10 July 2006

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.

12 Comments:

Blogger Redwine said...

""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" - It has been non-existent in most Eastern European countries, let alone the former USSR republics. Do these countries have a real option in such matters? Don't you think the population, kept on minimum wages for 50 years, taught to shut up and never have a say and no right to speak up, needs time to recover? Why do you think that almost none of these countries opposed the war (while people did, on individual level)? Smaller leftist groups in Hungary, or the Attac did, and only students here, if. Nobody seemed to care much about it, and they did have a good reason not to. Anyway they learnt well that it wouldn't matter.

11 July, 2006 00:02  
Blogger Redwine said...

"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" - It has been non-existent or almost non-existent in most Eastern European countries, let alone the former USSR republics. Do these countries have a real option in such matters? Don't you think the population, kept on minimum wages for 50 years, taught to shut up and never have a say and no right to speak up needs time to recover? Why do you think that almost none of these countries opposed the war (while people did, on individual level)? Smaller leftist groups in Hungary, or the Attac did, and only students here, if, none or almost none in Moldova. Nobody seemed to care much about it, and they did have a good reason not to. Anyway they learnt well that it wouldn't matter.

11 July, 2006 00:05  
Blogger Pēteris Cedriņš said...

I agree that this sentence of Matīss' may apply to most Eastern European countries, Redwine -- but I am not sure I agree with the remarks on needing time to recover, at least not in the way you phrase it; people here learned that they could have a say in the late 1980s (that the say was later taken from them is another matter). Apathy and cynicism abound (but they are hardly lacking in comparatively comfy Western Europe, in most of which voter turnout is a lot lower). I don't mean to focus as much on who or how few "opposed the war" (because, actually, many did here -- signing petitions and such, at least) as on the debate and the level of debate. It is, after all, our war -- Latvia fully endorsed it and is part of the coalition.

11 July, 2006 13:04  
Blogger Redwine said...

"consider the Ukrainian case on its own merits, not through an American or anti-American prism" - Lettonica, there is the rub: most major events are considered through that, not on its own merits. Many - and exactly those who prefer Osama to Dubya - saw the Ukrainean elections as one of those final fights between the Western demon and the Eastern Lucipher. Don't expect them to be too familiar with USSR respectively Eastern European history. That's why I consider the left very sick: "The decay of the New Left into anti-Americanism - a real danger - would be as disastrous as any nationalist degeneration of the left, from the débacle of August 4, 1914, the death of social democracy, the doctrine of "socialism in one country" and the concomitant betrayal by the Komintern of all revolutions in Western Europe, Asia and Latin America (remember Catalonia!), the idiotic "third worldism" of post-1968 New Left that ended up supporting the likes of Castro and Assad demonstrate that defeat and resentment and frustration have always caused the abandonment of the most elementary principles, and transformed the left into an enemy of freedom and the more or less unwitting stooge of fanciful state capitalist regimes, willing to hoist a red flag or two. I do not think that we should get excited over Chávez or Lula to repeat the usual feelings of vicarious revolutionary orgasm. (TGM)"

11 July, 2006 21:40  
Blogger philippe said...

I m very pleased to see this blog reviving as it began with some Nouvelle Europe comments :-) (and i have some interests in the Nouvelle Europe association).

I hope that, coming back from the Baltic Trip (a travel 3 members of Nouvelle Europe will make around the Baltic Sea through 8 countries), i will read some other interesting stuff here about Latvia.

See you

Philippe
http://lanouvelleurope.free.fr

12 July, 2006 00:23  
Blogger Pēteris Cedriņš said...

Merci, Philippe! This blog did indeed begin with a response to yours, and it was not an accident but a realization you inspired -- that blogging might be worthwhile; you have a great blog.

12 July, 2006 00:44  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Labvakar Peteri,

This isnt the first time Balt soldiers have been sent to the region (Afghanistan to be exact) to fight in someone elses war in recent history. There was clearly no opportunity for public debate back then. There is now - at least one thinks this given that the Baltic governments are democracies now.

The public response though is the same today as it was 27 years ago - that being pretty much no response at all. As you note - no debate.

Iraq and Afghanistan are far away places. The number of troops deployed are truly token in number. Maybe its just significant enough for them to care about.

/Wahabist

13 July, 2006 04:38  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry, this sentence should have read:

"Maybe its just NOT significant enough for them to care about."

/Wahabist

13 July, 2006 04:41  
Blogger sonia said...

Great blog. And great comments too (hi Redwine!). I am linking to it.

13 July, 2006 18:39  
Blogger Pēteris Cedriņš said...

Thank you, Sonia, and thank you, "Wahabist" -- who are you, "Wahabist," eh? I have the feeling we've met before...

Re: token number -- yes and no, since per capita our contingent isn't as paltry as it seems. But it isn't just a matter of our soldiers (who are extremely impressive young men, judging by interviews), of course -- it is a matter of the gung-ho devotion with which our government supported the invasion.

Redwine -- reflecting a bit on your first comments... people do speak up about certain issues. I mean, gay-bashing is apparently inspiring enough to bring the narod into the streets, no? Care for other nations, including feeling European, is rarely apparent, though. For example, when European capitals observed a moment of silence for the victims of the Madrid bombing, Rīga couldn't care less. There is interest in post-Soviet space, however (I mean, some sympathy for the Chechens, a lot of sympathy for an Orange Ukraine...).

On the other hand, the journalist Lato Lapsa heads off to Iran for a couple of days and declares himself ashamed to be Latvian because the Islamic Republic doesn't seem to oppress women and the US is oh so nasty, picking on these countries...

As some netizen remarked with regard to his claptrap, next he can visit North Korea and declare it democratic because nobody on the bus complains to him.

In an ideal world, there should be a national discourse before we hop aboard a so-called coalition of the willing. Just saying "we do this because America says to, and America is good" is not a discourse. That is Matīss' main point, methinks, and I do agree with that.

Another debate, in which we fare much better IMO, is that of the ICC -- despite the crude pressure applied by the US, we held firm in our commitment to the Court.

Vysu lobu,
/P

13 July, 2006 20:17  
Blogger philippe said...

Thanks peteris !
I have a great time reading your blog. It's very interesting and even more for a guy like me interested in Baltic states...
There is such a need to speak of you and your beautiful countries in France !

13 July, 2006 23:17  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Peteri,

The governments gung ho-ness was hardly surprising. Todays Baltic governments wish to please the US a great deal. They tried during the interwar period too but the US's isolationist tone then didnt provide much opportunity. Those opportunities abound now... There's an abundance of asses available to kiss - oh the curse of having so many choices !

Regardless, I was commenting on public apathy towards the war effort more so than the governments - as youre well aware the two have little in common as far as foreign policy positions go.

There's a separation in classes and their attitudes towards the war. The middle class Balts are city dwellers - as are the intelligentsia who find issue with Baltic participation. The countryside provides the muscle - the vast majority of Baltic military personnel who stay on beyond the bare minimum service periods come from the countryside. The countryside finds military service to be an opportunity. The cities do not. The city dwellers dont really object - as long as its not them.

I wont argue that the countryside welcomes war - it certainly does not - but it is rather quiet about it. The Baltic units arent in real harms way. If that changed then maybe attitudes would change.

I also suspect that the countryside feels that having their sons serve in the Baltic Army in Afghanistan is preferred to having their sons serve as grunt labor to Padraig in Ireland - the latter providing more of a long term negative effect. Serve your two years in Afghanistan and you'll go home. Serve two years on a strawberry farm and you might just find yourself indentured.

/Wahabist

ps. I truly wish there were more people like Philippe in the world...

14 July, 2006 05:50  

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