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52. Hell or High Water in Latvia during 2005 to 2010

MAY. 26, 2022


It's off to lovely Latvia, the filling in the Baltic sandwich, to discover the trials and tribulations of the country that suffered most from the global economic collapse. Featuring individual stories of determination in the face of hardship and corruption, including the Latvian Rambo, blondes on the march, and the birth of Latvia's gay pride movement in the teeth of stiff opposition. Also pirates. There are pirates.

It’s a breeze around the Baltics this episode as Pete introduces Ryan to the Republic of Latvia, found in the North East of Europe by the Baltic sea.
Latvia’s capital city is Riga, sometimes known as the Paris of the North thanks to having one of the largest collections of Art Nouveau buildings in the world, with at least 800 buildings leading the entire city to be designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site
The local language is Latvian, which is one of only 2 surviving Baltic languages, along with Lithuanian.
At 64,589 sq km, and a population of 1.9million, it’s a small nation, but has produced some heavy hitting celebrities for all that, including Mikhail Baryshnikov, the ballet dancer, painter Mark Rothko who was born in Riga and moved to USA when he was 10 years old, and Sergei Eisenstein, famed soviet director of the Battleship Potempkin, named 11th greatest film of all time by the magazine Sight and Sound.
History of Latvia:
The first human settlers came to Latvia in the Paleolithic Age 11,000–12,000 years ago, with the next major arrival beign the ancient Baltic people in approximately 2000 BCE.
Over time, the country’s location made it an important part of a traiding route between the Varangian Vikings and Greece.
By the 10th century, states started to form, including the Curonians, Latgalians, Selonians, and Semigallians. These people notably held out against the spread of Christianity longer than any other part of Europe. However, Christian Europe did not like that, and the 1200s saw the start of the Northern Crusades, wherein Christian monarchs across northern Europe commissioned forays the area and pagans suffered forced baptisms and the ravages of military occupation.
By the end of the 1200s, the Germans were pretty much in charge and by 1282, Riga was part of the Hanseatic League a trading and defence alliance of northern towns. This was part of what is known as the German period which lasted from 1185–1561.
Eventually German influence gave way to rule by Polish-Lithuanians, followed by the Swedish, followed in turn by invasion from Russia.
After world war One, on November 18, 1918 the People's Council proclaimed the Independence of Republic of Latvia. This inspired Soviet Russia to invade but after a period of fighting they recognized independent Latvia 1920.
After a brief run of independence, World War II arrived, and with it came the Red Army who moved into Latvia and after some heavily rigged ‘elections’ the country applied for admission into the Soviet Union. Latvia was incorporated into the Soviet Union on August 5, 1940.
In less than a year they were no longer under Soviet control, unfortunately because they’d been occupied by Nazi German in July 1, 1941, a situation that lasted until 1944 when the Soviet Union returned.
As part of the Soviet Union Latvia experienced all the downsides of communism, the Stalinist purges, and forced collectivization. In addition, they experienced the policy of Russification, in which Russia deliberately moved thousands of ethnic Russians into all of the Baltic states – until at one point just 30% of the population of Riga was ethnically Latvian.
Latvian language teaching was limited and and administration took place in Russian. In fact, before the war 77% of the country was ethnic Latvian and by 1989 it was just 52%.
When the Soviet Union started to fall apart 1980s, the Baltic nations yearned for freedom again. To express this, on August 23, 1989 Latvians, Lithuanians and Estonians joined hands in the Baltic Way, a human chain that stretched 600 kilometers from Tallinn, to Riga, to Vilnius and a remarkable symbol of the Baltic States’s desire for independence.
On May 4, 1990. The Latvian Supreme Council adopted a declaration restoring independence, which is now considered Independence day in Latvia, although wasn’t recognized by Soviet Union until September 6, 1991, 16 months later.
In 2004, Latvia's joined the European Union and NATO and today it is a thriving, modern Baltic nation, rated ‘High’ in the Human Development Index, which measures income, education and life expectancy to give a general measure of a country’s advancement.
High water:
One thing you might find on high water, or on high seas anyway, is pirates.
In 2008, in Latvia you could find The Pirates of the Sea all over the place. They were Latvia’s 2008 entry to the Eurovision song contest, described by British ‘newspaper’ the Sun as, “A song as bad as it is ridiculous…. The Pirates of the Sea sourced their costumes from the nearest fancy dress shop and, when you weren't magnetised to the weirdly intense main pirate, you could see their hats falling over their eyes.”
They came 12th in the end.
At the same time, there were actual Latvian pirates abroad, in the peculiar tale of the cargo ship MV Arctic Sea.
The MV Arctic Sea was a cargo ship travelling from Finland to Algeria with a Russian crew and a cargo of timber.
The British Maritime and Coastguard Agency spoke the vessel by radio as it was passing through the Strait of Dover on 28 July. Then is disappeard.
