Mocking T-shirts, penguin jibes lighten mood in Latvia

As Latvia’s economy shrinks, making fun of the Baltic state’s embattled leaders — with mocking T-shirts and penguin posters — has become a popular way to relieve tension, and for some to make money.

Finance Minister Atis Slakteris has been the main butt of jokes since struggling through an English-language television interview where he was pressed to explain what happened to turn Latvia from a European economic tiger into a recession mouse.

His answer, “Nothing special”, is now a standard joke, transformed into “nasing spesal” to reflect his heavy accent in English.

Entrepreneurs have jumped on the mockery wave, churning out T-shirts sporting “nasing spesal” and other Slakterisms — like the enigmatic, “My answer will be, but I will not say”.

A restaurant in Riga is luring customers with a “nasing spesal” menu which looks like a crumpled sheet of paper with blue-inked revisions to the dishes.

“We wanted to show that this menu is nothing special: the food is priced lower compared to the main menu and it’s really nothing fancy,” said restaurant worker Zane, 22.

Slakteris himself is unfazed by the mockery, said his spokesperson Diana Berzina.

“Our minister has said he is kind of happy that there are innovative people out there,” Berzina told AFP.

“He takes it very lightly,” she said, recognising that the biting humour reflects the public mood amid budget cuts and the deepening slump, with the Latvian economy expected to contract by 12% this year.

Opponents of Latvia’s centre-right administration — which polls show is the most unpopular government in Europe — have taken to the streets wielding banners that marry Slakteris’s phrase with the oddball “Penguin Revolution”.

That refers to a televised address by Prime Minister Ivars Godmanis in which he likened Latvians to penguins which huddle together for protection from a winter storm.

“You know, when in Antarctica there is a snow storm, penguins weather it, huddling together, in one large circle. If one goes astray, they pull him or her back up,” Godmanis said.

Penguins have marched into Latvia’s political vernacular, providing the name for a group dedicated to taking public officials to task and whose blog is entitled — what else — “Nasing Spesal”.

Asked why such phrases have caught on, University of Latvia political science Professor Janis Ikstens said: “In a way, it is nothing special.”

He added: “People are trying to make money, to attract their clients by using this very awkward phrase.”

He also said Latvia’s tamer television fare fails to give the public the kind of outlet seen in other countries where acerbic, politically charged comedy is a staple.

“Why do people laugh at death?” Ikstens asked.

“Because they can’t do anything about it. In Latvia, there’s nothing you can do about politicians, just laugh at them.” — AFP

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