Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Latvian society still needs freedom after 21 years of independence

By the standards of adulthood in some countries, the age of 21, Latvia has reached adulthood in its second period of independence. 21 years ago, in late August, 1991, Latvia’s independence was recognized by the brave little nation of Iceland. Others quickly followed, although it took a while for both the United States and what was left of the Soviet Union/Russia to get on the bandwagon. With that, the issue of formal independence was settled, followed by Latvia’s admission to the United Nations, to other international organizations, and, in 2004, to both NATO and the European Union (EU). Latvia has fully joined “the community of nations” and all that.
The reason Latvian engaged in a struggle to regain their independence was, in large part, because they were not free, not able to discuss the status of their nation without fear of arrest or persecution, they were unable to make key decisions of economic policy, they were not free to leave the USSR or even to travel internally with full freedom. With independence, many of these freedoms were renewed, at least at the national level. The nation state was free within the rules of the international communities it had joined.
Under the expanded freedoms of assembly and expression of the perestroika period of the late 1980s, Latvian society was able to vent 40 years of frustration and anger at the injustices, oppression and absurdity of the Soviet occupation. This meant that most “liberated” (unleashed, rather than free) expression was, in a sense, one dimensional. The system was bad, Communists were bad, the Soviet economy was unable to meet consumer needs, etc., etc.. By Soviet standards, to be able to criticize, even to rant against the existing order was an unprecedented form of “free expression” of opinions almost universally shared.  This was something quite different from what was understood as free expression in the West, that is, at times a cacophony of diverse voices and viewpoints.
To be sure, there were debates during the “awakening” movement of the late 1980s, among them, on whether Latvia should seek autonomy inside a reformed USSR (whatever that meant), or whether there should be complete independence (which happened, essentially, in the middle of this incomplete debate).  Independence was suddenly a reality, rather than a goal to which progress could be controlled or paced. There could be little more debate on this issue.
After 1991, so-called political parties were formed across the entire political spectrum, from ultranationalists to revanchists, who wanted a return to the Soviet Union, perhaps with some modifications. To some extent, there was free political debate among these parties, but it was largely based on superficial preconceived ideas of what conservatism, social democracy, even nationalism meant. After 40 years of occupation, preceded by six years of authoritarian rule, there was little or no practical democratic tradition in Latvia. The country had only been a rather shambolic parliamentary republic up to the bloodless coup in May, 1934, just 16 years after declaring independence from Czarist Russia, hardly a model of freedom and openness.
Latvia regained its independence never really having had any tradition of democratic societal debate (OK, historians may contradict me), at least not in modern times (post WWII) and therefore in the living memory of anyone except 90-somethings. Latvians, during the freedom struggles of the late 80s , experienced freedom as the license to vent their own, largely similar rage and pain, without having to listen to other, noticeably different voices. One was, after all, standing in a largely harmonic choir. Instead of respecting diverse different opinions, there was just “us” and a “them” whose power and authority was waning. “Them” were only capable of  responding with “Soviet” arguments and warnings of the dire consequences of separatism that largely fell on deaf ears or were laughed at. Such “debates” with darkly comical, pernicious buffoons (hard line Communists) hardly prepared anyone for serious and respectful political debate.
Later, debates in the Saeima also reflected this lack of democratic tradition, as well as the limited political and economic education (in a modern Western sense) of may parliamentarians. Certainly, the parliament was not a glowing example for society at large. Looking at present day attitudes toward free expression, non-conformity, opposing opinions – never mind such “hot” issues as gay rights – it is clear that 21 years ago Latvia regained its national independence, but in 21 years it has failed to become a truly free, democratic society. The independence came, perhaps, too fast and easy, the freedom is still struggling at the everyday, practical, interpersonal and intergroup level. Latvians are still “free” to rant at others, to vent their own rage, but reach for the tools of repression when others do the same, but from different positions. So thanks for the independence, but please, bring on some real freedom, the kind where people aren’t threatened by diversity, open debate and tolerance.  

Monday, August 20, 2012

Authoritarian society in Latvia tilts against Pussy Riot?

The outrage against  the harsh sentencing of the Russian musicians and performance artists Pussy Riot seems to have passed by many Latvians (to be fair, there have not been mass gatherings or  riots in the streets in any other countries). What disturbs me is not the passivity on this issue, but the fact that a significant number of Latvians in social networks seem to support the punishment of the three Russian women, who have already been jailed for five months.
Latvia has been exposed to democratic values for more than 20 years. One could even say that the whole freedom movement of the late 1980s was based on a hope to once again be a free, democratic nation. But it apparently came at a time when the social fabric of Latvia was damaged beyond some critical breaking point, leaving an almost indelible Soviet mentality of  “ it is right to repress what I dislike” fixed in the personalities of many Latvians. I judge that by the response of people on Twitter and other social networks, where I suggested that the arrest and anticipated sentencing of Pussy Riot was a violation of the freedom of expression.
I was shocked – though knowing Latvia, only slightly shocked – how people who are knee-jerk anti-Russian on other issues (Russian language, Russian schools, the New Wave music festival) were so quick to align with the authoritarian Kremlin when it came to three young women causing less than a minute of disturbance in a largely empty Orthodox church. People carried on about how it was right to punish those who had “desecrated” a holy place (where, apparently, other non-religious events had taken place), how the behavior of the women was somehow despicable. There were also claims that Pussy Riot members had made a pornographic video and had participated in group sex (as if either of these actions lessened their freedom of expression with regard to the incident at the Orthodox Church). But mainly, there was a general belief that it was right to repress and punish those who do not agree with one’s own beliefs or some ill defined public morality and order.  The authoritarian personality lives on in  Latvia, it is one of the most persistent legacies of the Soviet occupation and, perhaps, also the authoritarian regime from 1934 – 1940. 

