I am nei­ther pro-rus­sia, nor pro-amer­ica – I am very much pro-riga

The Baltic Times - - FRONT PAGE - Li­nas Jegele­vi­cius

Dur­ing our in­ter­view in his of­fice housed in a me­dieval build­ing in old Riga, Nils Usakovs, the Mayor of Riga, was crack­ing ques­tions, even those that would seem un­com­fort­able to oth­ers, with ease and un­chal­lenge­able con­vic­tion, sound­ing at times com­bat­ive and cocky. Hav­ing been cho­sen to head the Lat­vian capital for a third con­sec­u­tive term, Usakovs claims Riga has been trans­formed un­der his guid­ance into a mod­ern city, edg­ing out the other Baltic cap­i­tals, Vil­nius and Tallinn, in some key stats, like the pace of tourism growth.

How has the summer been for Riga ? What ma­jor events would you like to high­light?

The flow of Riga-bound tourists has tripled over the last eight years, and I find it very im­por­tant. In fact, it is huge – in 2009, we started se­ri­ously ad­ver­tis­ing Riga as a tourist des­ti­na­tion and, as you see, the ef­forts have been a suc­cess. Our con­tin­u­ous tar­get is to see tourists com­ing to Riga re­gard­less of sea­son. I see Riga as a small city that of­fers great op­por­tu­ni­ties through­out year, be it a longer hol­i­day, or a week­end’s escape.

This year, Riga has a very nice list of events that at­tract tourists from all over, including Scan­di­navia, Rus­sia, the other Baltic coun­tries and be­yond. We’re try­ing to or­gan­ise more events each summer of a greater va­ri­ety, and, char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally in the last years, we tend to co-fi­nance them more, mean­ing they are of bet­ter qual­ity and or­gan­i­sa­tion.

Cer­tainly, the as­sis­tance from our NGOS, cul­tural or­gan­i­sa­tions and the lo­cal air­line (air­baltic) is cru­cial too in mak­ing sure all the events are at­tended pro­fusely. Be­sides the tra­di­tional fes­ti­vals, we have an ar­ray of other at­ten­tion gar­ner­ing fes­ti­vals this year, like: Riga Opera Fes­ti­val (it took place from June 8-18), Riga City Fes­ti­val Au­gust 18-20 and Staro Riga Light Fes­ti­val, sched­uled for Novem­ber 17-19, and there is a lot more to see.

To ex­pand tourist ac­tiv­i­ties, we are cur­rently de­vel­op­ing the Lu­cavsala is­land on the Dau­gava River, which only a few years ago was full of aban­doned sheds. It has be­come a pop­u­lar place for bathing and re­cre­ation, as well as open-air con­certs.

As we’re talk­ing (the in­ter­view in the mayor’s of­fice took place on July 11), Red Hot Chili Pep­pers (a leg­endary Amer­i­can funk rock band) is look­ing for­ward to throw­ing a con­cert on the is­land too.

As the is­land is within walk­ing dis­tance – it takes 20 min­utes to get to it on foot from the old city – it has been a ma­jor hotspot for out­doors­men, party go­ers and tourists alike. In that sense, for me, it is like the Mar­garet Is­land in the heart of Budapest.

Yet Riga, as any Baltic city, is much de­pen­dent on weather, but I be­lieve that the city of­fers a lot for ev­ery­one who ends up here, de­spite the

weather out­side the win­dow.

Some sources have found Riga as the Baltics’ most ex­pen­sive city for lo­cals. Does the city have re­sources to make life for all more af­ford­able?

In terms of heat­ing prices, for ex­am­ple, Vil­nius does worse than Riga and, in other re­gards, the Baltic capital cities come higher or lower in var­i­ous sta­tis­tics on af­ford­abil­ity.

Are there any sta­tis­tics mea­sur­ing up the cap­i­tals of Riga, Tallinn and Vil­nius that you’re par­tic­u­larly proud of ?