The ship failed to arrive at its scheduled port on 7th August and the Russian Navy sent ships from its Black Sea Fleet to search for the vessel.
On 17 August Russia’s Defense Minister, Anatoliy Serdyukov, announced the ship had been found and seized. All 15 crew were alive and well and had been transferred to a Russian ship for questioning.
They declared that the ship had, in fact, been hijacked in the Baltic Sea by eight hijackers, four Estonian two Latvian, and two Russian citizens. 11 of the crew members were returned to Moscow, where they were held in isolation in order to be questioned, although Russia didn’t explain why the victims were being borderline imprisoned. They were eventually released, although with a gag order on the crew preventing them talking about their experience, with a penalty of up to 7 years in prison.
Russia said the Hijackers had pretended to have an engine problem in order to board the vessel, whilst the alleged hijackers said they did have engine problems, having run out of fuel, they were actually just environmentalists out for a protest, and in fact they had been stopped from leaving and were essentially kidnapped.
On 8 September Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov made a statement, saying that after a search nothing suspicious had been found on the Arctic Sea, and that Maltese authorities, where the ship was registered, were free to have a look,
On 29 October 2009 the Russian Navy delivered the Arctic Sea to Malta where it was searched by the authorities who found nothing.
So what was all that about?
The truth is, nobody knows the truth, all that remains is conjecture.
Was it just a regular hijacking of the cargo for a ransom? If so, why did the ship’s owner report receiving no ransom demands. And why did Russia send out such a large force for one ship – more then they’d sent to deal with all piracy in Somalia.
One theory was that the ship was trafficking anti-aircraft weapons and cruise missiles destined for Iran and the hijackers were hired by the Israeli intelligence service Mossad to stop the cargo reaching Iran. Another was that criminals were trafficking arms, possibly rogue elements within Russia’s own security services, and it was Russia itself that staged the hijacking in order to cover it up.
One thing we do know, is that Russian journalist Mikhail Voitenko had challenged the Russian version of events in his reporting of the incident, and on 3 September 2009 it was reported he had quit his job and fled Russia allegedly after an unidentified caller warned him he was "stepping on the toes of some serious people".
And to this day it remains, a mystery on high water.
Determination in Latvia
Determination was a much-needed commodity in Latvia in the years 2005 to 2010, because they mark some difficult years, including a financial crash and many tales of corruption
In 2007 the term of very popular president Vaira Vīķe Freiberga ended and was replaced by Valdis Zatlers. It was alleged that in his time as doctor he had got private ‘envelopes’ of extra pay from patients.
In 2008 Aivars Lembergs the mayor of Ventspil was suspended and arrested on charges of corruption.
And that same year, the global financial crash hit Latvia particularly hard. The Latvian economy took one of the sharpest downturns in the world, in the last quarter of 2008 in which GDP contracted by 10.5%.
In February 2009 the Latvian government asked the International Monetary Fund and the European Union for an emergency bailout loan of 7.5 billion Euros and the government nationalized Parex Bank, the country's second largest bank.
In December 2008 the Latvian unemployment rate stood at 7%. By December 2009, the figure had risen to 22.8%.
The people were not happy. On January 13th, 2009 there was a rally calling for the end of the government that boiled over into a riot, with some people trying to storm the Saeima (parliament)
On February 20, 2009 the cabinet was dissolved and Godmanis resigned
But against this background of bad news, some remarkably determined Latvians made their mark.
The Latvian Matrix
In 2010 police raided the home of journalist Ilze Nagla, taking her personal computer, flash memory stick and external hard drive in search of evidence, having finally caught the notorious hacker, known only as Neo, after the character from the Matrix. He was supposedly the leader the activist group "Fourth National Reawakening Army"
But what had Neo done? He had published the salaries of public transport company Rigas Satiksme on his online Twitter profile, revealing that tough austerity measures did not stop them earning huge amounts of money whilst teachers’ and doctors’ salaries had been cut about 40 percent.
In total, he had downloaded 7.4 million documents, including tax declarations of public officials, civil servants and businessmen, publishing a selection of these online.
These public revelations had made Neo something of a folk hero – sort of a Robin Hood. But who was the man behind the online persona?
A man named Ilmars Poikans, a 31-year-old esearcher at the AI Laboratory of the University of Latvia's Institute of Mathematics and Information Sciences.
He explained, “There is no group ‘Fourth National Reawakening Army’ or anybody else. I acted alone. I do not plan to go into politics. I did this because I want my children and grandchildren to live in a normal country. That is the only reason,”
And for this, the public took him to their hearts – he was voted by the public as Latvia's European Of The Year for 2010 with Ilze Nagla commenting “His bravery and selflessness are characteristics the public is yearning for.”
