Optimism in rainy Riga

For the new European nations, mere pluckiness won't be enough

Issue: "Breaking the term limit," Sept. 16, 2000

The tourist magazine set a new standard for candor: "The fleeting summer has deserted Riga once more," the lead story confessed, "and a cold winter looms darkly ahead. Yes, the autumn blues hit even tenacious Riga dwellers such as we, especially after a summer as sombre and rainy as the last one."

And where, most WORLD readers might well ask, is this dismal place called Riga? Since honesty is in, I'll confess my own naïveté. Until this past June, when I received an invitation to speak to a university group in Riga, I didn't have a clue about its location. Riga is the capital of Latvia, the middle of the three small Baltic countries nestled between the rest of Europe to the west and Russia to the east. A million people call Riga home (that's a third of the whole nation's population)-and they're not typically as gloomy as the writer for the tourist magazine.

Indeed, history will record that Latvians, along with their Lithuanian neighbors to the south and the Estonians to the north, deserve special credit for the way they stood up to Moscow a decade ago. While the rest of the world was pussyfooting with Mikhail Gorbachev in his waning days, the little Baltic countries-at big risk to themselves-called his bluff, set their tiny defenses, and declared their independence after 50 years of slavery, first to Hitler's Germany and then to the ruthless communism of the Soviet Union.

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Optimism is still a trademark of Latvia, as it is indeed throughout the Baltics. These countries may have experienced their share of bleakness through history, both in terms of climate and political oppression. Yet there's a cheeriness that won't be suppressed. You sense it the minute you walk out of Riga's newly expanded and very modern airport, and are greeted not by aging Russian Lada taxis but by modern minivans and nicely tended flower gardens. It's September, but the blossoming gardens are fresh, well tended, and inviting.

Head downtown for old Riga, and admittedly you'll still see plenty that could depress you. The ravages of the years of suppression aren't quickly undone. Hundreds of unpainted, Soviet-style structures speak with blank and vacant eloquence of a failed and sterile system. But your eye doesn't have to be too educated to see how fast the emptiness itself is also now fading. Streets, bridges, and infrastructure items are in remarkably good repair; fully renovated buildings are everywhere, with good attention to the preservation of centuries-old architecture. It may take another decade of free-market energy, but even a desolate outpost like Riga demonstrates how capital, invested unfettered, will work a certain kind of magic almost anywhere.

Well, almost unfettered.

For with the bright spirit unmistakable throughout Eastern Europe come also those dark and overcast issues that are not as easily dismissed as the rainy weather of Riga. Human nature still lives here, and so does the evil in men's hearts. Even with their own new independence, now nine years in the making, Latvians speak with open distrust of their government. "Corruption is everywhere," a CPA told me. "Giving bribes is the accepted thing." A young Christian left the practice of law after only a year with a top firm because he learned the only way to keep cases moving through the system was to lubricate the judges' dockets (and pockets) with bribes. Serving his clients' interests while serving his Lord's integrity proved too hard an assignment.

"It's not as pervasive here as it is in Moscow," the accountant said. "But it is common and it is open."

The secularism of the emerging society is similarly disheartening. In a country where most people still refer to themselves as Christians, a pastor told me fewer than 1 percent of the population is to be found in church on a given Sunday.

Typical of such a secularist perspective is the country's new prime minister, Andris Berzins. Described even by his critics as a good man and a competent manager, Mr. Berzins is former mayor of Riga. Asked recently by a journalist whether he believes in God, the head of state responded: "I do believe in something. I am not an active churchgoer. But I believe in God as some kind of higher power, that is controlling things. I have sometimes thought about whether predestination or fate exist. It is hard to say whether something was a coincidence or meant to happen, but I think there may be something in it." But when pressed to mention any rituals that perhaps symbolize his faith, the prime minister said only that "I brush my teeth before eating. After eating, I chew gum. That is a kind of ritual."

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