The Baltic Course

Different approaches are normal

By Olga Pavuk

Integration is one of the most used catch-phrases in Latvia these days, and is used on more than a few occasions. The word is actively used among technology freaks and Internet users, but more frequently one hears about public integration - be it political, social, regional. the list goes on. Integration is also the topic we chose for our discussion with a man often seen as the most influential person in Latvia, Aivars Lembergs, the mayor of Latvia's booming port city of Ventspils, the most prospering city in the country

Integration Ventspils style

First Mr. Lembergs told us about the Ventspils Community Integration Program, the first document of its kind in Latvia.

"The notion of integration as a socio-economic and political problem is quite new for Latvia. In the last decade the situation has changed somewhat from the period before. Some time ago we in Ventspils reached the conclusion that it makes no sense to speak about integration in absence of an action program including a summary of facts tied to causes and consequences, as well as analysis of existing problems in the city and ways to eliminate differences as much as possible.

We were the first in Latvia to come to this point after studying ways Western countries have dealt with these problems. We were not shy to learn, visited Stockholm, some cities in France and Germany. We chose places that had similar programs. Later we drafted and adopted the Ventspils Community Integration Program consisting of three sections: Section I: education, language. culture, sports; Section II: community social integration; Section III: civil participation and responsibility.

«Integration programs are immortal, because there will always be some kind of minority problems. Democracy can only exist when the majority takes minority problems into account, not when the powerful make decisions for the weak.»

Here I would like to note our interpretation of public integration, which is much wider than usually accepted in Latvia and other countries. Usually the word is given a narrow meaning referring to the integration of ethnic minorities, but this is just one of the components - an important part, a priority, but definitely not the only one.

What is vital to understand when speaking of integration? What do we need it for? It's so that a minority doesn't feel lost in its own community, so that it doesn't feel like a minority. The approach to this issue can be on multiple levels. For example, the disabled are a minority and the non-disabled are a majority, thank God. It is important that the non-disabled should not forget about the disabled. It cannot be allowed that only the disabled themselves care about other disabled people. Or for example something more easy to understand - children and youngsters are also a minority. Children have to be integrated in the community, to make a normal transition from one age to another: from childhood to adolescence and from there to adulthood.

Section I of the program includes, of course, also the learning of the Latvian language for those who don't speak it. There are also units for improving the cultural system, expanding cultural dialogue, studying and updating historical, economic and cultural heritage, developing libraries, fitness and sports.

Section II on social integration is very important. Here we look at problems such as getting individuals involved in public life. People have to feel like full participants in all processes. We analyzed the many layers of social groups and considered ways to make minorities not feel like minorities.

In the next section we analyzed residential conditions with great care, as this is always a very vital issue for the state and every city. This is to do with the integration of people living in the various parts of Ventspils. Of course, there can't be ten city centers. But a person living on the outskirts must have adequate means to get downtown. Streets must have good lighting, street lights must be good in the center as well as in the suburbs. Further roads must be just as good as the main streets. Suburban children must be able to get to school as easily as those living downtown. And there are many other things that have to be done. We have to ensure a normal life for people living in different locations over our city.

One more thing tied with social protection is employment. The unemployed are also a minority. The majority must give thought to ways of helping them solve this problem, to things that can be done to provide employment. We studied the job situation: where people work, what the balance is between employees from different sectors, how they feel in comparison with people doing other jobs. For example, the average monthly wage in transportation and transit is 400 lats, in trade and catering it's 81 lats, in health care 140 lats and in industry 100 lats. The range is rather wide between the various sectors.

The next section under the program is on civil involvement and responsibility. A lot is being written and said about the problem of citizenship and naturalization in Latvia. The idea of our integration program is based on the fact that all Ventspils residents are tax payers. The city council spends money on them. everybody, who pays taxes, has the right to take part in the management of the city. This means voting in municipal elections and working on the city council committees. We are not in a position to change laws on elections and citizenship but we can get non-citizens involved in community affairs. We formed an advisory council of non-citizens. Two- thirds on this council are non-citizens or naturalized citizens. It is important that the non-citizen minority is not distanced from the authorities.

Integration is also about cooperation between the municipal government and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and there's a whole lot of them. I myself lead a few, the most popular of them being the Transit Business Association. We want both the government and local authorities to be in dialogue with us.

Mr. Lembergs, how important is the economic factor in the process of public integration?

This is a very important and very complicated thing. On the one hand, there are the rich and the poor. This does create problems. On the other hand, differences provide an impetus for progress. It is a constant contradiction. Anyway, from the perspective of integration problems, development of industrial potential and business is a source of individual, national and municipal welfare. Without this, integration problems - social, ethnic and others - will occur any way. A poor community cannot be homogenous.

