Nothing Special as Latvia penguins lampoon leaders

RIGA (Reuters) - Four men dressed as penguins may seem to have little to do with economic crisis.

Musicians dressed in penguin masks from the "Nothing Special" band rehearse in Riga February 25, 2009. REUTERS/Ints Kalnins

But in tiny Latvia, hit by a collapsing economy and the need to go cap-in-hand for international aid, the penguin garb worn by pop group Nothing Special reflects a bitter sense of humor at politicians’ failures in response to the crisis.

The band are just one aspect of a cottage industry forming around a forecast fall in the economy this year of 12 percent as the collapse of a credit-fueled boom flips Latvia into its worst recession since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.

They have called themselves after well-known politicians or businessmen, and reflect a chronic lack of trust in the political establishment of the ex-Soviet country, a European Union and NATO member since 2004.

Nothing Special was inspired by the English-language blunders of former Finance Minister Atis Slakteris, who late last year used the words to described what was happening to Latvia -- which in December took an IMF rescue package.

The band’s penguin costumes come from a New Year’s Eve address by the prime minister, who called on people to gather together like the birds, which huddle against the cold winds.

“We think the finance minister’s statement, ‘nothing special’, is in itself a conceptual work of art, as to say ‘nothing special’ is simply amazing,” said the band leader, who goes under the name of Aigars.

“That really inspired us,” he added. Other band members nodded their penguin heads in agreement.

Speaking to Reuters in costume in an apartment where the band practices, Aigars and the rest of the band refused to reveal their real identities: Aigars is named after a former prime minister, Aigars Kalvitis.

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Slakteris was replaced when Latvia formed a new government this month. But he remains an icon, his portrait printed on a range of T-shirts selling well for Liena Lagzdina’s Put on a T-shirt company in Riga for about 9 Latvian lats ($16.09) each.

“This is more like laughter through seriousness because the theme we are caricaturing is very serious,” said Lagzdina.

As well as “nothing special,” the T-shirts feature Slakterisms such as “we will be taupigi,” the Latvian word for frugal he used when struggling in English. Another of his sayings was: “My answer will be. But I will not say.”


Social anthropologist Aivita Putnina said finding something to laugh about during bad times was healthy.

“Collective jokes create a community,” she said. “It is sign by which people recognize each other and their point of view, which is maybe not outrightly critical or negative, or supportive, but is ironic.”

In January, popular frustration at Latvia’s government boiled over into a riot, when hundreds of people threw stones and bottles at the parliament building, overturned police cars and battled with police in the streets.

The new government is led by the former main center-right opposition party, New Era, but includes the four parties of the administration that collapsed in February after failing to agree a round of budget cuts to secure further IMF funding.

Now, with the crisis in Latvia and neighboring Lithuania and Estonia having an impact across the Baltic Sea in the Nordic states whose banks are all exposed to Baltic borrowers, the joke may not last much longer.

“It was funny in the beginning to make jokes about the economy and politicians, but now I think it’s time to grow up and do something to help the situation,” said Karina Jakovicka, 39, a shop assistant.

“I am not saying that it is not okay to joke about this bad situation, but sometimes it has to be enough. I have friends who have lost their jobs and they have nothing to laugh about.”

A recent Eurobarometer poll showed only 16 percent of Latvians trust their government, with the same reading for Lithuania and Hungary, also hurt by the crisis.

Another poll by the Providus center for public policy showed more than half the electorate think the largest ruling party in the coalition, the People’s Party, is corrupt. A fifth of those polled also thought other leading parties were corrupt.

Such feelings are fertile ground for political humor and have been fostered by a tradition popular since Soviet times of telling anecdotes, particularly in the confidential confines of a kitchen with a few drinks.

Blunders targeted in such get-togethers have included the former prime minister Kalvitis, who at the end of 2006 promised his people “seven fat years” -- a saying many recall now the economy has collapsed.

In earlier years, another prime minister called his own country “a nation of fools” and the current president raised a smile soon after taking office when, trying to express himself about something during a news conference, he asked “who am I?”

“I don’t think we’ll have to wait long for something new to talk about and do designs on,” said T-shirt designer Lagzdina.

additional reporting by Jorgen Johansson, writing by Patrick Lannin; editing by Sara Ledwith