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