Local residents, businesses and municipalities in one rural part of Latvia are having conversations that bear similarities to those of the past few months in South Estonia – in both cases over the implications of an expanded, or in the Latvian case, completely new, military training area.
One sharp difference, however, is that in Latvia, the state has been able to earmark an area which is sparsely populated and largely on state-owned land in the first place, "Aktuaalne kaamera" Latvia correspondent Ragnar Kond reported Tuesday.
This should aid with minimizing disruption, compared with the Nursipalu expansion zone in Estonia, where over 20 property holders will be subject to forced sales.
The village of Lone (pictured), close to the Lithuanian border, is one of the closest populated points to the planned new Latvian military zone, in the historical region of Selonia (Selija). But a glance at the map shows there is plenty of land between the heavily forested and the limits of the zone. This means the village, along with others, has a reasonable buffer zone between it and the training area, and local people should not be affected unduly by its establishment, AK reported.
The Latvia-Lithuania border lies only 15km to the South at that location.
Of the nearly 26,000 hectares within the earmarked zone, only 1,000 hectares consist of privately-owned land, while land under municipal control makes up only 31 hectares.
The vast majority of the area consists of state-owned forest.
A recent decision by the Saeima, the Latvian parliament, allows for an expedited tree-felling process
Around a dozen private owners have had to give up their properties, including a hunting club, called Gambija – though this has no permanent residents in any case.
Gambija board member Zigmunds Avens said: "Our hunters have owned this place for twenty years. Our center is unique, because it is the first of its kind to be built in Latvia. We are now looking for a place to move to. As of now, this transfer of ownership has started, while it will become clear what the compensation level is to be, later on."
Nonetheless, the remote location of the planned training area does not mean that there won't be a surge in traffic and other noise, which can still affect local life.
However, according to the leaders of nearby Jekabpils municipality, the pluses outweigh the minuses, while Latvia's defense needs are well understood by all.
Raivis Ragainis, Jekabpils municipality council chair, said: "Of course, no one has any desire to forgo their property. But both local residents and hunting clubs alike understand that this project does not simply arise from a desire from the Ministry of Defense. It is essential to ensure the security of our country.
The development should also help the local economy, he added.
"There will be thousands of defense forces personnel at the residential complex when it is built, people need to go to the hairdresser and carry out other day-to-day tasks. This means shops, various services, eateries, cafes, rest and recuperation spots etc. are all required," he went on.
Janis Garizons, State Secretary at the Latvian Ministry of Defense, praised the public and local government's approach to the changes.
"The attitude of both residents and municipalities has been excellent," he told AK.
At the same time, local municipalities affected by the development say they would like to get more accurate information from the Ministry of Defense in order to make their plans. An air of competition is even palpable, AK reported – with questions revolving around, for instance, whether to travel to Riga, over 100km away, for essential services or to ensure these are provided locally.
The answers to these questions include rough figures for the number of newcomers likely to be permanently based at the planned facility.
Raivis Ragainis said: "We would already like to be brought up to speed with how many people are likely to come here, what the road network will be like, and what the schooling services are that we need to provide for the children."
Latvia and Estonia have almost identical population density levels at around the 30-people-per-square-kilometer mark, and comparable population sizes (around 1.8 million for Latvia versus 1.3 million for Estonia).
However, Riga, with nearly twice the number of residents of Tallinn, is home to a considerably larger proportion of the overall populace, while Latvia has four more cities with a population over 50,000 (Daugavpils, Liepāja, Jelgava and Jūrmala), compared with two for Estonia (Tartu and Narva).
The upshot is the Latvian countryside is in many places even more sparsely populated than Estonia's - Zasa parish, where Lone is located, has a population density of just 6 people per square kilometer; Võru County, where the Nursipalu area is situated, has a density of around 15 people per square kilometer.
Latvia reinstated conscription this year, while the lead NATO nation within that country's enhanced forward presence battlegroup, Canada, has announced it will double its military presence in-country, by 2026.
Editor: Andrew Whyte, Merili Nael
Source: 'Aktuaalne kaamera', reporter Ragnar Kond.