18 October 2007

The Fourth Awakening?

An estimated 5000 demonstrators gathered outside the Saeima, Latvia's Parliament, this morning, called upon to defend the rule of law by Diena, the intelligentsia, and many prominent Latvians concerned about the latest twists in the twisted course the Government has taken in the last year. Some have jumped the gun and called it a "Fourth Awakening" -- which is definitely a gross exaggeration -- but the numbers are not bad for 8.15 in the cold rain on a weekday's notice, and so I do hope that the current mood of "people power" at least signals an end to the so-called "Fourth Falling Asleep." There's a new optimism in the air, helped along by the fact that "the usual" crowd of democratic activists emitting clarion calls was joined by such figures as Georgs Andrejevs, a former Foreign Minister, and Ģirts Valdis Kristovskis, a former Defense Minister -- both are now MEPs... and both were elected to the EP from parties in the ruling coalition.

Then there was the announcement by
Visvaldis Lācis. 83 years old and a veteran of the Latvian Legion, Lācis was elected to the Saeima from those "Green Rustics" I mentioned a couple of posts ago. The quintessential nationalist maverick, Lācis had a gentleman's agreement with his party -- he would always vote his conscience. With regard to "Latvia's Eliot Ness," he wasn't given that option -- even before Aleksejs Loskutovs, JD, got a hearing, Lācis was pressured into voting to get rid of him. The trouble is that the Green Rustics should have known that Lācis is not to be cowed -- Augusts Brigmanis, the man he accuses of pressuring him, said as much yesterday. I bet that the Rustics regret ever asking him to join their list. Side note -- though Lācis is quite the rightist, the fact that Loskutovs is an ethnic Russian matters not at all in this case. Cracks, cracks in the coalition, and even in the ruling party. Some Fatherlanders, too, are jumping ship.

My prediction -- this coalition's days are numbered, maybe even in single digits. To hope against hope -- may the gods grant that we get a decent Government at long last. Let the people be heard -- the only way to slay the cynicism and nihilism that infects every level of Latvian society is to get the political élite to listen. This won't be easy -- in fact, it's well nigh impossible. We are talking about people who lean out of the Parliament building's windows to give the finger to the electorate. The likeliest response to the current, feeble groundswell of fury is "the same crabs in different sacks," as always. May the groundswell grow!

The photo is from a gallery at Apollo. The sign reads: "All animals are equal, but pigs are more equal than others." The Prime Minister here is often likened to a pig -- Cūkmens is based upon Betmens, "Batman"; cūka means "pig." Orwell's Animal Farm saw its first appearance in the Soviet Union in Avots, a magazine published in occupied Latvia during the Third Awakening.

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16 October 2007

"Eat fascist death, flaming media pig!"

Ernests at Diena offers comment on the Government's reaction to the deliciously earthshaking speech by the US Ambassador to Latvia at the University today. The title of the cartoon is "Americans and other Sorosistas." The text: "We will not submit to foreign pressure, imperialist pig! Corruption is an inalienable part of our sovereign democracy!"

Another reaction -- the opposition party New Era is introducing a no confidence motion. Confidence on the part of most Latvians in this Government has long been below zero, and Ambassador Bailey's speech is a sign of just how bad things have gotten -- America rarely criticizes its staunch ally and these words are quite harsh, coming from a diplomat. (Okay, so the speech does contain a stellar example of American "self-criticism":

The title of the post is from Firesign Theatre. Hat tip to Aleksei for the cartoon!

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10 October 2007

Vair Realism

The Case of the Mysterious Briefcase, which led to the departure of Indulis Emsis from Parliament a couple of weeks ago, is cause for reflection on what being Green in Latvia means. It's rather anticlimactic, though -- by the time Emsis became the world's first Green Prime Minister in 2004, most saw the Greens (who're married to the Farmers' Union in what is sometimes amusingly translated as the Greens and Rustics, or the Green Peasants) as pathetic opportunists collecting a motley crew of politicians under the sponsorship of Latvia's most famous oligarch, Aivars Lembergs ("transparency is not a striptease"). So you have a Green Party in the pocket of the man with "the Pipe." At the other end of the spectrum, there's Latvia's "Green" MEP, Tatyana Zhdanok, the sole ethnic Russian in the European Parliament and one of the most hated politicians ever to have lived among Latvians -- ķoķa Taņa was a leader of the Interfront, the anti-democratic grouping that opposed Latvia's independence.

