The year that is now drawing to a close will remain in the history with several things. This was a year when we first saw how many of our compatriots are using the opportunities of the open Europe to go to work outside Latvia. The scale of departure surprised everyone. But let us think about what exactly we were so surprised. We should not be surprised about the fact that salaries in Latvia are the lowest in Europe. We have always known that. Obviously, the surprise was about the fact that in Latvia there are so many enterprising, able, hard-working and confident Latvians who possess the courage and skills to stand up and begin competing in the European labour market.
In Europe, already word is going round about the diligent, hard-working, honest and industrious Latvians. This opinion prevails in Ireland, England, Germany and other places in Europe. But have you heard such opinions in Latvia? In Europe, employers are praising our good workers, but in Latvia only complaints are heard that nobody is willing to work that everyone is lazy and just drinks.
When reading Latvian newspapers and watching TV it often seems that Latvians are cursed with all possible vices and that like children they must be particularly taught to do even the simplest things: carry a reflector when in the dark, fasten seatbelts when driving, behave culturally and other similar things.
Why is there such a difference between how we are perceived abroad and how we perceive ourselves? Maybe we belittle ourselves without reason? Maybe we are used to look at our compatriots in a critical and disdainful way, but in England or Ireland people see Latvians how they really are – honest, hard-working and good people.
Today’s open Europe offers us opportunities but also puts responsibility on us. And it is important that some day our people return to Latvia with the experience and money gained. And that they invest this experience and money in Latvia’s development. It is important that these people remain Latvians, that they do not lose their love towards Latvia. Sadly, by belittling people around us and belittling Latvia we have been taught not to love Latvia, not to love our state.
Those who ask “Why should I love this state?” do not love it and it is also difficult to explain it to them. It is just like in relations between people. But I am against this negativism. I am against the incessant belittling of Latvia. I know that I will be scoffed at, that cynics will express ironic remarks, but I want to ask you all in the New Year – let us love our Latvia as it is! Let us love our state!
This year will remain in the history with many good things. Latvia is the fastest-growing market economy in the world. We are world champions as concerns growth rates. This year, we have had the fastest GDP growth in the history of Latvia, the most successful tax collection, we have approved the biggest ever budget. This year, we evidenced the biggest increase in wages and in the coming year it will continue. Exactly a year ago I said that we need another breakthrough. It has begun and we have ensured all the preconditions for it to continue for the next seven years. We succeeded in getting 5.7 billion euro from the common European budget for the next seven years. This is a great impetus for development.
I want to believe that we have become the world champions exactly because we have tried harder. I want to believe that we were annoyed by the fact that we are the poorest country in Europe. We do not want to be the last – this is what our hearts are saying. And this is a feeling that can unite us. In our hearts we all want to be proud of Latvia. And it is a feeling that can unite us. And where there is unity there is also success.
Our next task is to surpass Poland in terms of GDP per capita already next year. After that – to get into the top-20 of the richest European countries in five years time, and after five more years - the top-20 of richest countries in the world.
This is my vision, this is my national development plan.
What should be done first? Firstly – increase competitiveness of the economy. In the Government Declaration, huge attention has been paid to competitiveness of the economy, yet very little has been achieved. I assume responsibility for ensuring that next year we fare better. Next – measures for eliminating poverty and dealing with social issues. This was a year when simultaneously with unprecedented growth many of us were attacked by our greatest enemy – poverty. Housing costs, costs of medicine, food products, transportation - many things suddenly became more expensive. Not for everyone the increase in salaries and pensions could make up for this. Like a virus poverty first attacks the weakest. The elderly, the sick, the lonely. Now, when we have access to European funds, when we are the fastest growing market economy in the world, we can start thinking about more extensive social programmes than before.
In January we are going to increase pension benefits for the first time and to index them twice a year. In next months almost all benefits will be increased. Many public sector employees will receive their first salary increase. But this is just the beginning. And, finally, the most important task of the Government is efficient use of EU funds, which to a great extent will determine country’s future.
In order to think about future, we first need a clear idea about our potential in the context of global economy. Latvia will never be a competitor of China with regard to low-cost labour. And we do not intend to be a country of cheap labour. We are going to be a country of highly skilled, educated and well-paid people. Programming, research and development services, science, culture, market of highly qualified professionals – these are areas in which we can surely be strong competitors. Nobody is able to say today what will become “wonder drugs” of tomorrow’s economy.
Quantum computers, genetics, new browsers or anything else – our science, our production and our people must be ready to provide services and ensure knowledge for introduction and development of these technologies. Therefore we must invest in our children in order to provide best education and training at every stage.
Our position in the world will depend upon quality our education system. Our excellence will depend upon excellence of our schools.
I have instructed to restructure the plans in which it was projected that 70% of EU funds would be invested in road upgrading and construction of infrastructure objects and only 30% - in people. Funding to education accounted for just some per cent. These portions must to be changed. No doubt, we need good roads but more important are people, education and science. Otherwise, we will get good roads on which Latvians will go to Ireland and Byelorussian, Ukrainian and Russian migrant workers will come to Latvia. We will never let that happen.
I was said that currently our education system and science is not prepared to attract such amount of money, which I would like to invest in these areas. Education faces a number of other problems relating to its content, quality and correspondence to the market requirements. I have three sons, and I see all the problems and shortages. Education requires enormous efforts but we will manage – we have a good minister, political will and money, as well. We must invest these billions in education of our children and science. This is our plan.
Dear compatriots, if we avoid silly mistakes, we can look forward to seven years of prosperity. Years of fatness, if we remember the story about Joseph. We are already world champions in terms of the rate of development, and in the next decade we can realise those dreams we all had during the time of barricades – to be masters of our own country and not migrant workers in a foreign land.
We have the opportunity to make Latvia a bright jewel in the crown of Europe, a land of prosperity and welfare. This year has shown that we are able to do so. I wish you happy New Year on my behalf and on behalf of the Cabinet of Ministers!