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...