Latvia
Manly, 1993

On Thursday, May 20, I flew to Washington and had a delightful dinner with Shaw, Sandi and Dodge at the 701 Restaurant, which is at 701 Pennsylvania Avenue. The next morning, at the Crystal City Sheraton Hotel, I attended a briefing of the 30 (+/-) members of the Citizen Ambassador Program's legal delegation to Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. This consisted mostly in various people telling us what to expect in these Baltic republics, followed by a recommendation by the head man that if we encounter any business opportunities, go after them.

After lunch we were taken by bus to Washington National Airport where we waited in line for over an hour to be checked in, as a group, to board a 2:58 Continental flight to Newark with our baggage going to Riga, Latvia. The plane's departure was delayed over half an hour to accommodate us.

On reaching Newark I found that Continental, when they took my ticket to Newark had not returned my tickets from Riga to Copenhagen and from Copenhagen to Newark on June 3, though they did give me my ongoing tickets from Newark to Copenhagen to Riga. I discussed this with SAS people in Newark, at Copenhagen and at Riga, where on the date of my departure from Europe, they wrote me another ticket.

Our Latvian guide, Inese Tomase, was at the Riga airport to greet the nine of us who were destined for Latvia, and had us taken by bus to the Latvia Hotel, a former Intourist establishment that seems to cater mostly to groups of tourists. I shared a room with Chris Rosenhofer, an 80-year-old former judge and still practicing lawyer from Batavia, Ohio. The room was adequate, though badly detailed (for example to use the closet one must move a door on a track but the door doesn't move except when great force is applied). The bathroom was unlike those we find in the U.S.: there was no shower curtain nor grab bar in the bathtub, so we used the hand shower sitting down to avoid splashing or falling on the slippery surface, and were able to get out of the tub only with difficulty. Yet there was a heated towel rack over the toilet.

Dinner at the Riga Small Hall was good. It is not very small and has red flocked wallpaper and a stage on which musicians played a piano, violin and drums with a cameo solo from a good Italian soprano. Another time we had dinner at the International Trade Center, a nice modern building with a spiral staircase that surrounds an atrium. It used to be the headquarters of the Latvian Communist Party.

On Sunday we were taken on a day trip to Segulda where we saw the stone foundations of a 13th century castle with red brick restoration. That evening I did not join most of the others at a performance of Rigoletto by the Latvian National Opera Company but had dinner with Lenard Mandel, the one member of our delegation who knew enough to get his own accommodations at the Hotel de Rome. Dinner in the lovely dining room of that hotel was very good, and included vodka, beluga cavia on blinis with sour cream and Latvian sausages with cabbage.

Riga (population 916,000) is a good city to wander around. It was not heavily bombed in either of the two world wars, and missed the building boom that changed the face of Western European cities from World War II until the present. Therefore there are many fine old buildings that have not been replaced and are still in use. Relatively few people own cars, so the traffic is not so bad as in a comparably sized American or Western European city.

The next week was mostly taken up with professional meetings with such people as the Minister of Judicial Reform, the Vice Chairman of the Supreme Council (formerly Supreme Soviet), a lawyer who had degrees from both the University of Latvia and Vanderbilt, the dean and a couple of professors of the Law School of the University, the Chairman of the Commission of Human Rights and Ethnic Relations of the Supreme Council, the city attorney of Riga, and the Chairman of the Supreme Court of the Republic of Latvia, who happens to be a friend of Jay and Sylvia Skinner and remembered both of the warmly. We attended the final meeting of the Supreme Council, most of the members of which appeared to be in their thirties, and a few of whom were women. It was held in a large white hall with gold trim and plasterwork on the ceiling and gold colored chandeliers. About ten percent of the light bulbs in the chandeliers were not working. There was a lot of speechifying, but not knowing Latvian, I had difficulty understanding, except for the frequently used word "problem."

The Supreme Council, comprising 150 people will be replaced by a parliament which is being elected June 5 and 6. There are 23 lists of candidates, each list representing a separate political party, so it is not likely that any one party will get a majority of the votes and a coalition will be required to accomplish anything. The new executive branch ("government") will then be selected by the parliament. At present no one knows how many of the laws that the Supreme Council has enacted will remain in effect when the new parliament gets busy.

