RIGA - As another long Baltic winter winds to a close, thousands of women will be putting their cherished fur coats back into their wardrobes for another year.
If you consider that it was only five years ago that Latvians could buy cat and dog furs at the central market, and only two years ago that the country's first animal protection laws were established, it's clear that animal rights are still far from the political agenda.
When walking down the streets of Riga, every third woman draped in mink furs, raccoon tails and fox heads is testimony to the mindset of this northeast European country. Animals make better furs than friends.
In much of today's developed world, wearing furs is a social taboo. Yet, in Russia, Ukraine, Latvia and many other post-Soviet states, furs are a sought-after luxury and continue to be a lasting fashion.
"In Latvia and Russia, fur is a sign of prestige," said Jogita Kristina, Manto fur shop manager. "Latvian and Russian women like fur, and they will always like it. As long as the winters continue to be cold, it will stay in fashion for many years."
Others disagree. Astride Karklina, director of the LKF animal protection group, believes that although it will take time, the popularity of furs will diminish as the economy grows and the availability of alternative coat material increases.
"A lot is connected to the economic situation here in Latvia," she said. "Overall, Latvia's people don't have enough money to think about the well being of animals. They can only afford to think about their lives and their needs. As we become more economically stable, the situation will become better."
Yet, there is evidence in Moscow that proves just the opposite. According to Agence France Presse, after more than a decade of decline, Russian fur exports have once again surged. Although the sale of furs has not yet reached Soviet-era levels, in January, 530,000 furs sold for a total of $14 million - the highest in 10 years.
In neighboring Latvia, the fur market has remained relatively stable over the past decade. Fur prices have increased to compete with the developing market, but a coinciding class of people able to afford such luxuries has also developed. According to Kristina, the most desired fur is mink, which costs between 1,000 lats (1,500 euros) and 3,000 lats. Rabbit is the cheapest fur, costing between 200 lats and 300 lats.
Socially and culturally, there is much to be said about the symbolism of furs. For generations in Russia, furs have been worn as a sign of wealth and a representation of one's class. This symbolic consciousness still exists today.
"Furs are a necessity for Russian women," Karklina said. "For them it's a symbol that determines if you're rich or poor. Every wealthy Russian woman has a fur. You can't take it away from them - it's a cultural symbol. Just like you can't take bull fights away from the Spanish."
Although Latvian women can also be spotted in fur coats, Karklina notes that it's much rarer. Socially, furs don't hold as much importance for Latvian women. They don't share the same desire to publicly display their wealth.
Whether or not Latvian women wear furs, the choice doesn't seem to be the result of a social mentality against killing animals for fashion, because presently, no such mentality exists. And this is exactly what 18-year-old Dace Kinapa is trying to change.
So far, there have been no organized social movements against wearing and buying animal furs in Latvia - only individual efforts. But Kinapa is certainly one of the most vociferous of these individuals.
In November, Kinapa used approximately 270 lats of her scholarship money for her studies at Riga's Tourism and Trade School and Riga International College of Economics and Business Administration to print and post a 3-by-4 meter billboard message condemning the fur trade. The billboard, which was up for one month, showed three helpless looking baby raccoons and read, "These babies miss their mother. Is she on your back?" in Latvian.
Kinapa found the original English version on the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals Web site. Finding the message especially powerful, Kinapa wrote the organization asking for permission to translate and use the poster. PETA eagerly agreed to the request.
"It was a really good feeling, because it's the first time I've ever done something so big," Kinapa said.
Kinapa is currently forming an organization that will continue her efforts to raise awareness on animal protection issues. With help from Karklina, the group of students hopes to register with the government this March.
If Kinapa succeeds in founding her organization, it will be one of seven animal protection societies in the country. In comparison with Western Europe, Latvia's budding organizations are far behind in this area. However, both Kinapa and Karklina are optimistic about the future.
"Latvia has much fewer fur farms than it did before. The biggest fur farm, Zveraudzet Ferma, shut down two years ago," Karklina said. "There is still so much to do about the situation. But we are getting somewhere."