Newly-Independent, Newly-Capitalist, Latvia Attracts Hucksters of All Types

November 29, 1992|By MICHAEL S. WHEATLEY

RIGA, LATVIA — Riga, Latvia.--This is a city of placard-wavers and sidewalk debates and monuments in a country of unmarked graves.

It is a haven for hustlers and opportunists, well-intentioned experts and missionaries, and hucksters selling everything from irrigation systems and American fried chicken to hot cars.

It is a city at whose heart is still garrisoned the remnant of an army that brought it to heel.

And it is the seat of a government that at times seems overwhelmed by the legacy of 50 years of Soviet occupation and the intense Russification that came with it.

It is a city in a country that remains, in many ways, up for grabs.

People gather on the streets to demonstrate and debate. They come to the Freedom Monument to watch the posting of a color guard, the first since Latvia's pre-World War II, 20-year period of independence.

They reverently place flowers at the feet of Latvia's most beloved national poet, Janis Rainis, whose dignified and benign and slightly sad countenance looks out over a little park in a place still identified on some city maps as Communard Square.

And old Communists still come with bouquets to the place on Kirova (formerly Lenin) street where Lenin's statue stood -- resolutely facing East, toward Moscow -- before it was taken away.

In the countryside, in the fields and forests beneath the first light snows of early winter and the rich Latvian soil, lie the anonymous bones of the thousands upon thousands of soldiers and civilians consumed by the savagery of two world wars and the countless, violent comings and goings of Germans, Swedes, Poles and Russians.

Downtown, in the lobby of the Hotel Latvia, the seedy Intourist trap built by the Soviets in 1978, businessmen and fellow travelers check in and check out with the hurried and fevered manner of a Chicago commodities broker jumping hard at a new opportunity.

And there are opportunities to be had. Computers and caviar. Transportation, banking, medical services. There are consultants of every stripe: in the law, irrigation, shipping, agriculture, hotel services, telecommunications. American congressmen, their staffs, Scandinavian and American journalists.

Prostitutes and burly men in sweaters lounge about at tables. Some people sit in their overcoats and read newspapers and smoke cigarettes. A gauzy tobacco haze coats the tall lobby windows and obscures the view of the street.

From a clerk at the desk near the currency exchange where crisp new Latvian rubles are eagerly exchanged for hard money you can buy the weekly edition of an English-language newspaper for one U.S. dollar. The price seems high by American standards but not so bad considering the unofficial 10 percent fee some money changers add to the cost of conducting transactions in rubles. Everybody has an angle.

At 23, Edwin Lobinsh manages the newly opened casino in the basement of the Hotel Latvia. Like most of the customers checking in and checking out one floor above, Mr. Lobinsh's principal interest is making money.

Mr. Lobinsh has hired academy-trained boxers to protect his guests and himself and to generally maintain order. One is seated discreetly at the bar, wearing a sharkskin suit.

At the black-jack table, a young Swede is practicing his currency conversions and the predatory stare he must affect to mask his boyish good looks and innocence from the customers who are not too drunk to know what they're doing.

Mr. Lobinsh is Russian. He was born in Riga in 1969, acquired a history degree in Moscow and then served in the Soviet military, as a jet mechanic in the Soviet Far East. He says his father and business partner, who operates another gambling casino across town on the other side of the Daugava River, was not in the Soviet military.

The gambling operation is a joint venture with a Swedish company. "We are licensed by the Latvian government. So, we pay taxes. The hotel gets 50 percent of the net profit. The hotel provides security but, of course, we prefer to have our own people here," he says with a sweep of his arm in the direction of the sharkskin suit.

In Mr. Lobinsh's view, the situation in Latvia today is similar to the latter period of the country's only other time of independence, first declared Nov. 18, 1918 but not actually achieved until 1920 with the defeat of the Germans and the Bolsheviks.

Then, with the onset of the world depression, elected Prime Minister Karlis Ulmanis declared a state of emergency and presided as somewhat of a benevolent despot until the Soviets rolled across the border in 1940.

"This is very close to what is happening today," insists Mr. Lobinsh. "The country is sliding toward the same thing.

"The Soviet system was a rotten system, doomed to failure, but they [the Latvians] use the same methods and have the same mentality. The only alternative is national reconciliation."

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