Sat, May 25, 2019 - Page 9 News List

Far from Brussels, Latvians are European at heart

By Imants Liepinsh  /  AFP, REZEKNE, Latvia

A Latvian border guard helicopter hovers over a vast forest split by a long, narrow strip of sandy land where a fence topped with barbed wire marks the EU’s border with Russia.

Fifteen years after Latvia joined NATO and the EU, the Baltic state’s remote Latgale region — closer to Moscow than to Brussels — is among the bloc’s poorest areas, but its residents are staunchly pro-European. Smuggling cheap alcohol and cigarettes from Russia has been a mainstay of the local economy since Latvia regained its independence in 1991 after a half century of Soviet occupation.

A growing stream of illegal migrants crossing over from Russia, mostly from Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Syria, prompted Latvian authorities to start building the fence in 2016 to protect a 300km stretch of the EU’s eastern border.

As Latgale gears up to vote in the European Parliamentary elections today, locals may differ on the candidates they choose, but there is no doubt that pro-European sentiment prevails overall, largely thanks to the EU’s generous development subsidies and open markets.

A eurozone member of 1.9 million, Latvia has absorbed a net 7.2 billion euros (US$8.1 billion) in EU subsidies since 2004, making it the bloc’s fourth-largest beneficiary per capita.

Nestled deep in the forest, Zilupe — population 3,000 — is one of the EU’s easternmost municipalities.

“The European Union is helping us like nobody before,” said Skaidrite Marcenoka, a local farmer and municipal official, as she reflected on Latvia’s turbulent history.

Over the past century, Latvians suffered under Nazi and Soviet occupations, which brought the Holocaust and then Stalinist-era mass deportations to Siberia.

Forced Russification and atheism during nearly half a century of Soviet rule was intended to strip Latvians of their language and cultural identity.

“Now, we’re receiving EU farming subsidies for agricultural machinery, better livestock and farm development,” said Marcenoka, who has used the payments to buy new equipment to run her 150-hectare farm.

Classified as “green” or eco-friendly, it receives about 230 euros for every hectare per year in direct EU farm payments.

“On average, the EU covers around 40 percent of agricultural investments,” Marcenoka added.

She also breeds Latvia’s traditional brown cows with Limousine and Charolais bulls from France, saying: “This way my own livestock becomes more European.”

Heading west away from the Russian border, vast forests give way to small patches of farmland and the occasional village or town able to overhaul often rickety public infrastructure thanks to EU funding.

“Over the last decade, we’ve received 16.2 million euros in EU funding for 90 different projects,” said Edgars Mekss, the mayor of Ludza, a poor rural town of 12,000 people.

“For every euro we spend for street repairs, construction works, laying water pipelines, church and synagogue restoration, we receive 4.7 euros from European coffers,” he said.

“Our border region won’t be able to develop and create new jobs without it,” he added, although some critics warn that a lack of oversight on how funds are spent raises the risk of graft.

For Andris Mejers, business is booming even without subsidies.

Latvia’s geopolitical shift from Moscow to Brussels has opened new, lucrative markets for his traditional Latgalian sausages, hams and smoked bacon.

This story has been viewed 1745 times.

Comments will be moderated. Keep comments relevant to the article. Remarks containing abusive and obscene language, personal attacks of any kind or promotion will be removed and the user banned. Final decision will be at the discretion of the Taipei Times.

TOP top