What steps are being made by the city towards reinforcing its economic achievements after the past decade?

When I started working in Ventspils in 1988, it was decided that capacity at the city's port terminals should be cut by half for environmental and safety reasons. "No Ventspils please" was the chorus sung by university graduates looking for jobs. The city looked doomed. When I applied for the city's top position of executive committee chairman, people asked me: "Why this sacrifice, if there's no hope?" Back then there were two options - either shut down the terminal or get it into shape. We succeeded in the second option. We did this through hard work and self-denial in solving political, social and environmental problems. Through learning and patient explanations we managed to turn our problems into success.

«Public integration means analyzing the situation and setting up a system of measures to ensure that the minority takes full part in public life.»

The success could have been much greater if Russia had built a liberal economic system by the late 1990s. Today I have to admit that our future will to a certain extent depend on developments in the process of economic liberalization in Russia and there can't be any progress along this line without political liberalization. At the same time, we see growth in the city through industrial upsurge. Our primary task is to focus efforts on continuous improvement of the city's business environment among potential and existing investors, be they local or foreign. For us any investor is like a child we are ready to pamper and do everything to make him feel comfortable. We see how difficult it is to establish companies up to making export-grade products. As for transit, growth of added value per ton should be sought for.

In addition, we are channeling our funds towards making Ventspils also attractive for both recreation and tourism. We experienced a breakthrough at the turn of 2000 and 2001. Last year we saw the number of Ventspils-bound tourists double. I have now I set a goal to make this number grow fivefold in the next four or five years.

So you want to beat Jurmala?

No, we don't. If tourists come to Jurmala [a popular Latvian sea-side resort close to Riga], they will also come to Ventspils. There's not really that much distance between the two cities. It's a pity Jurmala has withered to near death over these years. By now Jurmala should in fact have grown into the most beautiful, rich and modern city in Latvia. It had all the makings but instead of earning money and developing, the city closed down. They still collect a toll charge for entering Jurmala. It's unheard of that a resort town would lock itself up! This is incomprehensible. Usually a town gets closed down if it makes nuclear weapons. How can one shut down a resort, barring customers from it?. Who can earn money that way?

What does the city's mass media do for integration?

The city council does not have its own newspaper. I think that all mass media - the press as well as radio and television - must be in private hands. The state must stay away from the mass media. As soon as they get into the state's hands, they immediately develop policies focusing on the work done by certain parties. That's the end of democracy. We regularly cooperation with the mass media, provide them with information. Everybody would like to see more success stories published. All reporters working in Ventspils, local newspapers and the national press (maybe with the exception of daily Diena) try to give objective reports on developments in the city. Of course, biased commissioned materials do get published - by the Swedish-owned Diena. I see this as Swedish neo-colonialism towards Latvia. The Independence of Ventspils businesses from Swedish expansion makes them angry. Swedes do not like a strong national bourgeoisie emerging in Latvia and they are exhorting all efforts to do away with it. This is a struggle brought about by the globalization process. Classic neo-colonialism. First comes the colonization of mass media, then colonization of money, colonization of raw material sources. And, finally, colonization of key monopolies. Of course, not all things have gone their way. On many occasions it was due to my personal interference. Latvia must not become only an appendix to a specific neighbor. But this is not easy for us because economically we are weak.

The national social integration concept says that Latvians do not feel themselves masters of their own land, because they are a minority in six out of seven of the largest cities. Does this make you personally feel like you are not actually the master of the city, and how important are ethnic proportions in integration?

I have never had any problem with this. Those, who wrote that concept, may have felt this way. It is an imagined problem. An inferiority complex suffered by those, who wrote these words. This is how a frigid woman or impotent man feels [with laugh].

Integration Latvian style

Why aren't Latvia's non-citizens in a rush to get citizenship?

For a lot of reasons. There are young men, who do not want to serve in the army - no joyrides promised there with hazing and all. Economically, Russian-speaking people are in general better off than ethnic Latvians. Or I'd say there's no need for the citizenship. Also, many are indifferent to politics.

How realistic do you think the formation of a homogenous society in Latvia is, as declared under the national integration program?

Two issues have to be considered here. First, Latvia outside the EU. And second, Latvia as part of the EU, which itself is by many, many criteria in fact a common state. In the second case, and we are moving towards this, social processes for the next 10-20 years have to be forecast from the perspective of us being within the same state as Germany, Italy, Spain. Together with the Kurds and Turks from Germany, blacks from the United Kingdom. Et cetera, et cetera. We will be communicating within this large state, move about freely, change our jobs at will. What language will all these people speak? Everything points at it being English. Thus the role and place of the Latvian language will not grow stronger. It will rather begin to lose ground. This is what we are already seeing in our ministries where you are handed documents for domestic use in English and without any translation attached. If the Russian language was basically dominating Latvia after 50 years, it won't take 50 years for English.

