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What the Supermarket Collapse in Latvia Tells Us About a Country at a Crossroads

Petras Malukas/AFP/Getty Images

Latvia observed three minutes of silence on Monday morning to honor the victims of last week’s Maxima supermarket collapse in the capital Riga, the deadliest accident to befall the Baltic state since it regained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Over the weekend, the death toll rose to 54 and the third and final portion of the building’s roof caved in. Several remain unaccounted for—rescue teams asked family members to call their missing relatives’ cell phones in an attempt to locate them in the rubble. But on Sunday workers began the process of razing the remaining structure, signaling the end of the search for survivors. The scenes of wreckage at the site and the ongoing revelations about the exact causes of the disaster provide a glimpse into the precarious state of the Baltic nation, which now must grapple with a national tragedy in addition to the economic and political complications of its entry into the Euro zone in January

Maxima, a Lithuanian company, operates 500 supermarkets and convenience stores throughout Eastern Europe and has a workforce of over 29,000 people, making it the largest employer in the Baltics. The company is one of the biggest winners of the rapid privatization that swept the region in the '90s, enabling the swift expansion of chain supermarkets and “hypermarkets” in former Soviet states; stocked with myriad brand-name products, these stores introduced the element of choice to everyday life. Since then, supermarkets have been regarded as symbols of the abundance of capitalism and independence in the post-Soviet bloc (as is achingly captured in the 2004 documentary Czech Dream). Last week’s disaster came at a time when both concepts are taking on new meanings for Latvia and its Eastern European neighbors, as they further their ties with the European Union while pushing back against Russian attempts to pull them back under Putin’s sphere of influence.

After joining the E.U. in 2004 along with fellow former Soviet states Lithuania, Estonia, Poland, and the Czech Republic (among others), Latvian economic growth stopped in 2006 and the following year the country was devastated by the global economic crisis, a crippling economic downturn worsened by the collapse of a bank that dealt mostly with Russian holdings. Government programs were cut back and the redevelopment of Soviet-era infrastructure was put on hold, even as Riga’s government released an ambitious redevelopment plan. It was an unfortunate move; this summer, the Riga Castle, the Latvian president's official residence, was enveloped in flames because its “equipment date[d] back to Soviet times.”  The Maxima supermarket collapsed for related reasons; the building was part of an effort to modernize a Soviet-built part of the city, but the government oversight necessary to do so simply wasn't there. 

The store sat in the neighborhood of Zolitude, a working-class, industrial sprawl made up of Soviet-era apartment buildings that house a mostly Russian-speaking population. Built only in the final years of the Soviet Union, Zolitude was impacted by the downturn in construction projects in Latvia during the economic crisis, when plans to build modernized apartment buildings were put on hold. The Maxima supermarket finally opened in 2011 as a multi-purpose retail center, envisioned as the economic heart of a brand-new apartment complex adjacent to the store. The structure was named the Latvian Building of the Year, though it most likely fell short of government regulations for new structures. No one detected its potential pressure points, like that the roof was improperly supported; a heavy rainstorm early last week was absorbed into the construction materials left on the roof, eventually causing the it to cave in on the rush-hour shoppers below. As Riga Deputy Mayor Andris Ameriks explained in an interview last week, ‘‘In recent years due to the economic crisis many institutions, including construction oversight ... were closed in Latvia in order to save money.”

Joining the E.U. was supposed to be an economic godsend for Latvia. In January, when it will adopt the Euro, a new tax law will go into effect that sets the country’s corporate tax rate at 15 percent, ensuring it will remain a tax haven for foreigners, the same thing that left the Latvian economy vulnerable to collapse back in 2007. And though Latvia is now the E.U.’s fastest-growing economy, its recent success should be taken skeptically. As the Economist put it, “there is a danger of reading too much into the experience of any one economy… its population has shrunk by almost a tenth since 2007. The fall in output, which took away only a portion of the catch-up growth after it had won independence in 1991, may have been easier to endure for a citizenry hardened by a harsher existence under Soviet rule.” The country may very well be "the best example of an economic disaster somehow disguised as success." As the region continues its shift away from Russia and towards Europe, it is struggling to do away with the political and economic holdovers from the region’s Soviet era, which is good cause for concern over the region’s future. 

The disaster has brought the country’s divisive politics into the spotlight. As Latvia has furthered its integration into the E.U., nationalism has bubbled up in the form of rising homophobia and antipathy toward the ethnic Russian population, fracturing the already divided country. Zolitude is a largely Russian-speaking neighborhood in a country where ethnic Russians make up almost 30 percent of the population but are considered non-citizens in Latvia, quite literally treated as second-class. A journalist at the scene said that by the time he got to the Maxima site on Thursday evening, a group of young men had gathered there and started drinking and ridiculing the rescue efforts. Meanwhile, the first ethnically Russian mayor of Riga had to go out of his way to state that he did not turn down Russia’s offer to help rescue efforts for political reasons, but rather because no external help was needed. As the journalist Michael Shahnazarov pointed out in an op-ed in the Russian newspaper Izvestia today, the Latvian government did not make enough of an effort to provide food and blankets for the crowd that gathered outside the site of the collapse hoping to find their lost relatives.

All this comes amidst talk of the return of Russian hard power, which has been expressed, of late, in Russia’s successful prevention of Ukrainian and Armenian trade agreements with the E.U. and its interference in a NATO defense exercise in the Baltics earlier this month. Later this week, Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, and Azerbaijan were scheduled to meet in Vilnius, Lithuania, to sign a trade agreement with the E.U., but Ukraine has now backed out after Russia threatened to curtail the country’s access to Russia’s gas supply this winter (again). As a result, Ukraine saw its largest protest since the Orange Revolution yesterday, and this certainly won’t be the end of it.

Altogether, the current situation in Eastern Europe makes it all too clear that integration to the European Union will remain a long and much-fraught process for former Soviet states. When Latvia first voted to join the E.U., then-President Vaira Vike-Freiberga called the verdict a “final full-stop to the sequels of the Second World War and wiping out forever the divisions on the map of Europe that the odious Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939 had placed there." Her words now sound laughably optimistic, and the causes of the Maxima disaster provide a small window into just how far the region has yet to go.