People no longer believe in their own country, because they associate it with people who make decisions
The biggest threat to Latvia is the fact that society, including state officials, is afraid. People are afraid of change, afraid of voicing their thoughts (thoughts that often do not comply with the politically correct stance), afraid of being misunderstood. Fear makes it harder to develop. It limits people’s internal freedom. Such is the opinion Inga Antane, president of Baltic Association – Transport and Logistics and sworn attorney of Triniti law firm, explained in her interview to Atbalsts.
BNN publishes Inga Antane’s conversation with Atbalsts chief editor Ilona Berzina.
You got your Master’s degree in law in Humboldt University of Berlin. But it was when you son was very young and needed his mother’s care. How did you manage to combine your responsibilities?
I had to fly from Germany to Riga and back very often. All the flight attendants would recognize me (laughs). I was a very emotional and physically hard time for me. I basically wrote my thesis in the plane because the time I spent in the air was the only time I could focus on myself. My thesis was focused on contractual and legal aspects of Internet auctions. This is a very popular topic for Latvia right now. People shop at Ebay, for example, but often do not ever realize that there is a carefully crafted legal side to things. I focused on contract law, private international law and international civil procedure, European commercial law and insolvency processes. The knowledge I gained in Germany was later passed on by me to students in Turība University, where I read lectures.
Before beginning studies at Humboldt University, I also studied at Wilhelm University of Münster. I knew full well that study pressure and my self-endurance test would be a serious challenge. The German education system is very motivating. They know how to teach confidence; that you know everything and are able to achieve everything. All this does demand a tremendous amount of commitment and work, however. After receiving my diploma, it seemed as though I had gone through something impossible, as though I was prepared for my professional activity, life and its challenges (smiles). But as time passes you realize that it was nothing special – life is a never-ending learning process. Every new challenge is the beginning of a new learning process.
Did you start practising law after you returned from Germany?
Yes, in Treilons&Petrovičs law firm. It later became the international Triniti law firm in 2011. I passed the attorney exam in 2010. One of the most serious and most interesting cases I worked with was the study and preparation of a legal conclusion for the International Research-based Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association on the compliance of Latvian compensated medicines system’s with transparency regulations. Our team also prepared proposals for possible legislative amendments. Unfortunately, the system remains an unsorted mess; to the point that people who really need them are unable to afford them even with healthcare related costs. I have fought for justice and medicine availability in Healthcare Ministry and other responsible institutions, even in court. And there were also very sad stories…
You said every new challenge is a beginning of a new learning process. Does that mean you study now as well?
I will be making the first steps towards learning Chinese in February. I have had two big interviews in Chinese media. They were held in English, of course. But when I was sent the already published material, for the first time I ended up in a situation when I could not read my own words (laughs). It was then that I understood that my life has a new challenge – I have to learn Chinese! Chinese language and business traditions of that country are a new thing for us. We have to know those things to at least be able to communicate well with business associates from that country. I am also fascinated by Chinese culture and their ancient history.
As for business, cooperation between Latvia and Chine has great potential. We are close to the Baltic Sea and we have three ports, as well as an excellent geographical location. Those are the aspects about Latvia that should be interesting for a partner like China. We have always been a sailing nation.
Since we’ve touched upon the topic of transit, let’s talk about this ‘hen’ that has been laying golden eggs for Latvia’s economy for a quarter of a century. You know this industry well. Tell us, why is the situation no longer as optimistic as it was several years ago. What can be done to change that?
Latvia is a sea state. And it’s a very rich sea state, because unlike Lithuania and Estonia, we have three large ports and seven smaller ones. But for the past two years there has been a decline in cargoes. Russian cargoes could leave Latvia for good. We proudly call ourselves a transit country, but we still do not have a transit policy to speak of. Because of that, it is unclear what we can expect from the transit industry in the next five years. We can see that the situation on global trade routes is changing rapidly right now. We also have to review the railway tariff policy in order to offer our current and potential partners a single and effective tariff policy for all our ports. For some reason, however, those in charge continue procrastinating in this area.