The problems confronting the country in its approach to capitalism are daunting. For example, most of the land is now owned by the state, and they have adopted laws providing that former owners of land, or their heirs, have the right to get back the land that was taken by the communist government when all land was nationalized. No one we talked with seemed exactly sure of the date when the former owners or heirs would have to file their claims. In the meantime, the government can sell the right to use the land for a period of years, subject to the rights of the former owners or their heirs. Of course, no one is likely to build on the land he has the right to use if it might turn out that he has built on someone else's land. In Latvia, with a history of the Civil Law, ownership of a building is not necessarily as a matter of law transferred to the new owner of the land, but the building owner is obligated to pay rent to the landowner, and the amount of that rent is hard to determine at the time a user might want to erect a building. This state of affairs does not encourage development of real estate.

Three of the people on the Latvian delegation were allowed to see a criminal trial. According to their report, there was plenty of evidence that the defendant had gone to the railroad station to rob drunks; that he put his knife to the throat of a victim who ran; that the defendant first threw the knife at the victim without effect and then stabbed him fatally in the back. What shocked the American lawyers, however, was that the judge (a holdover from Soviet days) took a very prosecutorial attitude toward the defendant, questioning him antagonistically and demonstrating that she did not believe whatever the defendant might say. In the U.S. this would have been cause for reversal on account of bias of the judge, but, we were later told, under the Civil Law system the judge is supposed not to be a referee between the prosecutor and the defendant but a seeker for the truth. The defendant said he did not want a lawyer; they still have capital punishment in Latvia.

Another from our delegation and I talked with the lawyer for the Riga Dome -- the body that is composed of both the City Council comprising 30 members elected at large, and the chamber of deputies, five elected from each of six regions. The Dome coordinates the actions of these two legislative bodies and decides which exercises jurisdiction over what affairs. Previously the Communist Party performed this function. The lawyer mentioned that the city has adopted regulations pertaining to trade and to police and he is now working on a building code, regulations governing advertising and zoning regulations. He mentioned that he would like to have a copy of an American law governing cities; I hope to send him a copy of the Illinois Cities and Villages Act.

Some of the city's revenues come from appropriations by the national government, but most is from the rental of apartments which the city owns, perhaps as agent of the state. However the actual renting of apartments is mostly handled by the regional authorities, who apply part of the rent they collect to pay the central city government for water, sewer, gas and electric service. These payments cover operation and maintenance, but not capital costs. Wondering if there was likely to be an opportunity for a sewer revenue bond issue, I asked if the central city government could charge a little more than current expenses and was told that the city does not make a profit in this manner. When they want a new sewer, they pay for it out of the current general municipal budget. Riga does not have enough money in its budget to pay for training its policemen.

I had read in a guidebook that Riga does not have a modern sewer system, and this was brought home to me on Sunday when we were taken to walk along the beach at the resort city of Jurmala. It was a beautiful long sandy beach with only small waves because it is in a bay of the Baltic Sea. Along the line where the water met the sand I saw, extending as far as I could see, a strip of brown waste, a foot or two wide. My guess is that untreated sewage is just dumped into the Daugava River that flows through the City. Now I know why people don't swim on the Latvian beaches. I assume that this same river is the source of the city's municipal water supply, and hope that the intake is upstream from the sewage outlet. As I doubt that any of the towns upstream along the Daugava have better sewage treatment plants than Riga, I appreciate the recommendation that tap water be boiled before it is drunk. A store in the hotel sells drinking water for two dollars per two-liter container, and that is what we drank.

What I've mentioned so far implies problems, but they are all overshadowed by the Russian question. Roughly half of the people living in Latvia are Russian: some consider themselves Latvians as their families have lived in Latvia for generations. Others are retired military officers who managed to draw Latvia as their final duty posts before retiring and who live on their military pensions. A third group comprises workers from various parts of the old Soviet Union who were rotated from republic to republic on two-year assignments and who were left in Latvia when the Soviet Union collapsed. Very few people in any of these groups would care to move to Russia right now. Most of the policemen are Russian. There are rumors of a "Russian Mafia" of former KGB officers and the like who run underground illicit operations and have achieved considerable power.

Nonetheless, the people I met are all hopeful and optimistic about Latvia's future. And unlike Russia, most of the store shelves have things on them for sale.