The rhetoric and reality of pursuing territorial cohesion in Latvia
Introduction Latvia provides an interesting case study in relation to any discussion about territorial cohesion and interregional disparities. As with all Member States, both those who joined the European Union prior to 2004 and those who have joined since, the concept of territorial cohesion is still relatively vague and remains open to interpretation. Until the recent economic downturn, the consistently high levels of economic growth experienced in Latvia over a number of years were driven by the Riga capital region. The non-metropolitan regions (Kurzeme, Vidzeme, Zemgale and Latgale) are unable to compete with the economic, social and cultural dominance of the capital and this clearly has significant implications for spatial development. As a result, Latvia is experiencing increasing internal regional disparities between Riga and the rest of the country and the relative competitiveness of the non-metropolitan regions is being reduced. Furthermore, Latvia has undergone a dramatic transition during the turbulent times following independence and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Policymakers and the planning community have had to readjust the planning system in a highly fluid context after the breakdown of the socialist system and the emergence of numerous spatial challenges during the transition period. The absorption of EU funding is a priority for the Government and, in order to meet this challenge, a number of national planning documents have been prepared, such as the National Development Plan (NDP) 2007-2013 (LCM 2006) and the draft Sustainable Development Strategy 2030 (MRDLG 2008). The latter document will include a National Spatial Development Perspective that will promote the simultaneous pursuance of cohesion and competitiveness. An analysis of spatial planning documents in Latvia reveals the considerable influence of European spatial planning, particularly the European Spatial Development Perspective (ESDP – CEC 1999) and, to a lesser degree, the Territorial Agenda (DE Presidency 2007a). Policy-makers in Latvia are simultaneously seeking to reduce regional disparities and promote more balanced and polycentric development, while at the same time relying on the international competitiveness of Riga to drive national growth. In this sense, Latvia encapsulates the paradoxes in terms of the dual pursuance of competitiveness and cohesion, which are apparent at
both the EU level and within individual Member States (cf. Tewdwr-Jones Chapter 3 and Maier Chapter 11). Exploring the elements introduced above, the first section of the chapter provides an overview of the transition and transformation process in Latvia from the end of the Soviet period, including the evolution of the institutional and socioeconomic context. The origins of professional and expert communities and networks in the field of spatial planning and the extent to which they have become internationalized is then discussed in the following section, where the role and evolution of Latvian networks and communities in diverse learning contexts provided by the enlargement and the resultant processes of Europeanization are assessed. The penultimate section discusses the potential application and interpretation of the concept of territorial cohesion in the Latvian context. Finally some reflections are provided on the extent to which there are similarities or differences in the rhetoric and reality of Latvian spatial development policy.