Off the top of my head now, I’d prob­a­bly men­tion Riga’s spec­tac­u­lar rise in tourist num­bers over the last years. They have tripled over the last eight years, which is an as­tound­ing ac­com­plish­ment. Es­pe­cially since Tallinn had been the ex­am­ple in that re­gard.

What other Euro­pean cap­i­tals, apart from Vil­nius and Tallinn, do you find sim­i­lar in a sense to Riga? Or sim­ply, can no sim­i­lar­i­ties be drawn?

I be­lieve Riga could be in a way com­pared to the other East­ern Euro­pean capital cities that have gone through the Soviet sys­tem also, and have kept up un­til now some of the fea­tures of the era’s ar­chi­tec­ture, city plan­ning, and so on. For ex­am­ple, the heat­ing sys­tems in­stalled in three Baltic cap­i­tals’ old build­ings are per­haps the best rem­nants of the past now – they are still iden­ti­cal. Since the restora­tion of our in­de­pen­dences in 1990, we’ve made a ma­jor leap to moder­nity with each of the capital cities boast­ing distin­guished mile­stones of progress. The set­backs we all have had since 1991 are also sim­i­lar. Con­sid­er­ing that our city bud­gets per capita are way lower than that of Western Euro­pean cap­i­tals, we are do­ing re­ally well. Un­for­tu­nately, we do not have oil like the Nor­we­gians, thence the some­times limited pos­si­bil­i­ties.

What do you be­lieve are the big­gest is­sues that Riga deals with?

First, de­pop­u­la­tion. It’s a ma­jor is­sue for all of Latvia and for Lithua­nia as well. Peo­ple take ad­van­tage of free bor­ders and they leave, and Ri­gans have not been an ex­cep­tion from the trend. The fall­out is a work­force short­age, es­pe­cially of the qual­i­fied. If you were to look through lo­cal ad­ver­tise­ments, we do need a lot of work­ers for con­struc­tion sites in Riga, and through­out the coun­try.

The de­crease in pop­u­la­tion is tan­gi­ble ev­ery­where, I’d say- be it the Riga Trans­porta­tion Sys­tem, the new sign-ups with the Riga Wa­ter Com­pany, and so on. In fact, our wa­ter network was built in the Soviet years with the idea that Riga will some­day ex­pand into a city of 1.4 mil­lion peo­ple. What does it mean for the city that now has twice as few peo­ple? It means very high costs for in­fra­struc­ture main­te­nance.

Last but not least are the so­cial is­sues we have. Al­though the so­cial sys­tem we have is pretty ad­vanced for Lat­vian, and I pre­sume Baltic stan­dards, we are nonethe­less nowhere close to Western stan­dards.

You’ve been dubbed as a pro-rus­sia mayor by me­dia. Does the la­belling an­noy you?

(Pause) Well, it al­ways de­pends on what one has in mind when call­ing me that way… In­deed, my mother tongue is Rus­sian and my wife is Lat­vian. I speak to our son who is two years old in Rus­sian, and my wife speaks to him in Lat­vian, and he prat­tles in both lan­guages. Does it make me pro-rus­sia?

If you were to look at the elec­tion re­sults, in Riga I am heav­ily sup­ported by the Rus­sian-speak­ing, as well as Lat­vian-speak­ing vot­ers. In the last lo­cal elec­tion ear­lier in 2017, roughly 40 per cent of the na­tive Lat­vians in Riga voted for Har­mony, the party I chair. I serve Riga dwellers re­gard­less of their eth­nic­ity - I’d say it would be pre­pos­ter­ous even to think that one group of the pop­u­la­tion could be dis­crim­i­nated against the other. Riga mu­nic­i­pal­ity and I as the Mayor, care for all in Riga – both Rus­sian and Lat­vian schools are be­ing ren­o­vated, and so­cial sup­port is ob­tained by ev­ery­one in need, re­gard­less of eth­nic­ity.

