful," he said.

"Individual commercial projects have been more successful, but there is a blockage in the public aspects of rural development. Collective local action groups formed to design community development strategies haven't worked. It's easy to talk about mobilizing human capital and teaching self-responsibility, but it's hard to implement. People's employment needs can't be addressed only with financial instruments."

Judging from attitudes in Saviena, conditions in Latvia's eastern regions may have to get a lot better if the government is to win support there for its EU membership plans.

"You can't trust politicians," said Valdis Jurkovs.

"They sing one song here, then go back to Riga and sing another one."

But the Jurkovs are at least hopeful.

"There are families with five children here who are tired of life, who no longer care for their gardens," said Anita Jurkova.

"But we're still optimistic. With a big family the children will always have someone to turn to when there is trouble."