The Baltic Course  

Much is to be done…

By Olga Pavuk

Three main issues of contemporary Latvian development i.e. economic, politics and integration attract people’s attention both within the country and abroad. We have talked about it with the newly re-elected Latvian President.

 I. Politics

Photo: J. Krumins, Press department of the President of the Republic of Latvia

Mrs. President, wouldn’t pro-American stance of country’s politics become an obstacle for Latvia in relations both with Europe and Russia?

I have not noticed anything in this regard so far. Very much the opposite, I guess. When the military actions begun in Iraq, I was in Germany on an official visit and met with all the top officials there. I have to acknowledge that even differences in opinions concerning Iraq issues on the official level were in no way obstacles to our good relations, nor an obstacle for Germany’s support of the European Union’s further enlargement. Latvia attracts global community’s attention, as well as that of Germany, as an independent country and, after all, Germany is our major trading partner. All that was very important for us.

On the eve of my visit to Germany a member of French Parliament visited Latvia bringing a message from President Chirac. And French President has the same positive attitude towards the EU enlargement and to Latvia, as a candidate state.

In the beginning of March, 2003 I visited France and President Chirac strongly emphasized his friendly attitude to Latvia. Nothing has changed, he said,  and France’s attitude towards our country was very good. Everything that President Chirac told me before remained in force. France hopes to strengthen her relationships with Latvia. We have a very good French ambassador in Latvia who does everything to make our cultural and economic relations with France better.

As to Russia, nothing has changed either. On the contrary, our recent visit to Russia in connection with St. Petersburg’s 300 years anniversary was a good step forward in our relationships, and not at all backward.


II. Economy

How do you estimate the process of privatization in Latvia? What are its positive and negative aspects?

Many officials in our country have already expressed our position on the issue, in particular those who took part in this process and actively participated in it. Certainly, there have been mistakes. But when we do something, as a rule, we become smart only afterwards, don’t we? So to say, in retrospect everybody’s smart and it’s easy to see mistakes already made. At that moment there was no precedent, there were neither references nor instructions of how to do such things in the best way.

Probably, much could have been done differently. For example, I sometimes think about the elimination of collective farms, about distribution and division of agricultural equipment, etc. In many Latvian regions, before the newly emerging small owners and proprietors started their activity, it would be better to allow the collective farms to continue work for a while, and alongside each independent farmer could gradually begin land cultivation instead of overtaking collective farmers’ whole activity of at once. Certainly, it was necessary to privatize land, sooner or later; the question was only how quick it should be done. It is absolutely clear that it had to be done. We had to return private property to those whom it belonged to by hereditary rights, in the first place. That is clear enough.

When we gained independence, there were many state enterprises that had accumulated already enormous debts for many years, they could not pay taxes, and were completely non-competitive. They had to go bust, be bankrupt, and only afterwards it would have been reasonable to find investors and start production anew. This is clear too.

It could be argued that in certain cases privatization process should have been either quicker or slower, but this is all very controversial. I could say that we were wrong sometimes when privatization was just too slow; it had to be much faster. There were, for example, some big companies that already accumulated enormous losses and, eventually, there were no perspectives in them, i.e. they did not pay salaries to workers, neither taxes to the state, nor even social taxes. So, it would have been better for all of us to close them much earlier and arrange for privatization tenders. Well, it’s clear enough that there were some mistakes made, but that become clear only when we look back. Isn’t that right? But this all had to be done anyway.

What can you say about the issue of real estate’s denationalization? 

Photo: J. Krumins, Press department of the President of the Republic of Latvia

Latvian and Russian Presidents, in Insbruk, 2000.

It is mainly a question of, so called, privatization certificates, and the way they’ve been used. Some of these certificates remained unused for a while. It is an issue to be solved by the government. Talking about real estate and apartments, I have to say, it was not very good planned. Local authorities had to foresee what would happen in seven years when the apartments would be made available on a free market, what would happen to those who didn’t have enough money to by an apartment, how could they rent apartments for an affordable price, etc. And to think about all those people with low-income. The local authorities, on the contrary, thought of how to get rid of the apartment property that belonged to them. This was also a mistake, as local authorities, according to law, have to provide apartments and accommodation for those with low income, for families with small children, former prisoners, etc.

Today one of the most frequently used words in Latvian mass media is corruption. Can efforts against corruption taken by “the corrupt hands” be effective? Is it ethical?

It depends on what we can call “corrupt hands” and how we define who is corrupt and who is not. It is necessary to search for mechanisms allowing to check up whether a person is on the right position and on the right place, whether he works in full compliance with laws and ethical norms, whether he does not take advantage of his position to acquire some favors. I can mention, for example, the case of those four woman doctors arrested for taking bribes, which they demanded for counterfeiting certificates for young people abstaining from regular service in the army because of health problems. In my opinion, this is an enormous crime. This is a violation of both ethic norms, and the Hippocrates’ Oath which they made as doctors. This is a crime against the state, against state security, as this is also a question of the protection of our society. And people who do such things, they are not concentrated in one place; they are on several levels of society simultaneously. How to catch them? Each person who has an influence upon decision making may become corrupt, when an interested person offers him money. And look, what’s happening.  Both sides brake law, i.e. the one who gives a bribe to get a benefit and the one who takes a bribe to become rich. And both have a benefit. It’s not just! Someone has to control the situation. We have to create a mechanism helping to catch both of them. It is necessary to work in this direction.

Joining the EU will inevitably cause another wave of corruption activity. The entrepreneurs, after all, will have to adapt very quickly to the increased requirements and standards of the EU, and financial means for tackling innovations, as usually, may be insufficient? What to do?

