The Fallout of Latvia’s National Disaster

There are two updates to the story of the collapse of the supermarket roof in Riga which I thought were worth mentioning (h/t to TNA for the second one: he’ll make a damned fine research assistant one day).

The first:

Andris Berzins [the Latvian President] said many defenceless people had been killed in “our own made disaster”, and called for foreign experts to investigate what happened.

He said an investigation should be held at “maximum speed”.

And he went on to say: “While not undermining the professionalism of our builders, I believe that we should call upon international expertise which is in no way connected with our construction business.

“We cannot call it a natural accident, because nature wasn’t involved. The evening was calm and silent with a little fog. This is our own made disaster.”

The second:

Latvia’s PM Valdis Dombrovskis has announced his resignation, and thereby the fall of his government, over the deadly collapse of a Riga supermarket.

He made the announcement at a meeting with President Andris Berzins.

“Considering the tragedy and all related circumstances… a new government is needed that has the clear support of parliament,” Mr Dombrovskis told reporters.

When I toured the Baltics last December, I came away with the distinct impression that Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania were countries with an educated population making up a normal, functioning society on all levels with each nation heading in the right direction.  The two stories referenced above serve to reinforce that impression.

Firstly, the admission that foreign expertise is required is difficult for any country to make, especially a small nation that has only recently won a series of lengthy battles for independence.  And it is the sign of mature leadership to call in the necessary expertise – wherever it can be found – to investigate a disaster rather than playing politics.  But perhaps more importantly, the foreign expertise will at least bring an element of independence to the investigation and lessen the likelihood that it will fall under the influence of powerful developers in Latvia, one of whom may have been responsible for the construction of the collapsed building.

Secondly, Mr Dombrovskis came to power in 2009 and set about ridding Latvian politics of the corruption that had infested previous administrations.  That a Prime Minister should be prepared to resign and bring down his government over what is a national disaster (in the context of Latvia) at a time when he was still popular with the electorate is to be admired, for its rarity if nothing else.

As an exercise in contrast, can you imagine a Russian president calling in foreign expertise over an accident, or the PM resigning?  Well, we don’t need to imagine: there have been umpteen major accidents ranging from hospital fires (37 killed), explosions at ammunition dumps (6 killed), and plane crashes (50 killed).  In the interests of doing some work today, I limited the examples to those which had occurred in the past 10 weeks, but there are many, many, more.  Not that I think each of these should necessarily have brought about a resignation or foreign help, but too often the initial stern calls for a “full investigation” peter out into nothing (probably because powerful interests ensure no charges are brought) or some lowly scapegoat is tossed in jail for a decade or so.  To take the example of the ferry which sank in the Volga in July 2011, despite the accident being blamed on safety violations the only report of criminal charges I can find is the captain of a nearby tugboat being fined $6,000 for failing to come to the rescue of the victims.  What about the ferry owners?  Or the vessel inspectors?  Nothing, unless the reports are covered only by the Russian press.

Even in the case of major ineptitude on the part of the Russian authorities: Nord Ost, Beslan, and Kursk, those in power carry on largely as before while the rest of the country picks up the pieces.  Russians often like to disparage the Baltic states as being insignificant entities with no oil and minuscule economies.  That may be so, but in this last week Latvia has demonstrated more signs of a functioning, modern society and government than Russia has in a long time.

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6 Responses to The Fallout of Latvia’s National Disaster

  1. Bardon says:

    Yes it’s good to see an investigation getting off to the right start, hopefully they get to the bottom of it. As far as Russian investigations go, I thought that Putin taking personal command of the investigation into the Smolensk plane crash that wiped out the entire Polish elite in one fell swoop, as being a bit of an eyebrow raiser. Having said that, I don’t really have that much faith in the independence of most western inquiries either.

    Although I have never been there, I have had a very good experience with Estonian telecommunications. I purchased an Estonian SIM card that I use for international travel and it works everywhere and beats any other deal that I could find, in fact I couldn’t find any other deals that come near it in terms of coverage. Plus my local phone number diverts to it when I am overseas and that means that the caller pays a local fee and I don’t pay anything. Apparently Estonia is a world leader when it comes to digitisation particularly with telecoms and they invented Skype. I must go there one day.

  2. Well said, Tim. I would just challenge one thing, though my challenge doesn’t contradict your basic conclusion. I can see the PM of Russia resigning in the aftermath of some disaster, but not out of the sense of honor that led Dombrovskis to step down. The first item in the Russian PM’s job description (except when Putin held the post) is to be the scapegoat who takes the blame for some major failure. When things get bad enough, the PM gets sacked, or resigns, to deflect blame from the president, who is the one who really matters.

  3. Tim Newman says:

    @Bardon. This is what I wrote when I was in Tallin:

    “One of the things our guide mentioned was the prevalence of free wi-fi in Estonia. Almost every bar or restaurant had free wi-fi, and the same was true for a lot of public spaces and the bus station. Free wi-fi is a fundamental human right in Estonia, and this was pretty much the case in Riga and Vilnius as well. And the Estonians have gone some way to making their country paperless, with tax returns and university applications, for example, being done entirely online. Our guide told us that she was most surprised when she went to study in France and found that pieces of paper, complete with stamps and signatures, were required to do anything. I found that I could book my bus ticket to Riga online and not even bother to print out a ticket: just show the confirmation email on your phone to the driver. There are things the rest of Europe could learn from the Baltic states, and this was one of them.”

  4. Tim Newman says:

    @SWP: Indeed. The PM never standing down refers to the years when Putin held the post.

  5. Bardon says:

    Tim, I just browsed your Tallin post, I am definitely going up there and will do the first Russian visit at the same time. Yes Estonia does seem to digitally rock, I should have mentioned that I bought the SIM card in Brisbane as well and it didn’t have to be in my own name either!

  6. Tim Newman says:

    @Bardon:

    I am definitely going up there and will do the first Russian visit at the same time.

    If I have one piece of advice, having not followed it myself on too many occasions, it is: DO. NOT. GO. IN. WINTER!!!

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