Transit brings more than EUR 1 billion to the country’s economy annually. This industry and its associated industries employ together approximately 80,000 people. Creation of a competitive offer is vital for our country’s interests. Why aren’t things progressing in this field?
I have been fighting to ensure equal game rules for all ports for two years now. I have submitted proposals as well. Do you know what one of counter arguments against equalization of tariffs was? Where would we find EUR 20 million in the state budget for that!
Isn’t there something wrong with the logic here? Destroying an industry that brings a billion only to save 20 millions! The Saeima has agreed to allocate EUR 28 million alone to satisfy deputy quotas!
Yes, it is a mystery. It would have been more important to allocate this money for the transit industry and thereby enrich the country’s economic development. This kind of approach towards budget planning would secure much larger revenue. Making a decision in relation to the equalization of tariffs would serve as a great signal for our partners. It would benefit the country’s image. Unfortunately, we have nothing to offer.
Now let’s look at Estonia’s example of creating proper marketing for their country. Whenever I hear the word Estonia, I think of a country that has a well-organized tax policy and low bureaucracy. Estonia is a country in which businessmen are not penalized for some insignificant wrongdoing. It is a country where businessmen are supported and consulted. Everyone knows that Estonia’s budget is larger than EUR 10 billion. Latvia, on the other hand, a country with larger economy, has a budget that is a little over EUR 7 billion. But we have to keep in mind that Latvia and Estonia have specific differences in lower level state budget formation processes and proportions. Latvia’s consolidated budget, which includes the base budget and special budget, is smaller than that of Estonia. At the same time, our country has larger municipal budgets. If we counted state and municipal budgets together, the picture would be completely different. Instead of explaining that our country’s economy is much larger than Estonia’s, our officials praise the economy of the neighbouring country and feel ashamed of our own budget.
The entire world knows about Latvia’s Song and Dance Celebration. We desperately need a story of success in our economy as well. We are a nation of singers and sailors – it is our synergy.
Using its e-residence system, Estonia’s story about a country with an excellent tax system is sold everywhere around the world, including Latvia. My husband is a businessman; he regularly receives offers on his e-mail address to register his business in Estonia.
Why doesn’t he take that offer? Because of patriotism?
Latvia is our homeland. Our children live here. We speak Latvian language. Our roots are here. Should be just leave everything that was built here over the ages?! We own a small but popular restaurant in Riga. Although it gets tough from time to time, we do not want to end it. It would be giving up and losing faith.
Why is it hard to call Latvia’s national economy successful? Is it only because of bureaucracy?
I believe one of the problems is that we still do not have a clearly defined goal for our national economy.
But we do have the National Development Plan all the way to 2030. There are multiple strategies detailed in entire volumes of documents.
I have worked in state administration as advisor to a minister. I know well how and why such documents are compiled. State planning is necessary, but the question is about its efficiency. But I don’t mean changing the new planning documents – only the thought model. I think one A4 format sheet of paper would be enough to detail priorities for Latvia’s national economy and the first steps necessary to achieve them. It would be enough to understand where we stand and what we wish to achieve. Right now there are three priorities. Only with clear goals for the national economy will we be able to create an effective tax system, appropriate education system and small objective-focused unit of officials. Right now, everything is upside down.
But as long as there is no such plan – what should be done?
Regardless of existence of different plans, the first and foremost objective for any respectable official is doing their job honestly. People should do what they love and what they are good at. Work should be completed to the end, because unfinished work might as well be non-existent. Secondly, we have to maintain our humanity. Today, when value systems are rapidly changing around the world, when people find it difficult to separate truth from lies, being human prevents us from self-destruction. Finally, we should never lose faith. Only faith can help us overcome challenges and find new opportunities. Nothing is easily ruined as one’s faith in himself… And sometimes we are the ones who do it.
What is your to-do list?