These are two different things, i.e. requirements is one thing, standards – absolutely another. One must not confuse them. Let’s talk about standards. For example, in Europe there is a food-producing company. The EU imposes very strict requirements for hygiene and safety standards concerning food production. The role of standards is such that they provide safe access of goods to the EU’s common market. This happens just because these goods have a special quality mark. If it turns out that a firm, for example, has delivered poor quality goods to Europe, than it would be the end to this firm. Reputation and firm’s good name has much greater value on the market than the bribe given in order to get a certificate. 

Huge responsibility has to be assigned to secoral ministries. Let’s take a ministry responsible for introduction of health standards. Our legislation has to provide a maximum penalty for inspectors who without making any inspection issue counterfeit quality certificates. This is a very serious crime, a crime against state’s interest. It is necessary to revise our legislation in this field. Because if inspector receives a bribe, it means that he committed a very serious crime. And, of course, we have to establish a proper control mechanism.

May be for Latvia’s accession to the EU we need a longer transitional period?

Well, it depends on what you mean by transitional period? It is already 12-13 years that we are in transition. How much do we need then? I think this is a sufficient enough period. If the result of the coming referendum is positive, we’ll join the European Union next year. And there will be no transitional period. Therefore, we have to start thinking in corresponding categories; we have to play by the rules set up in the EU.


III. Integration

There are some issues in Latvia, the decisions on which relations between people of different nationalities depend upon. One of them is very simple – whether to make orthodox Christmas and Easter holidays as days off. Isn’t this in your authority?

I have commented on this already many times. I am not sure about the Easter, but one or another holiday... I think it will be difficult to make as days off two religious holidays. It greatly depends on what is more important to the Orthodox Church: Christmas or Easter – one of these holydays we could make a day off. Moreover it has to be possible to compensate it for another working day. I know that there are states with plenty of religions. Why not to solve this problem. Yet it is a question to be discussed. It is necessary to find arguments to convince deputies in the Parliament that it will not make any serious harm to economy. As it happened in the Soviet Union’s times when it was told that it is impossible to celebrate the Jani day (on the 24th of June), as it would result in losses to the national economy.

I have another, a little bit more complex question, but important for Latvia joining the European Union; that’s the question on citizenship. It is obvious that the law was not formulated properly toward those who have been born in Latvia and have lived here all their life. Wouldn’t it be faire enough to change the law on citizenship?

This will happen in the due course of time. All those who were born here after we regained our independence, would have an opportunity to acquire citizenship. In many countries the situation is similar to that of Latvia. For example, in Sweden. I know Latvians, whose parents had moved to Sweden as refugees at the end of the Second World War, their kids were born and grew up there, but they can not get Swedish citizenship. Nothing’s wrong in it; it’s quite normal. It is not that legislation in all the countries guarantees citizenship.

And a third painful issue, i.e. that of education. Do you think that people in the Education Ministry have studied the experience of our Lithuanian neighbor, which provide education opportunities for Poles, Russians, and Byelorussians in their native languages? The result of such a freedom of a choice is that all of them quite willingly speak the state language as well. What’s your opinion on that?

Photo: J. Krumins, Press department of the President of the Republic of Latvia

The Latvian President and her husband at home.

There are eight language schools in Latvia, e.g. Polish, Ukrainian, Russian, etc. schools. We have in total about 200 such primary schools. They will not disappear and they will continue to work. Starting from next year teaching all subjects in Latvian will take place in schools only on the tenth-grade level, and not in all 100% of schools but only in 60% of them. I repeat, only from the tenth class. In the previous nine grades teaching could be in all eight languages represented in Latvia. Nothing will change on the primary school level, we talk about high schools.

It was a surprise for me about the schools in Lithuania. But situation in Lithuania is different. Only for 9% of country’s citizens Lithuanian is a foreign language. I wish we had the same situation in Latvia; we could have passed such a law too. I would like to mention that French European affairs’ minister visiting Latvia was surprised to know that we have schools on eight languages. In France teaching in all schools is in French, in spite of the fact that 6 million citizens in France speak other languages.

The high school is definitely a different issue. We have found out that young people who graduate from schools with a different language of instruction do not have an adequate knowledge of Latvian. Young recruits come to Latvian army, they are 18, and they do not fully understand what’s going on. It is a dangerous situation. If a person who cannot speak Latvian works in the police, and somebody calls and complains that he was attacked in such and such place, and the policeman would not understand him. Such a policeman is dangerous to our society.

It is necessary to improve knowledge of Latvian language. Education reform is made to provide a guarantee that young people finishing high school can work in Latvian language, be active in our society. The goal is not to deprive a student of opportunities to be trained in language of his/her ancestors. Nobody talks about a transition to 100-percent Latvian language education. We talk about learning Latvian language on a level that provides for a person the possibility of being competitive on a workplace, not to endanger society being employed as a fireman, doctor, policeman, serving in army. To be able to function properly and be integrated into society. This is the opinion both of our government and the parliament. Presidents of Poland, Lithuania, and Estonia have visited our schools and they were pleased with the high level of our education.

But isn’t integration a movement of both sides toward each other?

I don’t think so. It depends on what a person wants to achieve. This is everyone’s choice. It is an indivisible process. Each individual lives in a certain environment, in a particular state and within a definite legislative framework of a given state. In the process of socialization he must be within this specific environment. Integration, as it happens, in its ideal stance, is nothing more but integration into a society, which is a process of socialization. And it does not matter, whether parents at home talk to their children in Latvian, Russian, Gipsy or Hebrew. The question is to what extent a young man can be independent in general sense; to what extent can he be a productive person in his society. Of course, it’s very individual and it depends on ethnic individuality, as long as it’s an important aspect for a person. It might be that a person does not possess any particular patriotic, national or ethnic feelings, but this is what each person has to choose for himself.