Latvia ran in 15 editions of the Eurovision Song Contest since its first participation at the turn of the millennium. The former Soviet satellite failed only to qualify in 2004 with expand=1] this song — we have no idea why it didn’t work, people probably forgot what real rock’n’roll was at the time.
But Latvia also failed to qualify for the finals in the last 6 editions, despite most of the songs being in English. This year, the 22-year-old singer Aminata will attempt to qualify with her song “Love Injected.”
Aminata was born in Riga, but her mother is of Latvian and Russian descent, and her father comes from Burkina Faso. This diversity, the young woman says, is what makes her strength.
Before stepping on stage, Aminata likes to listen to music in a dark corner, alone, speaking to no one.
Does it make you want to visit that country? 0.5/10
Was there enough glitter? 2.5/10
Ok to quit your day job? 1.25/10
OVERALL AVERAGE: 1.42/10
Five years after Latvia's independence was recognized by the Soviet Union (one of the last things the dying Union got to do), we toured the Baltic states, still then in the early stages of painstaking de-Russification.
But from above, Riga, the largest city in the three Baltic republics, looked as beautifully Latvian as ever.
Latvia becomes the 18th member of the European single currency zone, adopting the euro just as the small Baltic nation starts to enjoy economic growth. Will Latvians come to regret it?
RIGA — In Latvian, it is called the eiro, not the euro. But on the new European single currency coins that Latvians are exchanging for their beloved lats, the value is given in "euros" — spelled the same way as it is in the rest of Europe. The other side of the coins still show either the trusted emblems of the national coat of arms or Milda, a young woman in national costume who symbolizes the fight for independence.
These symbols always resurface in the small Baltic nation whenever a new era begins, so it is fitting that they will appear on the Latvian euros. Today, Latvia becomes the 18th member of the European single currency zone, and its entry is more than welcome.
In these difficult economic times, the step is seen as a “show of faith in the shared currency,” as Michael Roth, the new European affairs minister of state at the German Foreign Office, said a few days ago on a visit to Riga. The Latvian government deserves the utmost respect for the way it has strived to meet the conditions for eurozone entry.
After the fall of Lehman Brothers in 2008, Latvia was hit especially hard by the global economic and financial crisis. Within a few weeks, economic activity had shrunk by 17%, and the country only managed to avoid bankruptcy thanks to loans from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund. Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis introduced draconian cuts, civil servants’ salaries and pensions were slashed, and many public-sector jobs were cut. The unemployment rate skyrocketed.
For ordinary Latvians, it was a cruel blow. Even before the crisis, the country was one of the poorest in the EU, along with Bulgaria and Romania. The average income was around 700 euros per month, and many people, especially retirees, had to get by with much less. Many Latvians needed to take on second jobs or ask for help from relatives just to survive. So it was even more striking that Dombrovskis was re-elected, twice.
Eventually, his measures began to meet with success. The economy sprang back to life, and in 2012 Latvia’s 5.6% growth rate placed it atop EU rankings. More growth is being predicted for the next two years with rating agencies Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s offering positive outlooks, although it may be some time before the economy returns to 2007 levels.
From trauma to recovery
Latvia could serve as a shining example to its fellow EU member states. In 2013, national debt levels stood at 42% of gross domestic product. In Germany, the figure was almost double, and it was triple in Italy and quadruple in Greece. This year, Latvia’s deficit was 1.3%, far below the 3% ceiling.
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5 euro note hologram (spacepleb)
Like so much in Latvia, this zeal for recovery can be traced back to the traumatic experience of suppression in the Russian Empire and later in the Soviet Union. After the USSR fell in 1989, Latvia joined the EU and NATO in 2004. The introduction of the euro is “a further security against the risks posed by our very unsteady relations with Russia,” as Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics recently explained.
Or as Professor Ivars Ijabs, a political scientist at Riga University, puts it, “The important thing is to belong to a European structure that guarantees our security. The long shadow of Russia is the most important factor in Latvian politics.”
