Riga, Latvia

They take austerity seriously in Latvia. After each meeting with a government official he or she would turn off the lights as we walked out of the room. More than five years after the global financial crisis finally burst Latvia’s fragile economic bubble, scrimping is second nature. Given the direction this small, resilient Baltic country took after Lehman fell, that’s no surprise. The usual prescription for cleaning up the mess that overheating leaves behind, particularly in an export-oriented economy (exports amount to some 60 percent of Latvian GDP), centers around a sharp devaluation of the currency to restore international competitiveness. There were quite a few (including within the IMF) who suggested that Latvia should break the peg fixing its currency—the lats—to the euro, leaving the lats to sink to a level that more accurately reflected uncomfortable new market realities.

That’s not what Latvia did. The relatively low value added within Latvia to its exports, and the difficulty that it would have faced in satisfying domestic demand with domestic production, meant that a conventional devaluation would have struggled to work its naughty magic, even if the export markets had been there (by no means assured after the slump in the international economy). Tipping the scales further, local business and the nascent middle class—most of whose boom-bloated -borrowing had been in euros—would have faced catastrophe had they had to repay those debts in suddenly depreciated lati. That would have threatened both social disaster and a dangerous breach with the Nordic banks responsible for a large portion of that lending—banks that would now have a vital role to play in maintaining financial liquidity in the country (the only sizable Latvian bank had foundered).

So Latvia stuck with the peg and opted for “internal devaluation,” shorthand for an attempt to mimic the competitive benefits of a traditional devaluation, but by squeezing costs (primarily labor costs) and excess demand out of the local economy rather than by depreciating the currency. This won Latvia financial backing from a group comprising the World Bank, the IMF, the EU, and the Nordic countries, support that had to sugar some very bitter medicine. Government expenditures were slashed (large numbers of public sector employees were fired and many of those who hung on saw their salaries cut by 20 percent or, indeed, much more) and, to a lesser extent, taxes increased. Between 2008 and 2012 total fiscal consolidation amounted to some 17 percent of GDP.

Most of the pain was front-loaded, both as a matter of practical politics (better to strike before austerity fatigue set in) and a matter of practical economics: Latvian interest rates had soared to damaging heights and confidence had to be rebuilt.

Seen in that context, the 2009 declaration by Valdis Dombrovskis, the dourly impressive center-right prime minister, that Latvia would continue to seek membership in the eurozone (and, more specifically, get there by 2014) made sense. Whatever the mounting problems in the EU’s gimcrack currency union, it appeared to offer a comparatively safe haven from the Baltic storm. For investors and lenders, the obvious seriousness of this commitment, together with the external support that the government had won, significantly reduced the exchange-rate risk associated with doing business in Latvia. It was no coincidence that with the “devaluation ghost” (as the central bank delightfully puts it) held at bay, lats-denominated interest rates started to tumble.

On top of that, targeting eurozone membership provided a benchmark against which the performance of the Latvian economy could be measured. The country would only be eligible to switch over to the euro if it met the currency union’s “Maastricht criteria.” Its budgetary position would have to be on a sound footing, its inflation subdued, and so on.

Perhaps most important, the march towards the single currency signaled to Latvians that their reconnection with Europe would not be derailed by the economic crisis. Austerity was a means to an end, not just an end in itself. Many Latvians had (and have) their doubts about the wisdom of adopting the single currency (over half are still—to a greater or lesser extent—opposed), but the broader aim of anchoring their state more firmly in the West helped them to stay the course through the brutally tough times that followed the financial collapse.

There are plenty of dismal statistics to choose from, but unemployment stood at over 20 percent in early 2010 (compared with an average of 6.5 percent in 2007), and GDP shriveled by 18 percent in 2009, after a 4.2 percent decline the previous year. Despite this, Dombrovskis was able to prevail in the October 2010 general election and then weather (albeit precariously) a snap election called in slightly murky circumstances the following September. The fragmented and incomplete development of political parties in Latvia means that general elections are not the best gauge of public opinion, but Dombrovskis’s survival (he went on to become Latvia’s longest-serving democratically elected prime minister) says something. He resigned only in late November, after the deadly collapse of the roof of a Riga supermarket, a tragedy for which he took “moral and political responsibility.”

But by then the economy was well on the mend, bolstered by a revival in global demand partly stimulated, of course, by less austere policies elsewhere. Quite why Latvia was able to resume its pre-boom trajectory as quickly as it did remains the subject of lively academic debate, but a low level of public debt was one crucial advantage: Latvia could persist with its tough approach without falling into the debt-deflationary trap that is crippling recovery in Greece and other grisly corners of the eurozone’s ER.

Latvia’s GDP growth began to turn positive during 2010, coming in at a total nicely above 5 percent for both 2011 and 2012, and is on schedule to be comfortably over 4 percent in 2013, the fastest growth in the EU. The current account deficit is again at a manageable level, the unemployment rate has shrunk to a number marginally below 12 percent, inflation is running at less than 1 percent (as opposed to nearly 18 percent in May 2008), and the budget deficit has returned to respectability after coming close to 10 percent of GDP in 2009. In 2012 it was only a little above 1 percent, while government debt stood at around a modest 40 percent of GDP, easily below the Maastricht requirement of 60 percent.

