Latvia joins the eurozone
Dec 30, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 16 • By ANDREW STUTTAFORD
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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