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Changing Lifestyles : Latvia Sees Independence as a Hardship, Not a Triumph : One year after breaking from Moscow, the people of this tiny Baltic state are deeply disillusioned.

August 04, 1992|STEPHANIE SIMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

RIGA, Latvia — It didn't take Leonarda Voisesha long to decide that she would rather have a little butter on her table than a lot of nationalists in her Parliament.

Her country regained its independence only a year ago, but already Voisesha thinks Latvia needs a new master.

Maybe not the Russians, she says--50 years of Soviet rule destroyed her confidence in Moscow. But, she suggests hopefully, perhaps some prosperous Western country might be willing to take tiny Latvia in hand.

"We don't really want to lose our freedom, but if a foreign power came here to rule us, maybe life would be better," said Voisesha, 66, who complains that she has not tasted butter in three months and can afford only two pounds of sausage a month on her meager pension.

"Maybe Sweden or Germany or Australia. Or even America," she proposed, growing excited at the far-fetched prospect.

Leaning over from a nearby park bench, 64-year-old Zinoida Nemera enthusiastically seconded the idea.

"Yes, we need someone from abroad," Nemera said. "Our government simply doesn't know how to rule."

As Latvia prepares to mark its first anniversary of formal independence from the Soviet Union this month, its citizens are grumbling that freedom has brought more hardships than triumphs.

Although Riga's residents still lay fresh flowers each day around the capital's towering Monument to Freedom, erected during Latvia's first period of independence between the first and second world wars, they express increasing disillusionment.

"This idea of a new Latvia means nothing to me so far--it's all just politics," said Vera, 35, a clerk in one of the many hard-currency stores lining Riga's cobblestone streets.

"I don't see anything good in our situation now," she said, declining to give her last name. "As far as I'm concerned, independence is nothing to be happy about."

As the Latvian government grapples with the task of nation-building, it faces the same problems that have bedeviled the 14 other former Soviet republics: runaway inflation, the specter of widespread unemployment and the collapse of the Communist welfare system.

But this nation of 2.6 million, tucked between Estonia and Lithuania on the eastern shore of the Baltic Sea, bears unique burdens as well.

The region's worst drought in 50 years has shriveled Latvia's crops, seriously threatening the summer and fall harvests. Only 90,000 of an anticipated 140,000 tons of oats and barley will be harvested this year, according to a local newspaper, and farmers say that wheat and potato crops may be slashed in half.

The dry weather also sparked a series of ferocious forest fires last month. Raging across a cherished wilderness reservation and a Russian army base, the fires destroyed about 470,000 pine, fir and birch trees--Latvia's only natural resource and most valuable export commodity.

Latvians did receive a bit of good news late last month when the International Monetary Fund approved the country's plan to modernize its economy. The IMF is expected to loan Latvia up to $100 million to help jump-start economic reforms, Reuters news agency reported.

But despite the welcome infusion of hard currency, Latvians say they expect their standard of living to drop still further during the coming winter.

"There's a huge danger that next winter will bring famine," government spokesman Janis Galvins said. And with fuel prices jumping each month, "we might not be able to heat people's homes this winter," he said.

Grimly, Galvins added, "There will be hunger and cold--we have only the worst prognosis for the coming year."

This official pessimism has infected many people and tarnished the glory of independence.

"When Latvia was part of the Soviet Union, everyone said, 'We'll go without shoes if we only get freedom,' " Sandra Pupenya, 24, commented. "But now that we have independence, people complain that they're not getting things handed to them on a silver platter."

As the mood sours, political leaders have sought to reignite Latvian pride by emphasizing the country's linguistic, economic and political independence.

A new law threatens sales clerks with a fine if they answer Latvian-speaking customers in Russian, a language that for many symbolizes half a century of Soviet domination in the Baltic states.

Similarly, Latvia cast off the Russian ruble last month, elevating its own Monopoly-sized bills, also called rubles, to the status of official national tender.

In an effort to throw off remaining political ties to Moscow, the Latvian Supreme Council (Parliament) recently expelled 15 deputies accused of helping the Communist Party undermine the Latvian independence movement.

Parliament is also mulling a proposal to restrict citizenship to those whose families had Latvian citizenship before the Soviet Union absorbed Latvia in 1940 under a pact with Nazi Germany.

Such maneuvers have increased tension between Latvians and ethnic Russians, who make up one-third of the country's population.

"Russians feel betrayed because we stood with Latvians at the barricades, we voted with Latvians for the Popular Front, and now they won't give us citizenship," said Marina Laborinskaya, 30, a Russian artist who has lived in Riga all her life and is married to a Latvian.

A few blocks away from the sidewalk gallery where Laborinskaya displayed her paintings, about 30 fired-up nationalists held their weekly demonstration to call for Russian "criminal occupiers" to leave Latvian soil.

Although the demonstrators represent a radical fringe, ethnic Russians worry that this venomous hatred could spread if Latvia's economy continues to stumble.

As she stood in an outdoor pet market holding a basket of squirming kittens, Ludmila Gorodenskaya, 44, voiced the fears that plague her Russian community. Predicting a difficult winter, she said, "When there's nothing to eat, you look for someone to blame."

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