Latvia’s Arduous Pilgrimage

By September 10, 2009Article, Atlantic Eye

RIGA, Latvia, Sept. 10 (UPI) — Oskars Kastens, parliamentarian and until 2008 minister for social integration, represents a generation of youngish, competent and energetic Latvian politicians. Formerly a well-known journalist, the late-30-something Kastens invited me to Riga after we met in Istanbul in May. I had not been to Riga for 15 years. The changes are dramatic — and mostly impressive.

Former President Vaira Vike-Freiberga (1999-2007) is amongst the best known contemporary Latvians. She is a close ally of the United States and seriously anti-Russian. The Prague Society hosted her in 2006 as part of President Havel’s Forum 2000. An expat-Latvian-Canadian professor, Freiberga is a seriously smart lady. She is also forthright, down-to-earth and highly respected around the world.

Latvia has been passed back and forth many times during history. Controlled by Germans, Poles, Swedes and finally Russians, a Latvian Republic emerged following World War I, but it was annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940 — an action never recognized by the United States and many other countries. Russian troops left in 1994, but the Russian minority remains a concern for Russia.

Latvia joined the European Union in 2004, along with the Czech Republic, Cyprus, Estonia, Hungary, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia. The same year it joined NATO with Bulgaria, Estonia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia. Russia was less than pleased.

The name “Latvia” originates from the ancient Latgalians, one of four eastern Baltic tribes that formed the ethnic core of the Latvian people (c. 8th-12th centuries). Latvia has a Nordic feel. It is mostly low plains and slightly larger than West Virginia (64,589 sq km). Today there are about 2.6 million Latvians worldwide.

Riga, a city of some 800,000 inhabitants, has a Hanseatic feel. It reminds me of Antwerp, Boston, Malmo or Hamburg. Everywhere the former presence of a seafaring people can be felt. Many Burgher houses still exist and have recently been renovated. In between this architectural magnificence are also Soviet-style buildings, some of which are now being torn down — and none too early.

About 100 kilometers outside of Riga, Kastens brought me to an Estonian WWI and German WWII military cemetery. I was moved. Almost all of the soldiers were young enough to be my sons. The history of Latvia and Germany is a complicated one. Relations between the two states are good, but remnants of Germany’s cruel WWII occupation remain deeply embedded in Latvian minds. Initially Latvians were pleased to be “rescued” by Germans and even joined elite SS units. They soon realized their freedom from Russian occupation was a poison chalice.

Latvians are quite nervous about the Obama administration’s rapprochement with Russia. A former prime minister was circumspect, but nonetheless clear, about being “concerned about U.S. policy.” Several parliamentarians and current committee chairs were more direct. Latvians want to be friends, allies and military supporters (Latvia sent troops to Iraq) with the United States.

But Latvians cannot, and will not, forget how they were treated by pre- and post-Soviet Russia.

Any move by the United States towards Russia makes the Baltic states queasy — as they should be. The United States must publicly and clearly show support for Latvia. If the great bear doesn’t like it — well then they will just have to lump it. The United States should not needlessly annoy Russia, but Russia cannot have everything her way.

Latvia’s relationship with the Russian Federation often complicates its relationship with Russians on Latvian soil. The Soviet Union purposely moved Russians into Baltic territories to help “Russianize” Soviet space. During former times there were bars and restaurants that were visited only by Russians; the same was true for Latvians — everyone knew which place was for whom, and one did not cross the line.

Today, there continues to be a mini-Russian world among the Latvians. There is Russian-language TV in Latvia — though most watch Russian TV, which is highly anti-Latvian. The Russian-Latvians, about 30 percent of the population, see themselves as Russian — and downtrodden. Yet the last thing they want is to be back in Russia; they like being in the European Union. They criticize Russia themselves, but if Latvians do the same, it is viewed very dimly indeed; it somewhat reminds me of the Turkish in Germany. It is a serious public policy issue and one Latvia must grapple with.

In other meetings with academics, NGOs and a former Latvian ambassador to the United States, there was a general consensus that the Obama administration has sent out confusing messages to the Baltics. “The current policies are either badly defined, incoherent or non-existent,” said a leading professor. “You could disagree with Bush, and trust me we did,” said a prominent former minister, “but we always knew where he stood — especially on the Baltics.”

The new U.S. ambassador to Latvia, Judith Garber, is an old acquaintance from my early days in Prague. She is a good and competent soul. She has her work cut out for her.

So does the Obama administration.

Said a former ranking official, “If the United States is not careful, she will have lost her footing — and not only in the Baltics.”

Let us hope it ain’t so.

(UPI International Columnist Marc S. Ellenbogen is chairman of the Berlin, Copenhagen and Sydney-based Global Panel Foundation and president of the Prague Society. A supporter of the anti-communist underground, he has advised political candidates and is a founding trustee of the Democratic Expat Leadership Council.)