Your position as regards to cutting down Russian-language education differs from the generally accepted opinion. Why so?

There must not be any administrative cuts when it comes to studying Russian. On the whole, no administrative dictate, "Stalinist collectivization," should be allowed in matters related to integration or the education of children. There's no need for this. We see in Ventspils that with a constant number of school-going children, the share of pupils studying in Latvian keeps growing while the number of Russian-language students is decreasing steadily. In a decade or so there are going to be very few children and parents, who will want to go to school only in Russian. But this will not happened by 2004 [the date set by government for all schools to have Latvian as language of tuition, ed.]. Therefore we should not rush things. I brought this matter to the attention of our president of state, the prime minister and the education minister. Solutions like this are extremely dangerous for internal stability in the country. Only a small part of the community cares about the right to vote but children are protected as fiercely as cats protect their kittens. Latvia should pass better legislative amendments rather than wait for internal collisions and disapproval from international organizations.

What do you think would help towards social integration in Latvia?

In the broadest sense, a program and the means to carry it out are needed. As for ethnic minorities, integration must be voluntary. No whip or carrot will do. Only patience and foresight. And, of course, responsibility of politicians before their voters.

What is obstructing this and how can it be cleared?

I will mention only one, the key obstacle. Latvia was first occupied at the turn of the 12th and 13th centuries. Since then all our neighbors took turns in occupying us more than once. We lack the historical experience of living without taking anyone else's orders. Instead of thinking ourselves as to how we ought to live our lives, we are again waiting for instructions from above. This is our historical problem.

How long could it take Latvia to solve this problem?

When I am asked who is the most influential politician in Latvia, I have only one answer - the EU. I think we will become an EU member in the broadest meaning of the word. And we will be living not under somebody's rule but as part of a union. And Europeans will help us with this. It shouldn't take much time.

Integration European style

It's no secret that the call to get naturalized has been dictated first of all by EU requirements. Will Latvia as a young state be able to preserve its identity after accession to the EU?

It would be wrong to put an equal sign between the European Union and the former Soviet Union, which we were a part of 10 years ago. The EU is a voluntary democratic organization that one can join and later leave at free will. There aren't going to be any repressions. Latvia will even keep its identity to the extent it takes pains to do so. This isn't a simple job like building a fence. I would say this will be about taking care of values that preserve the identity - the language, culture. Like it or not, but it will be up to local capitalists. An outside capitalist will not bother spend his money on our own identity.

How logical is Latvia's strive to integrate with the EU and NATO, while it remains in strong dependency of Russia?

I would definitely like to distinguish between the two. Of the EU I already spoke. There's a program for EU-Russian cooperation and we naturally fit in, falling within the sphere of interest of both parties. Especially seeing as our border will also become the EU border. As for NATO, I believe that security today is not measured by any number of tanks or soldiers. Security is determined by interests. And these interests lie in strengthening the system of democratic states. Latvia's position on this is normal and needed. But it does not necessarily require membership in NATO. What's more, the alliance has so far failed to demonstrate the ability to defend itself. Joining NATO will give us no advantage. I do not think Finland any more vulnerable than Norway. And the fight against terrorism is joined by countries a long way from NATO - China, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikstan, and many others. Of course, somebody is interested in us buying radars for Latvian money. But we are not that rich.

As a city leader you have proved your ability to run your city efficiently. Isn't it the time to think about the prime minister's office or presidency of the state?

Latvia has quite a serious problem - we are a parliamentary republic, and all power is held by the parliament. Sometimes no proper counterbalance to the parliament's madness can be found. Under the Constitution, the president's role and place is marginal. As for the prime minister, one has to be at least a member of a ruling national party to be eligible. The parliament is not the right place any businessman should seek to be. It is a place for politicians. Speaking of myself, I feel good in Ventspils and will work here for another two years until the next elections. It's time to get back to business. In five years people from the younger generation that have grown up in a market economy will be entering politics. The very role of the Latvian state and parliament will also be fading after we join the EU.

So there will be less public servants?

I don't think so. This is also a key problem in the EU.

What is your recipe for achieving harmony within a community?

Harmony is a thing to be pursued, but dangerous to achieve. Differences stimulate development. The point lies deep in these differences and approaches chosen to solve them. Problems can be solved by policing methods. In the Soviet Union with Stalin in charge, everything was handled in quite a simple way and everybody agreed. As soon as he died, it turned out that even his closest associates didn't really agree to everything that had been done. Having different approaches and opinions is absolutely normal. It's another thing, though, to keep potential sources of conflict from aggravating into any large problem. Clashing interests and competition in general are regular ways for a community to develop.

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