Fire and Night (I)
"America is divided by a discussion about itself. Europe is divided by a discussion about America. In Latvia, no discussion is taking place at all."
-- Vita Matīss, "Vienotības sapnis izsapņots?"
In Diena last year, Vita Matīss considered the relations between America, Europe, and Latvia. Taking Timothy Garton Ash's remarks on the four faces of the UK, she saw Latvia as having seven. Britain has one face turned to the world, one to its navel, one to America, and one to Europe. Headaches are guaranteed -- but Latvia has three additional faces: a fifth face looking back to Russia, a sixth turning in any convenient direction like the cock atop Saint Peter's steeple, and a seventh determinedly buried in the sand.
"The sixth and seventh faces have often been the standard positions of the Latvian Janus, shown to the world, since it hasn't reached even a minimum consensus on which of the faces, one through five, is the real one -- and doesn't know whether it's possible for a few faces to look in one direction at the same time without hurting its head or breaking its neck." (My crude translation.)
I would observe that "the world" -- and even "the Western world" -- is at the very least as polarized and conflicted as Latvia is. Not a little of the world mainly sees the third face -- the one facing America. As Matīss notes in an article available in English: "The debate leading up to Latvia’s participation in the Iraq war was virtually non-existent, and today the issue has entirely disappeared from the national discourse. We had no choice but to support the Americans our political leaders say, and consider the issue closed."
While Matīss' observations on the dearth of discourse are spot on, the fact is that Latvians really didn't have a choice (or -- at least those Latvians who are still aware of the persistent puissance of that fifth face -- the one looking back to Russia -- didn't and don't). "That Latvian politicians have a certain nostalgia for the simple, reassuring certainties of another time, for a world divided into 'us' and 'them' is a function of their historical development," she writes. Indeed -- here, the Second World War only ended in 1991. I think of the pain the poet Pēteris Ērmanis expressed as a refugee in Western Europe in 1945, the pealing bells and the cries of joy piercing him as he thought of his joyless homeland, where Stalin was retaking the territory he and Hitler had carved up.
Like the vast majority of Latvians, I was opposed to the invasion of Iraq. However -- also like the vast majority of Latvians -- I see NATO membership as absolutely vital to our country's security. It was the proverbial rock and hard place, the feeble discourse of the time soaked in hypocritical rhetoric. Some on the left compare the US-led invasion of Iraq to Soviet invasions past; I find such comparisons extremely offensive because they can only be made by people who are either ignorant of Soviet totalitarianism (often willfully so) or caught up in the wave of fashionable and usually unthinking anti-Americanism that has swept much of Western Europe.
In "Bitter lemons: Six questions to the critics of Ukraine's orange revolution," Timothy Garton Ash asked: "Would you rather have George Bush or Vladimir Putin?" His answer: "Preferably neither. Given the choice between Bush and Putin, I choose Marilyn Monroe. But it's incredible that so many west Europeans, including Chancellor Schröder of Germany, seem to prefer as their partner an ex-KGB officer currently reimposing authoritarian rule in Russia over a man who, for all his faults, has just been re-elected in a free and fair election in one of the world's great democracies."
The Orange Revolution is now unraveling, if not in shreds -- see this article on what is at stake -- and a resurgent Russia is attempting to recapture its sphere of influence. The novelist Zigmunds Skujiņš, confronted with the thin margin of support for EU accession prior to the Latvian referendum, asked the readers of Diena to realize that the question was truly one of a battle for space. That is how I saw it, too -- for a small, weak, and still somewhat dysfunctional nation-state (often listed first among enemies by our neighbors to the east), there really was no choice; any "third way" had all the glamour of the dictatorship down the road, in Belarus.
We don't trust Europe with our security -- because it does not deserve our trust. Schröder's intimacy with Putin led to nightmares about Yalta, and Chirac's response to Eastern Europe's support for the US (that we "missed a good opportunity to shut up") was fodder for those who had the gall to scrawl EU=USSR on placards (since then, not a few of the most vocal Europhobes and anti-NATO-ists crawled across les barricades mystérieuses and into bed with those who would have crushed democracy here in 1991). We do have reasons to trust the Yanks, even as we have a profound aversion to invasions (most Latvians did not even support the invasion of Afghanistan, according to polls).
The problem in Latvia, as Matīss suggests, is the lack of meaningful debate. She asks: "When a very intelligent commentator for Latvia’s leading national newspaper writes that all of those who dare to protest their country’s participation in the war Iraq [sic] are marching in lockstep with Saddam, what does this say about the depth of respect for the right to dissent within the Latvian populace?"
On the other hand, much of the less savory discourse throughout Europe savors of what Ash in his article on Ukraine calls the "knee-jerk leftist or Euro-Gaullist reaction - 'if the Americans are for it there must be something wrong with it'." He asks us to "consider the Ukrainian case on its own merits, not through an American or anti-American prism." As far as I can tell, those with the jerking knees can rarely look at anything without that prism. Not a few of those chattering on the furthest reaches of the left (or, really, the cyber-unleft) seem to prefer Osama to Dubya, not to mention their apparent preference for Putin or Saddam to... Jefferson? What often gets lost at both ends of the spectrum is... Iraq (and serious questions of international law, which some see as the illusionist trick of hypocrites [whilst another threadbare fringe, not rarely nourished by democracies, sees democracy itself -- and even a civil society -- as bogus]).
A word about what I'm doing here. I had reserved this space, but left it abandoned until another blog was technically unable to handle my persistent bouts of logorrhea. I had the idea of collecting past posts from the fora in which I most often participate (the Open Forum at Latvians Online and soc.culture.baltics on Usenet), since my longer screeds on history and politics sometimes have something of a Leitmotiv (at least to my meandering train of thought). Stripping them of the personal and rambunctious has proven to be difficult, however -- I can rarely suppress the urge to let the tarots of whatever thought a text may contain fall down and start from scratch. I'll probably be infected by the blogospherical and abandon my attempts to seduce consistency, that hobgoblin of little minds...
Still, I will try to revise some older material that still concerns me, and this began as an intro to that (on the directions Latvia faced historically -- the title is a translation of Rainis' Uguns un nakts). Some of you know me from other venues, and I want to thank you for visiting and invite you to keep doing so; I realize that much of what I write is probably pretty indigestible unless you have at least a passing familiarity with Latvia. I will try to remedy that, and invite questions or comments.
The photograph was taken in Vienna, through which I passed on the eve of EU expansion after four months in the Middle East.