Ethnic Russians in Latvia hold own in business

  • 2003-12-04
  • By Valentinas Mite, RFE/RL
PRAGUE - A number of Russian speakers in Latvia have had no trouble adapting to new capitalist ways. Non-Latvians, who make up more than one-third of Latvia's 2.4 million people, are prominent in the Latvian business world.

Some Latvian politicians and media have even complained that Russian speakers have come to dominate Latvia's economic scene.
One local magazine which regularly publishes lists of the country's wealthiest people said that nearly half of Latvia's some 100 millionaires were ethnic Russians.
Among Latvia's wealthiest are Valery Kargin and Viktor Krasovitsky, chief shareholders in Parex Bank, one of the largest and most profitable banks in the Baltic nation.
Yevgeny Gomberg, a successful real estate developer, made news in Latvia when he bought the first-ever manufactured post card at a London auction. And Khaim Kogan is among the many prominent Russian speakers in Latvia's profitable oil and seaport business.
Such success stories have left many in Latvia with the impression that Russian speakers do well economically in the country.
Nils Muiznieks, Latvia's special task minister for integration, said there were several reasons why the country's ethnic Russians were particularly successful in business.
The country's current class of millionaires, many who built their wealth in the early 1990s, used their professional contacts in Russia. For example, a person who worked as a manager in an all-union plant - that is, a plant managed directly from Moscow - had close ties to people in similar positions throughout the Soviet Union, explained Muiznieks.
Those contacts proved useful in the early 1990s, when the highest profits were made buying goods and raw materials from Russia at controlled prices and selling them to the West at free-market rates. Most of the people involved in this business in Latvia, Muiznieks said, were Russian speakers.
The minister added that in the middle of the 1990s, however, the situation changed. Ethnic Latvians consolidated the political power in the country and started supporting Latvian capitalists.
"When you have the political power, you can influence the economy as well. You decide who gets contracts, who sits on the privatization boards," said Muiznieks. At the same time, however, a number of successful Russian-speaking businessmen quickly adapted themselves to the new conditions, receiving Latvian citizenship and learning the Latvian language.
Muiznieks said not all Russian speakers have chosen this course. "For example, Gomberg naturalized and acquired Latvian citizenship. Kargin and Krasovitsky received citizenship for their extraordinary contribution to the development of the Latvian economy. A lot of them have citizenship, at least the prominent ones, although there are many who do not and it doesn't affect their work," Muiznieks said.
But not only ethnic Russians took advantage of their Soviet-era privileges to succeed in the new capitalist era, however. Igor Pimenov, director of Latvia's Russian Schools Association, said that Soviet policy ensured that all nationalities in the Soviet republics - including Latvians - were proportionally represented in the Communist Party, the government and the KGB.
"Former Komsomol activists in Latvia had very good contacts with the Moscow Komsomol nomenklatura [elite]. To this day they have good contacts with those former Moscow [Komsomol members], who now work in Moscow commercial banks and are influential in this sector. I would not like to name [these ethnic Latvians who benefited from contacts in Moscow], but their names are extremely well-known in Latvia."
Pimenov also said that Latvia's strict language laws and citizenship policy pushed many ethnic Russians into business. Without citizenship noncitizens cannot participate in Latvian politics.
Aigars Freimanis, director of the Latvias Fakti sociological and market research agency, said it was a myth that Russian-speaking businessmen play a large role in the Latvian business scene.
Freimanis said there were no broad statistical data to support the claim of exceptional achievements by ethnic Russians. However, he admitted that there was no data to reject that notion, and many Latvians continue to have the perception that Russian speakers were among the country's most successful businessmen.
Freimanis said one of the main contributing factors to ethnic Russians' success in Latvian business is that business, unlike politics, operates along nonethnic lines.
"There are no economic restrictions in economical activities [for noncitizens in Latvia], and nobody prevents [ethnic Russians] from doing business."
Freimanis admitted, however, that Latvia's political elite still showed a certain favoritism toward ethnic Latvian businessmen. Russian-speaking businessmen in Latvia were seen as having too many ties to Russia, something that still holds a negative association for many Latvians.