Yet in­deed, I am aware of the no­to­ri­ety I’ve re­ceived in some of the me­dia af­ter es­tab­lish­ing some party con­tacts in Rus­sia ( in late 2014, Nils Usakovs and the Mayor of Moscow, Sergey Sobyanin, signed a pro­gramme of co­op­er­a­tion be­tween the two cities for 2015-2017; it fore­saw var­i­ous events, such as Riga Days in Moscow and Moscow Days in Riga, the fa­cil­i­ta­tion of busi­ness con­tacts be­tween busi­ness rep­re­sen­ta­tives from both cities).

I do not find any­thing ex­tra­or­di­nary with that - we share the lan­guage, the past and so on, but make sure you state clearly - I am nei­ther pro-rus­sia nor pro-amer­ica – I am very much pro-riga.

Let me re­mind you that in 2012 you voted “yes” in the ref­er­en­dum to give Rus­sian of­fi­cial lan­guage sta­tus in Latvia.

Since 2012, I’ve heard this ques­tion prob­a­bly 2012 times, to tell the truth. I just want to re­it­er­ate what I’ve said many times: Rus­sians are the largest eth­nic ma­jor­ity in the coun­try and Rus­sians make up nearly half of the pop­u­la­tion of Riga, so the en­deav­our to give them the right to use Rus­sian as the sec­ond state lan­guage was un­der­stand­able.

Do you still be­lieve that Rus­sian should be up­graded to the same le­gal sta­tus as Lat­vian?

My po­si­tion has never changed on this is­sue since 2012. Lat­vian faces heavy com­pe­ti­tion from Rus­sian and English, and ig­nor­ing that just does not seem right. We def­i­nitely need to sup­port by all means Lat­vian, but I be­lieve we should not be de­fy­ing rights of those who feel more com­fort­able speak­ing the other lan­guages. For ex­am­ple, in some Es­to­nian mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties, some of the ques­tion­naires and re­quests ap­pear in Es­to­nian and, in smaller fonts, in Rus­sian, be­cause of the large eth­nic Rus­sian com­mu­nity. I be­lieve this is some­thing we should think of in Riga. Es­pe­cially since we now give ver­bal ex­pla­na­tions, which is time con­sum­ing. Again, mak­ing life for Rus­sians or any other eth­nic group eas­ier can­not be deemed a bad thing (A Lat­vian court re­jected in March an ap­peal by Usakovs against a fine over his use of Rus­sian lan­guage on his Face­book page-l.j.)

Let me re­mind you of an­other con­tentious thing from your past. When Rus­sia an­nexed Crimea in 2014, in­stead of con­demn­ing the ag­gres­sor, you’ve spo­ken against Western sanc­tions.

Let me go over this again for you. First, our party (Har­mony) has spo­ken against an­nex­a­tion - the po­si­tion has been ap­proved anony­mously though - and noth­ing has changed since. Our party was and re­mains against vi­o­lence in East­ern Ukraine. In fact, ow­ing to the stance, in 2014, we lost seven seats in the par­lia­ment elec­tion. Yet I keep re­peat­ing that sanc­tions, as an in­stru­ment against Rus­sia, are just not work­ing. Fur­ther­more, they have a neg­a­tive im­pact on the econ­omy of the Euro­pean Union and the Baltics States es­pe­cially.

Do you be­lieve that sanc­tions should be lifted?

As I stated be­fore, they are not work­ing. We just haven’t seen any shift in Rus­sian do­mes­tic poli­cies to­wards Ukraine and the cur­rent sta­tus of Crimea is not in ques­tion as a re­sult of the sanc­tions. Diplo­macy ob­vi­ously does not work, ei­ther. We see more Euro­pean gov­ern­ments com­ing out in sup­port of lift­ing them and it makes sense to me – the Baltic States, and es­pe­cially Riga, are pay­ing a lot heav­ier price for the em­bargo than the other EU States. There­fore, more acute eco­nomic is­sues and so­cial prob­lems as part of the af­ter­math -they (is­sues) are not just go­ing away, but they are deep­en­ing, as a mat­ter of fact.

Can you as­sess dam­age that Riga has in­curred with sanc­tions against Rus­sia?

