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Oct. 5 polls approach, the town of Ogre shows that while many people's fortunes have improved, reform still has a long way to go. Philip Birzulis reports.
Ogre, 37 kilometers southeast of Riga, looks like a fairly contented place these days. Its leafy streets are well maintained and lined with modern shops and bright cafés. Compared with the economic gloom in provincial Latvia just a few years ago, it seems that prosperity has finally arrived.
For a good proportion of its 28,000 residents, this is indeed the case. Private businesses are on their feet. Although there are gripes about the costs of municipal services, people concede that their town functions fairly well. But still casting a shadow over the place are several Soviet-era enterprises whose ill-treated workers are losing hope that things will ever improve. Transition has created a sharp divide between the haves and the have-nots, and changing this is going to be another tough battle.
The big switch
There are some things that set Ogre apart from other Latvian towns. Many of the people who worked in its factories during Soviet times have moved elsewhere, leaving it with a solid Latvian-majority population; Russian is seldom heard on the streets. Also, its relative proximity to Riga means that plenty of jobs are just a one-hour train ride away.
However, it is geographically right in the middle of the country, and despite the closeness to the capital, it has an unrushed, provincial feel. Furthermore, since independence it has had to deal with problems that have faced many other communities across Latvia.
Edvins Bartkevics, now serving his third term as mayor of Ogre since 1994, has been at the helm of the city during some of the most difficult changes. He said that eight years ago the city's finances were in a mess. But it has paid off debts to gas suppliers, and invested in five new boiler plants to ensure residents an uninterrupted supply of heat and hot water. The mayor claimed that in doing this, his municipality has broken the old Soviet dependency on subsidies and given itself a viable financial foundation.
"There are good conditions now, because we have fixed chronic problems with roads, infrastructure, schools, sports facilities," said Bartkevics.
But despite these achievements, Bartkevics said he was not sure if voters were entirely happy with national politicians. Despite the fact that he is a member of the Latvia's Way party, part of the ruling coalition in Riga, the mayor said there were still many barriers to attracting investors. He said that foreign companies were putting money into Ogre - a Norwegian-funded industrial park has recently opened - but the process was slower than it should be.
"In reality, we come across problems for investors," he said. "The Lithuanians and Estonians are more flexible, so the economy is better in Estonia and Lithuania."
Some local business people echo these sentiments. Roberts Smits, the owner of the Griva Motel on the Ogre-Riga highway, said that life had definitely improved since the last elections. But he said he doubted that the current national government could take the credit for this, and listed numerous problems faced by anyone trying to run a business. He claimed that the tax system supported big national monopolies, leaving small and medium companies to bear an unfair burden. And high interest rates and tough conditions for bank loans do not make life easy either.
It seems difficult to believe now that until the 60s Ogre, located on the banks of several rivers, was a thriving spa town attracting many visitors. But Smits believes that if the government adjusted its policies to help the tourism industry, particularly by easing visa restrictions on C.I.S. citizens, his business would prosper.
"Perhaps people in Jurmala feel it more, but it is a factor here too," he said. "I cannot believe that with Latvia's natural beauty and its coastline it cannot attract more tourists."
Smits had no hesitation in stating that he will vote for the People's Party, another governing coalition member, because he likes its candidates and believes they offer more than "just promises." And looking further ahead, he is a firm supporter of Latvia joining the European Union.
"I am totally positive about it (the EU), I don't see any minuses in it," he said.
But while small businesses are developing, Soviet-era enterprises still maintain a major role in the town's economy. And the weight of these monoliths is a major burden.
A/s Ogre, a huge textile plant on the outskirts of town, employs a whopping 2,000 people. It also pays many of them just over 40 lats (63 euros) per month. And according to several well-informed people in Ogre, that is when they are paid anything at all, because a/s Ogre's financial problems mean that wage payments are frequently in arrears, and temporary layoffs also leave many families without money.
Several years ago, a/s Ogre got negative coverage from British newspapers for the poor conditions of its workers. Bartkevics said that he didn't really know what the current situation at the factory was but stated that he believed it had started restructuring into smaller enterprises, which might soften the shocks for the town that result from being dependent on one huge employer. The factory's management declined a request to be interviewed for this article.
Sarmite Ozolina, a social worker at the Ogre Social Care Center, comes into daily contact with some acute social problems. She said that rising alcoholism and suicides in the town can be directly attributed to the economic problems at a/s Ogre, and to other unscrupulous employers.
"Especially in the countryside, there are no contracts, no safety regulations, social taxes aren't paid," she said. "People are totally unprotected. There are no jobs, and employers can say that if you won't work for 40 lats today, tomorrow there will be two people to take your job."
Ozolina said that up to one-third of the town's population occasionally received handouts from local government welfare funds to tide them over hard times. She said that middle-aged people in particular found it difficult to adjust when they lost a factory job they had held all their adult lives. She added that there was also definitely a proportion who had become dependent on welfare and considered it their "job" to try and get as many benefits as possible.
Nevertheless, she and her colleagues said that improvements were being made in the way the city deals with social problems. There is an active program run by the center to teach young people about drug, alcohol and sexual issues. And several programs have been started to better integrate physically and mentally handicapped people into society.
Despite these problems, Ogre's voters are unlikely to turn to radical parties on Oct. 5. According to Baiba Ranga, editor of the local newspaper Ogres Vestis, most of the votes at the last election in 1998 went to the three center right factions now in power, and except for some defections to the New Era party headed by Einars Repse, this is unlikely to change.
"There is different thinking now on what makes good government, and people would like greater stability," she said.
Perhaps one reason for this conservatism in Ogre is the fact that Prime Minister Andris Berzins originates from the town, while Repse lives in the town of Iksklie in Ogre district. But Ranga said it probably has more to do with the fact that people are fairly satisfied with the way things are going. She emphasized that Riga is an important safety valve for employment, and that while a/s Ogre is a problem, smaller companies, perhaps like those run by Smits, are picking up the slack.
However, the word on the street may not be quite as optimistic. The Baltic Times asked about 10 people in the center of Ogre what party they intended to vote for. Every respondent - with the exception of one who said she would not disclose her preference - said that they didn't know. And the vehemence of some of the answers, with references to how people had been deceived too many times to believe in anything anymore, suggest a cynicism that will not be overcome by glossy political ads.
Although such a straw poll is unscientific, maybe it reflects some disillusionment and apathy that is not restricted to Ogre. There may be some big surprises on polling day.