As we drove through the narrow paved streets of the Old City of Riga, Latvia’s capital, we passed shops where angry protestors had smashed windows and looted just two weeks ago. My host’s apartment was just off the Cathedral square, where 10,000 demonstrators had protested peacefully against economic mismanagement and demanded new elections.
Most of the crowd had already dispersed when a hard core of protestors had tried to storm parliament, hurling rocks and chunks of ice at government buildings and overturning police vehicles. Police had to use mace and truncheons to control the rioters.
This was the largest protest gathering since Latvia became independent from the Soviet Union in 1991, shortly before my first visit to this small Baltic nation. Latvians have become frustrated by rising unemployment and a shrinking economy that shrunk by five per cent this past year, causing increased taxes and lowered wages.
One pastor told me Latvia had caught a disease spreading from countries like France, Greece and Bulgaria, all subject to riots and protests in recent times. It seemed the ‘disease’ had now spread to Big Brother in the east, where just a few months ago protests unthinkable with record high oil prices and the strong grip of the Kremlin.
For this weekend, thousands held rallies across Russia to protest mismanagement of the economy, some even demanding that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin resign. With oil dropping from $140 to under $40 per barrel, the weakened Russian economy is causing grassroots fears for the future.
Latvia was annexed by the USSR in 1940 after a brief period of independence between the two World Wars. Nazi occupation quickly followed, until the Red Army eventually regained control. Following the breakup of the Soviet Union, the last Russian troops finally left in 1994. However, Moscow still considered the status of the Russian minority (about one third of Latvia’s 2.3 million people) her legitimate concern.
Tensions between Russia and the Baltic States hastened the processes for membership into NATO and the EU, and most recently they joined the Schengen club. For the first time I entered a former Soviet republic on this trip without showing my passport.
Last summer’s invasion of Georgia, however, made many Latvians nervous about their neighbour’s intentions concerning the large Russian-speaking minority in their land. The drastic fall in oil prices and the 70% loss on the Russian share market has lessened that fear for now.
Latvia’s spiritual, economic and social foundations are under reconstruction. Rapid changes have left many behind who fall into hopelessness and despair. Alcoholism, broken families, suicide, abuse, immorality and unemployment are rampant.
Against a backdrop of such uncertain times, I had been invited to address young people at an annual missions conference in Riga last week, on the theme of being salt and light in our world today. I was told that the 300 young participants represented the biggest missions mobilisation event ever in Lavia. Their enthusiastic and creative engagement, and relationship-building across the spectrum of denominations, promised hope for the future.
My host, Chuck Kelly, was a Latvian-American active over the past two decades in ‘bridge-building’, linking dozens of Latvian churches with North American partner-congregations. Chuck and his co-workers are active in organising annual national prayer breakfasts with government and civic leaders, attracting up to 400 in recent years. The president, the prime minister and several cabinet ministers have attended, some of whom are professing believers.
I was encouraged to hear of these and other ongoing activities in Latvia. My last visit there was just over a year ago when I attended the funeral of Maris Dselzs, the YWAM founder and leader who had died suddenly in his sleep in his late forties. But the work continues: youth outreach, camps, children’s work, festivals, church planting, King’s Kids, family ministry, discipleship, mercy ministry, sports outreach, outreach through rock music, and training. Large teams from YWAM Sweden bringing practical help are welcomed by local mayors into many towns.
Latvians are now taking their place in world missions, with teams ministering across the former Soviet Union as well as further afield to Africa and Asia. Young Latvians are demonstrating their hope for the future through word and deed, rather than venting fear and anger with bricks and ice.
Till next week,