It is no surprise that Latvia’s formal application to join the euro in March was approved by the relevant EU authorities within a few months. Ordinary Latvians were not given an equivalent say. Calls for a referendum were rejected, not least on the grounds that the matter had long been decided. Any country joining the EU after the Maastricht Treaty came into force in 1993 (Latvia became a member in 2004 after—it is fair to note—a referendum) is obliged to sign up for the euro as soon as it meets the Maastricht tests, a proviso that the Swedes (joined 1995)—who wisely retain their krona—have ignored. Some seats at the EU’s table are more equal than others.

In any event, Latvia will swap the lats for the euro on January 1 at the rate, to be precise about it, of 0.702804 lati per euro, although it will still be possible to pay for goods and services in lati for another two weeks thereafter. The conversion process within the public and private sector is well under way, as is an extensive program of public education (meetings, leaflets, advertising). Most visibly to the visitor, all prices now have to be given in both lati and euros, and from what I could see in Riga, that was happening everywhere. Even in the converted zeppelin hangars (history here is complicated) of the capital’s picturesque (and somewhat law-unto-itself) central market, everything was properly priced: I had been issued a nifty lenticular currency conversion card and could check that that was so. Watchdogs are in place to stop the changeover being used to hike prices (a common, if exaggerated, fear that has accompanied the introduction of the euro in other countries). To reinforce this, dual pricing will be mandatory until the end of June.

After the changeover, lati will be convertible into euros (at the fixed rate) at rural post offices for three months, at commercial banks for six months, and at the central bank in perpetuity. This matters. Ask officials why there is still so much opposition to the switch, and—perhaps a little condescendingly—they cite folk-memories of the damage caused by previous currency conversions, especially the abrupt introduction of a “new ruble” in 1961 during the Soviet era.

But there is more to it than that. Geopolitical realities (yes, we are talking about Russia), the size—and open nature—of the Latvian economy, and inadequate domestic capital formation all make a decent, if downbeat, case for Latvia to enter the eurozone, despite that currency union’s profound problems. Its flaws (to use a gentle word) have not escaped the attention of the man in the Latvian street. He also does not appreciate the fact that if there is another eurozone bailout (Greece, yet again?), frugal, hardscrabble, post-Soviet Latvia, one of the poorest countries in the EU, will have to chip in.

For a country to abandon its own money is to throw away an essential attribute of sovereignty. In a lovely but manipulative gesture, Latvian 1 and 2 euro coins will bear the image of Milda, the “Latvian maiden” who adorned prewar Latvia’s gorgeous—and emotionally resonant—5 lati piece. This time she is decorating a symbol not of hard-won independence but of a sadly withered autonomy.

And the eurozone’s long agony may bring with it another twist of the knife. The convenient fiction that made it politically possible to establish the euro in the first place was that this was a shared currency that could work with a minimum of pooled sovereignty, a stretch at the best of times, an impossibility in the case of a monetary union that is very far from being an optimal currency area; Germany is not Greece, Finland is not Portugal. If the euro is to survive in its current form, the eurozone will require much deeper fiscal and budgetary integration. Quite what will be left of Latvia’s low tax, fiscally responsible regime or, in any real sense, its self-determination, by the time this process is finished is anyone’s guess.

And what is to remain of Latvia itself? It emerged from nearly half a century of cruel Soviet occupation with its identity savagely battered—not least by the presence of a large Russian settler population (even today ethnic Latvians account for only some 62 percent of the country’s two million inhabitants)—but its heart intact. Membership in the EU has represented a kinder, subtler challenge. The opportunities it has brought to live in lusher lands to the west has led to a steady stream of emigration, a stream that became a torrent during the slump before dwindling again today. All told, the population has shrunk by over 10 percent since 2000. Exporting surplus labor helped Latvia manage the crisis, but at what longer-term cost?

I spent the evening of November 11 down by Riga Castle. It was Lacplesis Day, the anniversary of the victory in 1919 by freshly cobbled-together Latvian forces (helped by Royal Navy guns) over a Russo-German army (as I said, history is complicated here) in the battle that effectively secured the new state’s independence after centuries of foreign rule. An ever-swelling crowd, talking quietly, proud to be there, had gathered, lighting row upon row of candles that flickered against the old castle walls, a tribute to the men who had fought so courageously for their country’s right to be. Bonfires did their best against the cold, clear northern night; once-banned flags—carmine and white like the ribbons everyone seemed to be wearing—waved in the chill breeze. A group of children sang folk songs of simple, crystalline beauty.

Behind us a series of tiny vessels had been launched into the River Daugava. Each bore a candle and some a miniature flag, too. They formed a brave, bright, glowing flotilla that sailed off into the dark, its destination unknown.

Andrew Stuttaford works in the international financial markets and writes frequently about cultural and political issues.

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