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AOn November 28, 2006 George Bush used the NATO meeting in “new Europe ” in Riga , Latvia as the stage for the last act of his tragedy being played out in Iraq. The venue was the University of Latvia where Bush invoked the history of occupation and the struggle for freedom in the 20th century.
The choice of Latvia is instructive and ironic. On the surface the country appears to be prosperous and free. Fueled by offshore oil money at $60 plus a barrel and ill-gotten gains seeking safe tax-free offshore outlets from Russia , Latvia ‘s economy since 2003 has surged forward. Moreover, recent EU membership in 2004 brought capital flooding in from the West, where the Maastricht criteria creating an overvalued Euro have sent Western capital racing East to speculative markets over investment in the real economy, thus depressing West European growth. Further, as anyone who has visited Riga can attest, the city boasts one of the largest concentrations of beautiful art nouveau buildings in Europe , thus helping to create a vibrant tourist industry. Yet, for all these advantages, not all glitters in Latvia , or even Riga. .
Latvia ‘s neoliberal theme park for foreign investors fashioned by Washington Consensus policies has a dark side. The country has the lowest labor productivity of all 25 EU nations. Moreover, it has poorest labor safety record in the EU. Labor union rates are among the lowest in the EU. This is matched by towering rates of alcoholism, with men dying at 60, thus having returned to 19th century mortality levels. HIV and drug-resistant TB also thrive. Pensioners live in abject poverty. [Plus very high suicide rates. Eds.] Also, more Latvians have fled Latvian poverty to “old Europe ” since independence than Stalin ever deported.
As any one who has visited Riga knows, its women sparkle. Yet, this has created a raging sex stag tourist trade fueled by cheap Ryanair flights. One UNDP report cites over 15,000 women a year from the former USSR are being trafficked West through Riga each year. Additionally, only Soviet levels of distortion could permit its government to be characterized as a democracy. Its elected government functions as an electoral oligarchy (or grabocracy) in which shifting constellations of interests form parties in order to get more than their share. To be fair, many unelected officials in the bureaucracy are honest and talented. These rarely rise to the top.
This is the democracy George Bush celebrated and hailed in Latvia during his NATO visit. Its economy is open and it supports the US mission in Iraq.
There are many good things in Latvia to highlight, but what the Bush administration is really interested in is some semblance of international legitimacy for his adventure and the two cited above. Reflecting the opinions of their public, many in Western EU nations (“old Europe “) continue resisting Bush’s neoliberal program and the Iraqi adventure. Latvia and Estonia, where Bush just stopped, are part of the new improved Europe , where its electoral oligarchies reject public opinion on the economy and Iraq. Indeed, some 70% of Latvians have consistently opposed the Iraq war.