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Latvian Notebook

Douglas Hurd on his recent trip to Latvia

20 May 2009

12:00 AM

20 May 2009

12:00 AM

Monday morning, on the Baltic Air 137 to Riga. I finish a taut John Grisham thriller, dip into Kilcullen’s brilliant thesis on counter insurgency, The Accidental Guerrilla, then ponder my editor’s benevolent but searching comments yesterday on the book which I have written with Ed Young on British foreign secretaries. Nearly three hours well spent.

Riga looks handsome in the evening sun, lilac and chestnuts a week behind London. In the economic crisis, Latvia is far ahead. The Latvian economy grew by 12 per cent last year and is scheduled to fall by 18 per cent in the next 12 months. No one in Europe, perhaps the world, faces anything like this plunge. It is a bungee jump. Will the rope hold? Is there a rope? The former Latvian finance minister, when asked about the gathering cloud, commented ‘It’s nothing special’. In Riga there are T-shirts on sale printed with ‘Nothing Special’ in Latvian and English. Latvia is a proper democracy.

Alongside the recession goes distrust of all politicians. We discuss this malaise over dinner at the embassy. The guests enquire tactfully about Westminster MPs’ expenses. But in Latvia, unlike Britain, no new leader is waiting in the wings. Efforts to start a new party have made little progress. There was worry about one possible beneficiary. At the Red Army memorial in Riga a crowd had gathered yesterday for VE Day, maybe 10,000, waving Russian and even Soviet flags, more people and noisier than in past years. More than a quarter of Latvia’s people are Russian, mostly living in Riga. Moscow claims that they are unfairly treated.


On Tuesday I wake early, make a cup of green tea, and look at the programme. It looks like the happy days I used to spend abroad as Minister of State in the Foreign Office under Peter Carrington 30 years ago. No crisis, no negotiations, just a useful chance to explore some of the workings of a friendly country. The defence minister comes for scrambled eggs. He is a professional diplomat nursing happy memories of Newcastle University. Two Latvian soldiers were killed last week in Afghanistan. Latvians do not understand the war but accept the need to send a contingent as a counterpart to the security which Nato gives them.

Then the governor of the Central Bank, experienced but still young, clear-minded, without doubts. This must be right for central bankers though difficult for the rest of us. The Latvian government will have to cut and cut again: that, he says, is the only way to recovery. He goes on: spending and borrowing have run out of control. It is wrong to accuse the IMF of crude bullying tactics, as an article in the FT did yesterday. Nowadays the Fund leaves it to member governments to work out a programme of recovery. But programme there must be if Latvia is to receive the IMF help which they need. This means hacking at public sector salaries; the private sector will follow. There will be public resentment, but containable; sporadic violence in the January riot was the work of a handful of hooligans. The Latvian currency will stay pegged to the euro: no devaluation. Latvia will join as a full member as soon as practicable.

Seven Latvian students at lunch are intelligent, upbeat. The coming storm? Yes, it will put back their plans for a bit, but there are academic possibilities to explore. The Russians? All of them spoke Russian, four had Russian grandparents, there was much inter-marrying. No particular need to worry. Climate change? Hardly heard of it.

I meet the embassy staff, for example the consular officers. Riga has been a leading target of noisy British stag parties, but no longer. Credit has crunched; Ryanair has put up charges. There is only one British subject in prison in Riga today.

I go for a much-needed walk in brisk sunshine through the city to St Saviour’s Church, red Victorian brick opposite the quay where British ships once moored. The Rector holds C of E services every Sunday and helps to run an orphanage. Past the amazing façade of the Blackheads Hall, restored after the war in the original demented Hanseatic-Jacobean style. A tall Latvian girl takes me round the Museum of Occupation. She quietly explains 50 years of killing and deportation, from the annexation by Stalin in 1940, through Nazi occupation, back to Soviet rule in 1945. She shows the broken violin, the set of a child’s postcards, much else from the Gulag. Also photographs of human bodies slaughtered, exhumed, reburied as the tyrants changed.

The British Chamber of Commerce dinner is the occasion for my visit. About 100 present, funds collected for St Saviour’s, awards to students, a buzz of networking. Nothing remarkable about the event, let alone my speech. The drama lies in the life stories of those present. The Chairman, assured and quietly charming, remembers her father, who was deported as a young man to Nazi Germany, somehow escaped to Britain through Denmark, found a job in Birmingham and sent his daughter to the Cadbury School in Bournville, to which she is grateful. One day at school the conversation turned to uncles, aunts and cousins. She had none. They had all been shot or died in camps. Her story could have been matched by almost everyone in that hotel dining-room. This is the past from which the Latvians, a pleasant, intelligent, unmilitant people, are trying to protect their children. That is why Latvia joined the EU and Nato. I leave, hoping that fate, with a little help from allies and partners, will grant them that respite from history.


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