As Wikipedia observes, "Emsis' political views are described as rather conservative, unusual for members of Green parties around the world." So, some background -- the very backbone of Latvia's independence movement was environmentalist. VAK, which is now also Friends of the Earth Latvia, was at the heart of it. It was VAK, which has roots stretching back into the dark years of the occupation, that organized the 1988 demonstration in Mežaparks demanding the legalization of the Latvian flag, then forbidden (video below). VAK organized the Prayer for the Sea (photo above), in which nearly a third of a million people on the eastern shores of the Baltic joined hands to protest the turning of "our sister" into a cesspool. VAK led the protests against the building of the metro in Rīga. One of the seminal events in the Awakening took place here in Daugavpils. Dainis Īvāns, the young idealist who would later be leader of the Popular Front, led protests against the building of a dam that would have destroyed what's left of the Daugava Valley (the rest of the Daugava is indeed a chain of reservoirs).

The Green movement was radical -- but it was not a fringe movement. Latvians have always been "close to nature" -- the cities still empty out after the summer solstice, when we celebrate the principal festival of the year with pagan songs. Oaks are practically sacred -- farmers plow around them. Large, old trees and big stones are named, catalogued, and venerated. What VAK struggled against was the destruction of a traditional "ecotopia" by the Soviet Union. Nationalism went hand in hand with environmentalism. The metro would bring further colonization, as would the dam in Daugavpils. VAK confronted Soviet soldiers to place crosses upon the graves in the Zvārde civil parish -- the entire parish had been laid waste by the Russian military. Latvians themselves had been infected by the prevailing lack of culture -- one woman, writing about their attempts to restore some of the landscape, describes taking a bus past the ruined churches of Courland, every passenger in a drunken daze, the countryside devastated.

Not a few VAK activists were founders of the Green Party, which was the first political party formed in occupied Latvia (the Latvian Social Democratic Workers' Party, the oldest party in Latvia, had survived abroad). Emsis was one of the founders. In my first winter here, 1991/92, I journeyed to Sabile with another founder, Oļegs Batarevskis -- to Pedvāle (it was nothing then; ruins and choked streams, mansions carved up into flats for transient farmhands, a Soviet landscape of litter and despair). I remember asking Oļegs about their relationship to, for instance, the German Greens -- he answered that Latvians were more realistic; "we don't want to go back to living in caves."

Arvīds Ulme, the "Chieftain" (virsaitis) of VAK, wrote a decade ago that he wanted "to find and bring together those with the divine gift of devotion and ability to give in the name of a bright green beginning. We endeavor first to call together our own ranks, like we did at the start of the Awakening. The same Awakening which we, the Greens, rang in with our audacious black-white-and-black and green-white-and-green marches. The same Awakening which glowed in the maroon-white-and-maroon barricade bonfires and cried out in the joy of new-found freedom. The same Awakening which, before our very eyes, died from a combination of blind faithlessness, KGB-mania, and finally, the money-starved free market economy. Those who rang in and called together the Awakening indeed share responsibility for all that is transpiring today."

The "Chieftain's" mentality is tribal. As to KGB-mania -- he was a KGB informer, as it turns out (to no one's surprise). These days, Greens like Ulme are as likely to be promoting homophobia as they are to be defending the environment. Still, one has to try to look a bit deeper to understand how we got to "blind faithlessness" and the Case of the Mysterious Briefcase. "The money-starved free market economy" has meant, in part, the closing off of public waterfront for the manses of the few. "The first Green politician to lead a country in the history of the world" resigned in ignominy, after playing "should I stay or should I go" long enough to add comedy to his tragedy. The counterculture -- really the essence of the movement -- survives.

There have been Green successes -- the scrapping of the Finnish-Latvian Baltic Pulp project, for example. Reality requires realism. The signs of the times -- not many people show up to pray for the sea, and Daugavpils politicians would like to see the dam built after all. Now that cars choke Rīga, a metro would probably be nice. Belarusian biznismeny are yearning for a canal to link our "river of fate" to the Black Sea. Lithuania and Estonia have deposits on bottles -- in Latvia, they're thrown into the woods. Burning the fields is a Soviet "custom" that has spread to Ireland due to Latvian immigration there. In Rīga, a real estate speculator drives two Humvees at the same time...

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07 October 2007

The Latest Fashions

Since I feel intense pressure from the gods of cyberspace to post regularly after my hiatus, here's a debate that came of a recent BBC article about my town.

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