Oh, what a circus one of the latest Cabinet of Ministers meetings here in Latvia was! Circus enough to probably make some of the more veteran ministers pine for the days when Cabinet meetings were closed to the news media and thus to the public and thus to commentators who can make snarky comments about it.
The issue at hand was the World Expo that is due to kick off in Milan on May 1 this year. When the new Cabinet took office late last year, the new economics minister found to her claimed horror that the budget for Latvia’s participation therein was terribly inflated. Last week the issue landed on the desk of the full Cabinet. Could perhaps the Culture Ministry do something about it? Why the Culture Ministry? Perhaps the Transport Ministry. Hey, didn’t I hear that Luxembourg was planning to rent space in the Latvian pavilion? Could Luxembourg do something to help? The Netherlands suggested creating a wee little park in place of an actual pavilion, how about that? Oh, and one more thing, the state secretary of the Foreign ministry pronounced with much doom. Milan is in Italy. Italy is currently handling airspace defence here in Latvia. Do the math.
At the end of this discussion, Prime Minister Laimdota Straujuma bowed her head and sadly declared, “Apparently we cannot organise large projects here in Latvia. Ministers are depressed.”
Well, the suggestion about large projects is entire balderdash, particularly given that Latvia is currently the presiding country of the Council of the European Union, and no one would suggest that this is some minor thing. Why, last year Riga was the European Cultural Capital. Ditto. A huge choir festival was held here. Ditto. For that matter, Latvia regularly organises its Song and Dance Festival, which brings together tens of thousands of people! There’s been a NATO summit here! We organised the world ice hockey championship a few years ago. Ditto, ditto, ditto.
The real problem here is something else. It is that for years and years and years the Latvian government has been talking about ways of improving the government procurement system, but because most of Latvia’s political parties are entirely beholden to their sponsors, many of whom are business types, nothing has been done. One problem, for instance, is that the country has very lax rules on appealing decisions by procurement commissions. The result is inevitably that the relevant case ends up before the courts, and as anyone who does business in Latvia knows, the Latvian judicial system is often as slow as a turtle stuck in molasses during the depth of winter. Quite often the result is that the original bidder just gives up.
In this particular case, it is true that businesses did see the Expo project as a big, fat trough at which big, fat pigs can gather. For instance, one line item in the “budget” spoke to thousands of euros to … wait for it … post pictures on Instagram! My goodness! I know how to post pictures on Instagram. I have never done so, but if someone offered me thousands of euros, I certainly would do that. Other companies padded their proposals, in some cases probably so that the sums could be lowered a bit to show how forthcoming the enterprise was, but still ensuring that the relevant enterprise would make out like a bandit.
For the time being, Latvia’s page on the Expo Website is still up, as is Latvia’s own page about participation in the event. This would seem to suggest that once the government finally arrived at its decision not to take part, it didn’t occur to anyone to RSVP. That, too, would be pretty much par for the course for Latvia’s government. Not to mention rude.
But the result is sad nonetheless. Yes, a bricks-and-mortar exhibition can be seen as old-fashioned in this electronic day and age. The Scandinavian countries are not taking part this year. But Lithuania, Estonia, Russia and Belarus (Latvia’s four bordering countries) are. As are more than 190 other countries of the world. Apparently the place where Latvia’s pavilion was supposed to be is going to be empty. Pity.
Oh, and one final note to the state secretary of the Foreign Ministry: Italy is patrolling our airspace as a member state of NATO, dear sir. NATO is not a little kid. Neither Italy nor, most particularly, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation is likely to throw a snit and refuse to patrol airspace just because Latvia won’t be at the Expo in Milan. Perhaps Italy and others will speak to Latvia’s government about how silly it has been in this regard. But the jets are going to scramble nonetheless.
Karlis Streips is an American-Latvian journalist who has done extensive radio, television and print work. He has lived in Latvia since 1989.