In November 2015 Riga Regional Court sentenced Ilmars Poikans to 100 hours of community service. But on December 18 2017 Poikans was granted a presidential pardon, which said, “Even though Ilmārs Poikāns had violated the law, the public gain from Ilmārs Poikāns' actions has far surpassed the harm.”
The Latvian Rambo
In 2005, Eriks Jekabsons was Latvia’s Minister of Interior. He was born in 1959 in Riga, at that time part of the Soviet Union and at aged 18 whilst he was studying at the Riga sports academy he was conscripted into army.
After two years with the elite speznaz, he started to look for more meaning in his life, rejecting advances by the KGB who wanted him to join. Instead he became a martial artist, starting his own school, also religious, becoming ordained as a Lutheran minister, and finally difficult, joining the Latvian underground resistance, teaching illegal religious classes.
All this led to the KGB allegedly trying to discredit him by labeling him a dissident and Enemy of the State, calling him a “Latvian Rambo” and accusing him of creating an “Army of Holy Fathers and Combat Priests.”
Nicknamed “The Boxing Priest,” like Neo the hacker, he also became something of a folk hero. When ABC World News Tonight with Peter Jennings broadcast an interview with Eriks in 1988 about the problems in Latvia, earning him and all his family immediate expulsion from the Soviet Union, thousands of Latvians cheered him at the Riga train station as he departed for the US.
Eventually in 2001 he returned to Latvia where he became involved in politics, forming the First Party of Latvia. Then in March 2004, he became Minister of the Interior.
In this role he directed his country’s law enforcement and intelligence services where he took a hard line against Russia and President Vladimir Putin, the Russian Mob, oligarchs, money laundering and police corruption.
Which is why he got really annoyed in 2005 when Latvian Prime Minister Aigars Kalvitis in October 2005, signed a decree placing outspoken critic of Russia, Boris Berezovsky, on the list of Persona Non Grata, something he believed to be due to Russian pressure.
In November 2005, Erik resigned his post, partly in protest of this governments giving in to Russian influence.
He returned to the USA and he is now, CEO at Cultural Bridges International.
The Latvian Blondes.
On 31st May 2010 The Baltic Times reported “Blondes take to the streets in Riga”.
800 blondes turned out in a special event organized by the Latvian Association of Blondes, not in protest like the riots over the economy and corruption, but just to cheer people up.
Marika Gederte, who organized the event said,"I was so tired, you know, every day opening the computer and reading the newspapers and just reading about problems. We decided... let's do something nice. And I asked myself the question: what can I do for my country? And this is what I did.
The event started in 2009 and was supposed to be a one-off, but it proved so popular they kept going for three years, growing into the Go Blonde Festival, including parties, concerts and a Marilyn Monroe lookalike competition with Money raised for Latvian charities.
By 2011 500 people from outside of Latvia had registered to join the event and for the final march I 2011 around a thousand people, lined the route, mostly men.
Latvian Pride
2005 was the year of the very first Gay Pride march in Latvia. In great contrast to the parade of blondes, attitudes to homosexuality in Latvia were not progressive.
In fact, when the first gay pride parade took, it took a great deal of courage on the part of those taking part. The Prime Minister of Latvia Aigars Kalvītis publicly opposed the event, calling it a mistake and the deputy Mayor of Riga Juris Lujāns resigned in protest at the event going ahead.
Transport Minister Ainars Slesers was particularly vocal in his opposition, describing it as "parade of perversion”
Nonetheless, the brave marchers decided, come hell or high water, that they would march their parade route and not be suppressed. On July 23 in Riga's Old Town On the marchers gathered, there were a few dozen of them, certainly less than 100.
On the parade route, waiting for them, least 1,000 protestors who showed up to oppose the event, many waving extremist signs. And another 10,000 people who just showed up to watch. Also a very large number of police, expecting trouble.
When they set off, protesters threw eggs and other items at the parade's participants, and they tried to physically obstruct the march resulting in violent clashes with the police.
The march had to be diverted away from one of the larger groups of protesters, but on they marched until they got to the Anglican Church where it started, where a service was led by Maris Sants, a defrocked gay priest who was thrown out of the Lutheran church.
Again, hundreds of protestors were gathered outside angrily denouncing the event. One newspaper reported: “The scene became so chaotic that the participants eventually had to be whisked away on a bus to escape the angry crowds.”
So a messy end, but the parade has gone ahead and could not be ignored.
It was clear something was amiss in some sections of Latvia society, so some members of the LGBT community, friends, and family united to found Mozaīka (Mosaic), and organization to improve the understanding of and tolerance for LGBT rights in Latvia.
In 2006 the event took place again, now officially known as Riga Pride and Friendship Days. In 2007, 2008, the parade went on again.
In 2009 the event became Baltic Pride – an event shared with their Baltic neighbours, held in alternating years in each country.
The last Baltic Pride was in Latvia in 2021, back in Riga, holding over 40 different events across what is now a whole week of Pride.

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