I have a lot of work to do to ensure shipping, transports and logistics do not die in Latvia. I have to ensure that it becomes Latvia’s priority industry. It would be a clear message to everyone that Latvia is the region’s dominating country when it comes to transport and logistics. Transport is the blood of the country’s economic development. There is no way to deliver parcels and letters without logistics and it is impossible to supply stores with goods without it. Without a normal, functional road infrastructure, ambulance, fire fighters or other services will not be able to reach far-away regions. Good and effective infrastructure, transport and logistics can help develop practically any industry.
Everything is simple; there is no need to re-invent the bicycle. The state makes transport and logistics its priority industry. We then work to create an appropriate tax policy to attract new cargoes and investments to help develop ports and railway infrastructure to accommodate cargoes coming from China, Russia, Belarus and elsewhere. All legal, administrative, regulatory and tax obstacles should be cleared away for this industry’s development. Its development will help other associated industries to develop – there will be work for people employed in the service industry, new companies will emerge, tax revenue will grow, people’s purchasing power will grow, and the country’s demographic situation will start to improve. I’m not saying there should be only one priority industry. There could be two or three. But they have to be clearly defined.
But the state administration has its own comfort zone, it seems.
The biggest threat is the fact that people, including state administration workers, are afraid. They are afraid of change, afraid of voicing opinions that do not comply with the politically correct position, and afraid of being misunderstood. Fear makes it hard to develop. It limits a person’s internal freedom and justice.
Latvia is a free and independent country. We have the freedom to decide what’s best for our country. There are many countries in which people do not have this kind of freedom. We know what it’s like when there are no opportunities. Let’s look at the current situation. A study performed at the end of 2016 shows – 65% of Latvia’s residents do not trust the government and 75% do not trust legislators. If more than 51% of the population does not trust the government and executive power, I believe it means a crisis of democracy. People no longer trust their own country, because they associate the country with the ones who make decisions. It means a very low index for state power and ruined public trust.
Ilona, I refuse to believe in absolute stupidity and ignorance. There is no such thing. People who take office in the government have good education, professional and political experience. Our country has a large number of officials. And I do not believe it is appropriate to respond to different situations in such a wrong, illogical and primitive manner. I do not believe decision-makers are unable to make important decisions when they have to. I do not believe people have no basic understanding of what businessmen and officials say. And because I do not believe in ignorance on such a scale, one has to wonder if it is more intentional behaviour and intentional serving of someone else’s interests.
You mentioned the study regarding residents’ trust in state institutions. I will mention a survey, according to which 72% of residents wish to receive more money this year. Not health, not better work from state institutions, but money. Why is that?
It is only logical. The lack of money limits the main aspect – a person’s freedom. Without money people are unable to satisfy their primary needs. People don’t need a whole lot – a home to come back to after work and food to sustain life. If these primary needs are not satisfied, the organism becomes functionally threatened. What else should people think about in such a situation – state development?
Maybe people think about creating a business and becoming an employer?
Anyone in Latvia who wishes to start a business can do that, which is good. There are countries in which it is much harder to do. Registration of a business in Latvia does not require enormous investments and time. If a person has a clear business plan, it can be done.
Unfortunately, when it comes to running a business, people believe being a businessman is something bad. It is a very, very negative trend. If you’re a businessman, you definitely have grey zone. If you can’t handle taxes, you are a bad businessman. This is what is heard from the Saeima, our legislators – the ones responsible for the country’s tax system. A loop is formed, and you need to think of a way to escape it. But businessmen are the only ones who make money and secure state budget revenue!
Your daily life is very stressful – you have to take care of the transit industry, practice law, manage a family business, care for your children…. Where do you get so much energy?
I love what I do and I believe in what I do. My family’s support is important as well. Children. My husband Maris, who always supports, motivates and honestly points our any mistakes I make. I also have my cat Garfilds, who was brought home by my dear daughter Nikola eight years ago from Talsi. Since then he has become a member of our family.