Friday, August 03, 2012

On emigration and the Riga fundraising ban

A couple of events coincided and made me want to write something about the state of society in Latvia. The latest demographic statistics show that Latvia has lost some 340 000 inhabitants in the past 12 years, of which more than 211 000 emigrated and some 128 000 represented “negative natural increase”, a bizarre way of saying that, in fact, the Latvian population is slowly dying out.
Last year 30 380 persons, most of them of prime working age (including more than 4 000 children) left the country to move abroad more or less permanently. Net migration was just over 23 000, since some 7 000 immigrants (or repatriated emigrants) arrived in Latvia. Nonetheless, the emigration statistics show that precisely the part of the population that should be having children in Latvia and diminishing “negative natural increase” is the one that is leaving the country. As a total percentage of a population of perhaps two million, 30 000 may not sound like much (even though it is equal to all of Rēzekne packing up and leaving), but it is a larger percentage of the productive and fertile segment of the population – call it the life blood of a nation.
Why is Latvia bleeding out? I have discussed the issue before – and the reason is a complex set of circumstance that, at the end of the day, tell the mobile and ambitious part of the population that nothing is likely to change in the deep governance of society in the foreseeable future. By deep governance, I mean not only the behavior of government, but also the ability of society to self-organize and the way it has done so hitherto. In short, Latvia has failed to launch from being a wounded post-soviet society to becoming a modern, self-confident, educated democratic community.
The stubborn death of trust
Community requires trust and there has been little in the track record of those running Latvia to cause any trust in institutions (polls show that there has only been a slight bounce-back from levels of trust in socio-political institutions that could only be called a kind of pernicious anarchism). Meanwhile, as I believe I have written before, Latvia’s joining the European Union, coupled with cheap airlines and the capability of rich and frequent communication via the internet, have led to hundreds of thousands of Latvians exercising their choice of governance by emigrating, but still retaining physical and virtual ties with friends and family in the “fatherland”.
Indeed, some recent videos I saw of Latvians celebrating the midsummer Jāņi festival in the United Kingdom were eerily like my childhood as a child of political emigres in the US. Back in the 50s, Latvians in the Boston area who had been in the US for about as many years (4 or 5) as those working in the UK  celebrated Jāņi by gathering at a farmstead with a large field and arriving, often, in the first cars they had bought once settled in. The videos of Latvians gathering at a rented farm field somewhere in the UK were almost the same thing – just some of the vans and cars looked like prosperity had come a bit more quickly to the Brit-Lats. And like my parents generation in the 1950s, they were young families with kids and an aura around them that, henceforth, this is what “being Latvian” will have to be. Unlike in the 1950s and 1960s, when Latvia was a Soviet occupied country, visits to Latvia from the UK or Ireland are no problem at all, which does not change the fact that these people are starting to form semi-permanent communities in their countries of emigration.
The easy growth of emigration 2.0
The interesting thing about the communities that formed in the post-war exile was that they could not really grow by adding new members from Latvia and many of them, due to processes of assimilation and aging, are at a tipping point of starting the slide toward extinction of their identities (the people aren’t going anywhere, there will be fourth and fifth generation kids with “strange”  names and some inkling of why). The new emigrant communities are being fed by a constant flow of new arrivals from Latvia, giving them a different dynamic that the handful of 90-somethings gathering to celebrate 65 years of the Pigbridge Latvian Welfare Society (Pigbridža was a fictitious American town with a big Latvian community that came up in some satirical Latvian emigre writing).
Fundraisers will always be among us
As to what is happening back in Latvia , the Riga City Council has banned individual and small-scale fundraising starting August 1. There was a noticeable drop in the number of fundraisers around the Riga Central Station, a favorite gathering place for both mendicants and moochers, with the latter taking the upper hand. The daily dog encampment, grown to three animals and a variable crew of up to three misery marketers, was gone. Hippety-Hop, the young otherwise able-bodied below-the-knee amputee has not been seen for a while. One pathetic looking old lady (a station-area regular) was seen talking with her consultants, but not actively soliciting donations. The municipal police have been firmly herding the fundraisers away, but only to have them return once backs are turned.
This is an insoluable problem and probably a waste of police time and legislative effort, since fundraisers would not be doing their job if they were had the means to pay fines and for the true supplicants, jail (showers, food, a bed) could be a blessing. The fundraisers who are backed by a crew (who can enforce getting their cut far better than the police can enforce a fine) will be temporarily harassed and scattered, as well they should be, but there the core crime isn’t fundraising (which really shouldn’t be a crime), but rather a domestic form of human trafficking. Here, I would be perfectly comfortable with some knees getting busted (but not the ones bent in supplication, rather, the knees and heads of those emptying the mendicant’s cup at the end of the day). Aggresive fundraising should also be punishable – two stern refusals by the prospect and the fundraiser/moocher deserves a kick in the teeth.
Broadly speaking, the fundraising is one minor symptom of the failure of Latvia to launch and of the discrepancy between macro-economic statistics and street-level reality (against the background of ongoing emigration). Beggary, to finally call it by its politically incorrect name, will always be with us in every kind of society or social order, if only because there is a small percentage of humanity who simply blow off the open cars  as the train of history races on, and they cannot be gathered back.
Finally, I have seen the macro argument made by Edward Lucas that Eastern Europe should be dropped as a description or a concept, and most of his arguments are...logical. So why, in defiance of that logic, do I see Eastern Europe every day here in some aspect of Latvian life. More on that in later posts...