With this history in mind, it is understandably difficult for Latvians to leave behind the lats, a symbol of their independence. It was first introduced after Latvian independence was established in 1918, then suppressed during World War II and under Soviet rule before being reintroduced in 1993.
Younger generations of Latvians have been able to enjoy their own currency for only 20 years and are finding it difficult to part with it. “It’s our money, not other people’s money,” says 21-year-old Liga Petrovska, who sells sweets from a stall in Riga Central Market. Surveys confirm the prevalence of this point of view, as only one-third of those asked say they support the switch to the euro.
But businesses and foreign investors are “fairly unanimously in favor,” says Maren Diale-Schellschmidt, director of the German-Baltic Chamber of Commerce. “Above all, it’s a psychological signal to the rest of the world.”
There will be fireworks to celebrate the New Year in Riga. The new euro coins with Milda’s portrait, which were produced by a mint in Stuttgart, have already been distributed to banks and companies along with the euro notes. Meanwhile, a parting song has been making the rounds on the Internet, a simple gesture of farewell: “Thank you, little lats.”
Latvians will decide this weekend whether to make Russian the country's official second language. Demographically, doing so makes sense. A third of the population is Russian. Many Latvians, however, still associate the language with their years u
RIGA -- "Yes, we're National Bolsheviks," says 53-year-old Vladimir Lindermans, a Russian living in Latvia. Although he doesn't have Latvian citizenship, he's the driving force behind a referendum that will have Latvians voting Saturday on whether or not Russian should become the country's second official language.
The "Natsbol," originally a Russian party but now banned in Russia itself, still exists in various former Soviet states and defends the rights of Russians in those states.
A third of Latvia's population is Russian. In the capital Riga, there are more Russians than Latvians. Some 300,000 Russians is Latvia possess no papers at all and are in that sense "stateless." Others have a Russian passport. In 2009 alone, Russia issued papers to 4,000 Latvian residents who applied for them.
Lindermans says he finds the situation of Russians in Latvia "discouraging." But many Russians in Riga don't see things quite so dramatically. Kira, a 24-year-old woman who works in a travel agency, is a Russian who acquired Latvian citizenship. "The whole issue of language used to bother me," she says, "but now it's not a big deal. Personally, I'm against a second official language because I can understand Latvian."
Are Russians in Latvia discriminated against? "All in all, no," says political scientist Nils Muiznieks. "It's less of a human rights issue than a political issue. I'm for one official language. Practically everywhere where there's more than one language it's because the country is ethno-federal: Belgium, Switzerland, Spain. But here in Latvia the majority and minorities are completely mixed."
Muiznieks was formerly Latvian Minister of Integration – a post that no longer exists. In April, he will take up a post as Commissioner for Human Rights with the European Council.
Stirring up bad memories
Egija Inzule, a 25-year-old art historian, is determined to vote on Saturday. "I would gladly live in a country with two languages," she says. Living in a multilingual country is something she has experience of – she graduated from high school in Switzerland, where her father is a pilot. "But, in Latvia, it's too early. Having Russian as a second language would just stir up a lot of bad memories."
It's an opinion shared by many. Members of the young urban Latvian elite fear for their own language, and even their existence as a nation, if Russian is ushered back in.
Everyone has an opinion. The Catholic archbishop, Lutheran bishop and head Jewish rabbi are against Russian as a second language, the Orthodox Metropolitan bishop is for it. Riga's extremely popular mayor, himself a Russian, at first distanced himself from the move but now says he'll vote in favor of the Russian language measure. Russian diplomats in the capital have stayed out of the debate entirely.
Former Latvian President Valdis Zatlers says that for his family, the Soviet Union spelled years of imprisonment in Siberia and decades of fear. "The referendum is a provocation, aimed at dividing the nation," he says. "But it has been introduced, even though its chances of success are minimal. So we have to go vote, and get our position through."
Read the full story in German by Gerhard Gnauck
Photo - Desmond Kavanagh
*Newsbites are digest items, not direct translations