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Former Subjects View Russia With Caution, Nostalgia

A Latvian invites Russians to come back - as tourists

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 30, 1997



RIGA, LATVIA

Viesturs Koziols is a young man in a hurry. And there isn't a shadow of a doubt in his mind that his fastest route to the future is through the West.

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As far as he is concerned, any attempt by the Russians to reestablish their old hegemony in this ancient Baltic city would be nothing but "a big, big mess."

Mr. Koziols has already made and lost one fortune in the business jungle of the former Soviet Union. Now he is part owner of the local subsidiary of a Norwegian clothing firm, pegging his career to stable Scandinavia, in a move symptomatic of Latvia's leanings as a nation.

To Koziols, independence from Soviet rule and a future independent of Russia are simple: They mean "freedom in business life."

"If you are not lazy or stupid you can do something - start your own company, be a small farmer," he says. "If you are ready to work 12 or 14 hours a day, you can be successful and reap your own harvest."

Koziols is clearly making the most of his freedom. Dressed in a collarless black flannel jacket and yellow tie decorated with panda bears, Koziols talks nonstop about his business plans - when he is not glued to his pocket-sized portable phone.

His schedule one recent day offered a snapshot of the business life that has burgeoned here since Latvia shook off Soviet rule.

At 8 o'clock in the morning, he was meeting potential lessors of space in a new clothing store that Koziols's company is opening. An hour later, he was discussing with a lawyer how to pay off debts contracted from an earlier business deal that went sour.

The rest of the morning was spent negotiating with a manufacturer for a better model of cash register for his stores and interviewing candidates to head his growing company's new personnel department. By afternoon, he was talking to bankers and meeting officials from a privatization agency about a forthcoming auction.

Koziols says he doesn't feel any threat from Russia at the moment, which he expects is too busy putting its own house in order to turn its attention to former satellite states. But, he adds, "I can imagine that in certain circumstances, Russia could turn back into some kind of unknown and dangerous force."

To protect Latvia, Koziols suggests this defense: a multinational economy. "If we had 10 Norwegian companies here, 20 Swedish firms, and 5 American corporations - big ones - that would mean the Western countries would be tied economically to the Baltics, and we would feel much safer. Then we could count on Western support if things went bad in Russia."

In the meantime, Koziols would be happy to see Russians return to Latvia - as tourists, not occupiers. "If Russians want to visit us, they are welcome. They are customers, and a customer is always welcome."