IS LATVIA THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING COUNTRY?

(CS Monitor 7/9/15)

On May 4th, Latvians celebrated the 25th anniversary of the restoration of independence, with a large number of events in Riga and elsewhere around the former Latvian Socialist Soviet Republic, including the traditional Armed Forces Parade in Jelgava, where President Andris Berzins gave a forceful speech. The main theme of the president’s address was the rapidly security situation in the Baltic region and the measures which the Latvian government has taken in response to this, including a sharp increase in defense spending.

Left unspoken was another, no less parlous threat to Latvian security: depopulation.

Is Latvia Europe’s incredible shrinking country? Evidently so. This year the young republic’s total population dropped below 2 million for the first time (to 1.98 million), more than a quarter since the end of the “Soviet time” (as it is still called) in 1990, and 10% since 2004, when Latvia joined EU.

The second statistic is particularly worrying. The first statistic also includes the estimated 700,000 Russians who were resettled in Latvia by the Kremlin after it absorbed the original Latvian republic in 1944, most of who chose to return to Russia after the fall of the USSR. However , naively, few Latvians, including the government, expected that so many of their countrymen—close to a quarter of a million—would also leave the homeland after Latvia joined EU.

Today there are so many Latvians living abroad that they have their own ambassador. “Population decline and emigration are a reality,” says Peteris Karlis Elferts, Latvia’s ambassador for Diaspora Affairs, who has held the position since 2011, during a break from his frenetic duties in the cafeteria of the Foreign Ministry on the edge of Riga’s historic Old Town. “We are trying to deal with it as proactively and creatively as we can,” says Mr. Elferts, an American transplant of Latvian descent who returned to Riga after the restoration of independence. Previously, Mr. Elferts, a Seattle native, was ambassador to Ireland, one of the most popular destinations for the surge of EU emigrants, where he found himself tending to a cohort of 30,000 Latvian expatriates.

“It was sort of like being mayor of a Latvian town—in Ireland,” said Mr. Elferts, who retains his American accent and sense of humor. He needs it. Persuading Latvian emigrants to come home is not easy—not when the monthly wage is a mere 375 euros, one of the lowest in the EU, and where health insurance is difficult to obtain. The methods which the government is using to lure its citizens back include special assistance for relearning the Latvian language and web sites to help returnees to assist them with jobs and schooling. The uphill campaign seems to be working: although the immigration/emigration differential is still huge—8,800 arriving, against 17,400 departing in 2014, for a net deficit of 8,600—that figure was far less than in any prior year since 2007. In other words, Latvia is losing less people than it used to.

Still, the reality is that Latvia’s population is shrinking—fast.

Exacerbating the problem is Latvia’s low birth rate—1.2 per family, the second lowest in Europe— against its death rate. Thus in 2013, 20,340 new Latvians were born, against 28,820 who died, for a net deficit of 8,475, the lowest differential since 2007, but still worrying.

One of those who has been shouting the demographic alarum the loudest is Ilmars Mezs, head of the Riga office of the International Organization for Migration. “If things keep going the same way there will hardly be any Latvians left at the end of the century,” says Mr. Mezs, an internationally renowned demographer. Mezs’ computations, which square with those of Eurostat, show that if current trends continue the Latvian population will fall to 1.3 million by 2050 and a mere half million by 2100.

Mr. Mezs is particularly put out by what he considers Latvia’s inadequate and incoherent family policy, including its support for families with several children. “There has to be a family policy where having several children doesn’t push you into poverty!,” exclaims Mr. Mezs, who has six children himself.

Mr. Mezs compares Latvia’s “non-existent” family support policy with the more generous one of Latvia’s neighboring republic of Estonia, which he says helps account for why that country’s population has stabilized—Estonia’s current population of 1.3 million is essentially the same as it was five years ago–while Latvia’s continues its precipitous drop.

Business leaders for their part would like the government to do more to persuade Latvians to stay put in the first place. One of these is Bernhard Loew, general manager of the Grand Palace Hotel. “The government could do much more to make life more attractive for young people,” says Mr. Loew, an Austrian native who moved to Riga in 2000 and a prominent figure in civic life. “For one it could provide reliable health insurance. For another, it could create apprenticeships for young people, especially in the service professions. The lure of higher wages and better conditions in other EU countries is just too strong for many to resist. Then people hear about how much better they can supposedly do elsewhere and grow resentful, or leave. The government could do much more to make life attractive for young people.”

Alice Lilientale, who is studying tourism management at Vidzeme University in Valmiera, a bucolic college town 75 miles northeast of Riga, agrees. “I don’t think our politicians care about us enough,” says Ms. Lilientale. Her mother emigrated to Ireland several years ago to find better paying work, while her more patriotic father—and she—stayed behind. “I love my country, and I love my language, and I am pained that both are threatened. I want to stay in Latvia and make my future here, but the government needs to do much more. It needs to show that it cares as much about us as well as defense and other matters. We are the country’s defense too.”

Speaking for the government, Rihard Kols, the parliamentary secretary to the prime minister, says he hears Ms. Lilientale’s pain. “Population decrease is a major issue with us,” says Kols, who is also vice chairman of the parliament’s committee on foreign affairs. “Obviously our population is decreasing every year.”

Mr. Kols insists that the government is doing its best to get up to the speed on the demographic issue, and that family support is a high priority for him and his colleagues. On a bright–if somewhat selective—note Mr. Kols points out that 2014 was the first year in 22 years when the birth rate amongst the Latvian-speaking population of Latvia exceeded the death rate—Latvian speakers comprise 62% of the population—even though the birth/death rate differential continued amongst the general population, including the country’s large, restive Russian-speaking one.

Regarding the issue of emigration and what the country is doing to retain its best and brightest, Mr. Kols, who was educated abroad—he is a graduate of England’s Westminster University—offers himself as a possible role model. “I had a difficult time during the five years when I was abroad,” says the thirty year old politician, in an interview at the headquarters of the Unity Party, one of the three parties in the current ruling coalition. “I worked as a waiter and a bartender, but I always knew that I wanted to come back to serve Latvia.”

“And so I did,” asserts Mr. Kols, one of the rising stars of Latvian politics.

“If I can do it, so can others.”

Note: this is a longer version of the article published in the Monitor. GFS

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