(Pause) In some busi­ness ac­tiv­i­ties, we’ve had a de­crease of over 10 per cent as a re­sult. Just in tourism alone, the flow of Rus­sian tourists de­creased over 15 per cent in 2015. Note, Rus­sians were on top among Riga vis­i­tors be­fore sanc­tions. Rus­sians were among the big­gest spenders in Riga, and now we see not only their scarcer flow, but their spend­ing has de­creased sig­nif­i­cantly too. Some of the suc­cess­ful pro­grammes aimed to boost busi­ness in­vest­ments are gone with sanc­tions in place. Riga has lost ca 3-4 mil­lion Eu­ros as a re­sult - we used the money to ren­o­vate en­tire blocks of old build­ings through­out Riga.

We’ve sold 10,000 per­mits for Rus­sians to stay here so that they could go for­ward with in­vest­ments. Now the num­bers are in sin­gle dig­its, so it makes me sad when I think about it. Think­ing of our fu­ture, it is cer­tainly within the Euro­pean Union, but again, Riga ties with Rus­sia have al­ways been strong and los­ing them is bad.

Do you be­lieve that Rus­sia poses dan­ger to the Baltics?

I re­ally do not be­lieve that cur­rent Rus­sia, even on a the­o­ret­i­cal level, imag­ines it­self get­ting into a mil­i­tary con­flict (over the Baltics) with NATO. I think it is ut­terly im­pos­si­ble.

Do you think the Lat­vian de­fense bud­get is too high and part of the re­sources could be fun­neled for so­cial needs?

Of course, the money that now goes for mil­i­tary pur­poses can be used for so­cial pur­poses, be it health­care or ed­u­ca­tion, but again, we all un­der­stand that, from the over­all mil­i­tary point of view, there is not a huge dif­fer­ence (for the pop­u­la­tion) whether we spend for de­fense one per cent or ten per­cent – it is more of our po­lit­i­cal dec­la­ra­tion and de­ter­mi­na­tion we’ve made as a mem­ber state of the EU and NATO. Yet, if the other EU coun­tries spend (for de­fense) up to two per cent, we should do the same – we can­not just say to Brus­selshey guys, we like your co­fi­nanc­ing for our roads and bridges, but we are not go­ing to take any refugees into Latvia. Things just do not work in an­other way to­day– that is the re­al­ity.

Un­til now, your Har­mony party has catered to the Rus­sian-speak­ing vot­ers mostly. Do you be­lieve the party has the po­ten­tial of break­ing the eth­nic­ity lines and be­com­ing a cros­seth­nic party? Con­sid­er­ing the de­cline in sup­port for it among Rus­sian Lat­vians in the last Saeima (Lat­vian Par­lia­ment) elec­tion in 2013, as well as the Riga Mu­nic­i­pal Coun­cil elec­tion ear­lier the year, in both of which Har­mony lost seven seats, it seems of ut­most pri­or­ity, doesn’t it?

The stats speak for us – Har­mony has be­come a cros­seth­nic party in Riga. In re­cent mu­nic­i­pal coun­cil elec­tions, roughly 40 per cent of the vot­ers were eth­nic Lat­vians against 60 per cent of the Rus­sian- speak­ers. In Riga, we were the most pop­u­lar party, not only among Rus­sian speak­ers, but among na­tive Lat­vians too. Al­though we lost seven seats in the Riga Coun­cil in the 2017 elec­tion, Har­mony has not only gar­nered the largest num­ber of coun­cil seats, but has held the po­si­tion as a lead­ing rul­ing coali­tion party for the third con­sec­u­tive term. It says a lot about the trust we have.

Do you see a Lat­vian of Rus­sian de­scent some day be­com­ing a prime min­is­ter or pres­i­dent of the Repub­lic of Latvia?

Well, if you had asked any­one in Latvia ten years ago, no one would have imag­ined a Rus­sian speak­ing mayor of Riga. Now you see him be­ing elected to Riga’s Mayor’s Of­fice for the third con­sec­u­tive time. So to an­swer your ques­tion, it is just a ques­tion of time.

Nils Usakovs ir mayor of Riga

Riga mayor Nils Usakovs takes pride in larger Riga tourist flows

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