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Living in a little hell

  • 2001-02-15
  • Stephan Eberhardt
It was reassuring to read Memo MerlinoÕs opinion of a bright outlook for LatviaÕs future resting on the shoulders of its children (ÒThe four corners of Latvian society,Ó The Baltic Times issue of November 30 - December 6, 2000). I too feel that this will be the first generation of Latvians to begin to reflect normal, Western society. It is useful also to compare and evaluate one countryÕs accomplishments with another in terms of progress, development and civility, as he does to some extent in mentioning Latvian, European and American schools.

Mr. Merlino feels the need to denigrate American elementary school education through statements which claim that the Latvian curriculum offers Òcourses that 80 percent of American students would routinely fail.Ó I assume he has spent lots of time with Latvian children, but I wonder if he has done the same with American children. The two educational systems are vastly different in styles and methods, though the American version has produced a university level educational system that seems to be the first choice for many of the brightest from all over the world.

Having lived here in Riga for some time now, and having worked directly at all levels of the school system in Latvia, I have met many young people and yes, they are bright, energetic and interested. I also regularly see around town those in this age group engaged in an assortment of activities that include: 12- and 13-year-old boys and girls gathered in cafes before school smoking and drinking beer; teenagers roaming the streets with open bottles of beer; 11-year-olds passing by on the sidewalk with inflated plastic bags covering their faces, sniffing glue; Internet cafes packed with young teenagers absorbed in computer games; all this during hours when they should, I believe, be in school.

Then you have kids plying the streets and restaurants begging for loose change, girls selling themselves for a little more, 15- and 16-year-olds hanging out all night in discos; this is not exactly an environment conducive for nurturing young minds. Granted, this doesnÕt represent the majority of LatviaÕs youth, but I think itÕs a large enough problem to make one worry about our future leaders, let alone the current ones.

Much of this will be conveniently attributed to these difficult years of transition, with its accompanying breakdown of both family structure and higher social mechanisms. Children nonetheless face a lack of parental and community supervision and protection. Alcoholism and difficult home situations drive many away. Underlying all of this is a fundamentally criminal society, albeit with notable exceptions, with corruption pervasive at all levels of government, the legal system and business. LatviaÕs scarce resources, rather than being effectively spent on building strong educational and other social institutions, end up as Mercedes Benz, big houses and in foreign bank accounts.

The disparity in wealth is disgraceful: widespread poverty, the difficulty which young people, especially women, face in finding decent paying jobs, and a societal mentality guided by short-sightedness, mistrust and greed. Latvia has turned its children to prostitution in various forms in order to get by. Yes, Riga is the European capital in this respect - see Der Spiegel 5/1999, ÒNachschub fur die ProvinzÓ - not to mention serious child abuse and a vibrant child pornography industry. In the words of one, life here is Òliving in a little hell.Ó

TodayÕs 10- to 18-year-olds may sense a European heritage and an attraction to its material comforts, but the reality is that life will not be that good. Choices are limited. ItÕs not surprising then that many, maybe most, young people just want to get out of Latvia, away from a depressing life with little economic opportunity, with little belief in a safe and secure tomorrow. Latvians should be ashamed of how theyÕve so far abused their newly-found self-determination in working toward a fair and just society for all.

Sure, Latvia has an optimistic future, barring a catastrophe arising from the East. There is plenty to be proud of considering the difficulties faced, in maintaining strong cultural traditions and in beginning the rebuilding of a country wrecked by Soviet occupation. People here are striving for something better, looking to contribute to and be a part of expanding global prosperity, but nothing is made easy for the new generation, which will find that their parents have left lots to be done, and undone.