Posted on 05. January 2015
Proud to be Latvian, proud to be European – that’s the atmosphere that is right now prevailing in the heart of Baltic countries. It seems that Latvia has done very well since it introduced the Euro a year ago. For me and the majority of people I know – the Euro has become an essential attribute of our European identity. In 2014 we felt European like never before.Even before introducing Euro – Latvians had already been proud of their new currency. In July 2013 when the minting of new Latvian euro-coins started in Stuttgart, Peter Huber – the director of the State Mints of Baden-Württemberg emphasized that the Latvian 2 euro coins were the most beautiful ones ever produced at his mint. They show the portrait of a Latvian folk maiden – who also adorned the reverse of the five-lats coin designed for the newly independent Latvian state.
The Latvian Euro starter kit, which cost 14,23 EUR in banks, soon after its release could be bought in the internet for double and even triple price. The status as a Eurozone country has made our lives so much easier. Travelling with the Euro is comfortable, safe and cheap, we no longer pay commissions for currency exchanges within the Eurozone. Erasmus students used to open accounts for their scholarship – now they can do it via their normal account in any Latvian bank.
The fact that Latvians feel so comfortable with their new currency is remarkable – taking into consideration that they had the impression that prices went up by 30 %. The newcomer-Euro was 30% weaker than the Lats. For example, a litre of milk in 2013 cost 0,7 Lats, Then, in 2014, it became 1 EUR. In reality, there had been a tiny rise in prices, the inflation rated around 2%, which is adequate and even modest, a few euro-cents difference, hardly noticeable. Those who notice are retired people. Many Latvian pensioners live from only 250 Euro monthly. This is a very vulnerable group, they struggle to pay their bills for heating and electricity. Travelling benefits of the Euro? For me and my fellow Latvians yes, for this group of Latvian pensioners no. You will hardly ever meet a Latvian pensioner on a trip abroad.
But all in all, joining the Eurozone family was a very symbolic gesture. We saw it as an approval of our small country and hope for a fruitful future within an even more united Europe. And it was not only the Euro that made us feel proud to be European. In 2014, Riga became the cultural epicenter of Europe.
We received worldwide attention via concerts, shows and other events. It made the Latvian name sound louder with regard to culture. Riga hosted the world’s largest World Choir Games in July, where 27,000 singers gathered representing 460 choirs coming from 73 countries across five continents. And, by the way, – Latvians proved to be the singing nation – winning 54 medals, secondly came China with and bronze went to Russia.
Despite Russia’s success, the quantity of Russian tourists downsized by 16 %. This is remarkable, because overall we had 12 % more tourists in the 3rd quarter of 2014 compared to the same period of the preceding year. Traditionally, Russians used to be the biggest tourist group in Latvia.
However, the loss of Russian audience sheds light on another relationship: While Latvia has strengthened its European identity, the tensions between Russia and the EU have shown their effects. In the last six months there had been at least 3 loud showcases of banning Russian actors, pop-singers and journalists for crossing the border. Political sanctions have affected and ruined cultural events. Take, for example, the most popular music festival of Latvia – New Wave. It traditionally took place in Jurmala every summer for more than 10 years. Next year, it will be organized in Russia. For Russians – Jurmala was a resort with great history. It was once the most popular touristic beach in the whole USSR- those days people preferred the Baltic sea to the Black sea, because it was closer to Europe. But the attitude has changed now, due to the political situation and the sanctions.
The latter have split Latvia. One part is proud of the Russian sanctions against the West, the other one is proud of the sanctions of the EU and USA against Russia. You might now think that the division goes along a language line: The ethnic Russian population in Latvia composes 36 percent. But that would be too easy, there are Russians in Latvia who advocate EU-sanctions, and there are also many Latvians who back Russian sanctions. The main factor, that influences peoples’ choices is a very complex mixture of experience, age, level of education, political preferences and exposure to media channels. The majority of people very often only inform themselves via one media channel. That is why they are exposed to a very narrow view.
With the beginning of 2015, Latvia takes over the EU Council presidency for the next 6 months. The crisis in the Ukraine and the war of sanctions must be one of the priorities in this period. However, as Andris Spruds, director of the Latvian foreign institute, warns, it should not be overemphasized. He calls on a balanced dialogue– in order not to endanger the EU membership perspectives of Moldova and Caucasus countries. It will be Latvia’s role to moderate a decision-making mechanism about the sanctions on Russia. Not an easy task, as experts expect mounting pressure and provocations from the eastern neighbour. Latvians say, that one shouldn’t prepare for possible problems, but take advantage of current situation. Or the current EU-phoria, Latvians are in.
This blog post has been published in German on Süddeutsche Zeitung in the framework of FutureLab Europe and Süddeutsche Zeitung’s cooperation.