Despite three occupations and tormented past, Latvia continues to progress

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Riga, capital of Latvia - Photograph: Courtesy of Orient Tours, Stockholm

The wounds on Latvians may have healed as the nation progresses but the scars still show, writes Benedict Lopez.

Seldom is news on the Baltic states reported in the international media. Perhaps, it could be due to their small size and the lack of major international events taking place in these countries.

All the three countries – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – share an agonising history when they were satellite states of the then Soviet Union. The political, social and economic lives of the people were directed by Moscow to whom they had to be subservient.

But everything changed with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, when all the republics under the Soviet Union including Latvia became independent.

Hardship plagued Latvia during World War One, when Russia and Germany fought on its soil. The ensuing destruction of the country consequently led to the exodus of thousands of its citizens to other countries.

Following World War One, Latvia declared its independence on 18 November 1918 and experienced a period of instability as it had to ward off external aggression. Latvia’s independence was only recognised on 11 August 1920, when a peace treaty was signed with the Russians.

Latvia was relatively free until 1940, when World War Two broke out. From 1940 to 1991, the country was under occupation three times:

  • June 1940 by military forces of the Soviet Union;
  • June-July 1941 by military forces of Nazi Germany; and
  • July 1944-May 1945 once again by military forces of the Soviet Union.

Latvia was never a confrontational country and even affirmed its neutrality when Nazi Germany attacked Poland in 1939. Nevertheless, Latvia became a major victim of World War Two.

After the war, Latvia remained a part of the Soviet Union from 1945 until it regained its independence in 1991, although the Soviet army only left the country three years later.

The three occupations cost Latvia considerable loss of lives, and it also destroyed the fabric of its society.

Sandwiched between Estonia and Lithuania and facing the Baltic Sea, Latvia is a small country with a population of slightly below two million.

A daily ferry plies the route from Stockholm to Riga, the capital of Latvia – a journey that takes 16 hours. Whether in summer or winter, it is a breathtaking journey all the way. Departing Stockholm at 6pm daily, the ferry arrives in Riga at around 10pm the next day.

In summer, the scenic Nordic and Baltic landscapes kept me enthralled, while in winter it was a unique experience to view the ferry as it sliced through the ice-capped Baltic Sea with ice-breakers.

Like Estonia, Latvia is hidden from the radar of many tourists despite its exceptional beauty. The Latvian countryside is simply captivating, graced with old historic buildings with their distinctive architecture against the backdrop of a scenic and colourful countryside.

Riga City – Photograph courtesy of Orient Tours, Stockholm

On a visit to Riga many years ago, I made it a point to visit the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia, where I learned a lot about the history of this Baltic nation.
Museums are not normally on the top of my itinerary of my overseas trips, but this museum was an exception.

Opened in 1993, the museum recalls what happened to Latvia and its people in 1940-1991, including the crimes committed on Latvian soil and those who perished or fled tyranny or who were persecuted and forcefully deported. This museum receives more than 100,000 visitors including state dignitaries from all over the world every year.

The country’s economy during the Soviet occupation was dictated by policies from the Soviet Union, stemming from its military needs. Soviet rule in Latvia witnessed the existence of many useless and outdated factories, labour-intensive industrial routines, ineffective decision-making, poor work ethics and shortages in output.

During the Soviet era, conventional agronomy was destroyed and farmers were denied their property and farming expertise. Mandatory policies were imposed on Latvian farmers by the Soviet regime. Consequently, these backsliding methods disrupted the economic development of Latvia’s countryside.

The reorganisation of Latvia’s farming sector only began after 1991, but it will take time for the country to effectively compete in the European and global markets. Latvia has progressed and prospered from the time it embraced an open market economy since 1991. Except for a few state-owned utilities, privatisation has spread in Latvia.

A Riga fish market – Phtograph courtesy of Orient Tours, Stockholm

The sustained growth of the export sector has contributed towards Latvia’s economic development, although a greater part of the economy is concentrated in the services sector including information and communications technology and tourism.

Immeasurable social, psychological and financial damage was inflicted on Latvia during the three occupations. Latvians have put their tormented past behind them and are moving forward zealously. Today, Latvia’s future is more secure following its accession to the EU and by virtue of its Nato membership.

Unfortunately, Russia – like the Soviet Union in the past – has failed to acknowledge the crimes against humanity and the damage inflicted during the occupations of Latvia. It is time for Russia to offer an apology to Latvia. The wounds on Latvians may have healed but the scars still show.

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Benedict Lopez was director of the Malaysian Investment Development Authority in Stockholm and economics counsellor at the Malaysian embassy there in 2010-2014. He covered all five Nordic countries in the course of his work. A pragmatic optimist and now an Aliran member, he believes Malaysia can provide its people with the same benefits and privileges found in the Nordic countries - not a far-fetched dream but one that he hopes will be realised in his lifetime