30 March 2007

On Exporting Excrement (II)

Pastor Ken Hutcherson's visit to Latvia as a self-described "special envoy" who came here "representing the White House" has attracted considerable attention abroad, notably from the Seattle Times' chief political reporter, David Postman, the Stranger's Eli Sanders, Deutsche Presse-Agentur, and the Q-Seattle blog, which also ran a comment of mine about religion in Latvia. Hutcherson was accompanied by Scott Lively, the author of a book that blames "homosexualism" for Nazism (debunked here). Lively called Latvia "a zone of intense confrontation between Christians and homosexuals." He went on to say: "This nation will be our main battlefield against this counter Christian [sic] culture. God gave Kenneth Hutcherson and me to see that Alexei [Ledyaev] is the very man God placed to direct this battle, and church [sic] should support him in all respects." The visitors' meetings with Latvian religious leaders like Cardinal Pujats is described from their Christianist point of view at New Generation's website.

Since this is increasingly a case of, er, burgeoning bilateral trade in excrement rather than merely its export, I thought I would add some notes on what I call "the party of the cloth," that is, Latvia's First Party (LPP,
Latvijas Pirmā Partija), which holds ten seats in the hundred-seat Saeima and is part of the governing coalition.

In some sense LPP could be described as post-Communist, in that it stinks of the same type of populism we've lately seen rising in Poland and other Eastern European countries. Many of its machinations seem to be inspired and oiled by a rather American
polittekhnologiya; the slick ad campaigns promoting "family values," the "marriage amendment" to the Constitution that it sponsored, the fusion of televangelism, nationalism, and big bucks. The founder of LPP lived in the US after being forced to leave occupied Latvia in 1989, becoming a dual citizen, studying theology at a Lutheran seminary, and operating a boxing school and gym in Chicago -- he returned in 2001 to head a "spiritual revival" and renounced his American citizenship to enter politics.

I say "nationalism" because it's integral to LPP despite their utter disinterest in what normally get called "national questions" here -- their nationalism isn't ethnic or linguistic but derived from Hobbes, as Marija Golubeva describes it (in Latvian). What they want is a
moralische Überwachungsstaat, as she says -- a Big Brother state. To get there, they want to create a new "centrist" party that is blind to ethnicity and language. In this they are being quite clever, because one of the major problems with Latvian politics is its ethnocentric structure. I will not be at all surprised if Harmony Center (SC, Saskaņas Centrs -- the [quite questionably] "moderate" pro-Russian alliance that includes, in addition to "real" moderates, unrepentant Soviet dinosaurs) and "the biznismeny of the cloth" eventually fuse. As Ledyaev says in the interview I quoted in my last post on this subject (which was originally published by DDD -- a kooky extreme right-wing paper by the so-called "Garda girls," young followers of the radical Aivars Garda who urge the expulsion of Russians from Latvia, occasionally comparing them to cockroaches), Šlesers and his cronies are the men who "strive to forget the past." Claiming to be anti-nationalist, he says that the men in the LPP are "the only ones who understand that we have to put all of these history books aside."

Jānis Šmits, the LPP homophobe Parliament installed as human rights guru at year's end, sees tolerance as "a new secular paradigm" artificially forced upon us by Europe. He has also spoken of how Latvia's being compared to Russia with regard to gay-bashing is a good thing -- Russia, you see, protects the values that the degenerate West has lost. LPP, which besides being populist is also a party that belongs to major business interests, like most every party in Latvia, is desperately interested in what could be called "ye olde bridge" idea -- Latvia must be the bridge that joins Russia to the EU (consider, for instance, Šlesers' speech in the grand debate on the Border Agreement).

Under the veneer of their Christianist ideology, they're probably willing to work with anybody (in the Dome in Rīga, they just signed a new coalition agreement with TB/LNNK, TP, and LSDSP... politics may make for strange bedfellows everywhere, but in Latvia, with its sixty-plus parties -- it's an orgy!). The fact is that "ye olde bridge" is exactly what the Kremlin wants to see -- it would like to make Latvia its proxy in the EU, basically. I'd say its chances are getting better every day -- witness the conclusion of the border deal.

I would not try to make a futile attempt to see politics in Latvia as left/right in the archaic manner. That never really worked here, not from day one (when Diena, when it was still "the newspaper of the Republic of Latvia," published cross graphs in which one axis was "national questions" and the other economic; some of the more "Lettish" parties were also statist, for example). Many of the party programmes, almost all of which consist mostly of hot air, are a hodgepodge of populism, leftism, rightism, "patriotism," and general weirdness. "Centrism" doesn't prevent SC from dancing with Rubiks (the leader of the reactionary forces that would have coordinated repression had the coup against Gorbachev not failed), the Greens are in cahoots with an oligarch devoted to oil and ammonia (Lembergs, finally under arrest), the Fatherlanders have danced with the "pink-red" russophiles... and the sole programme that seems perennially consistent is a simple one -- filthy lucre.

The photograph of the "high profile meeting" between Hutcherson, Lively, and Latvian religious leaders (which meeting went pretty much unnoticed here in Latvia) is from the New Generation website.

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27 March 2007

Borderlands (III)

Well, today is the day -- the Republic of Latvia and the Russian Federation in the persons of Kalvītis and Fradkov have signed the Border Agreement. Opinions vary (my previous posts about the issue are here and here), but all I have to say today is that this is a day to think about the abrenieši -- the people who lived in the area severed from Latvia, and their descendants, who are real people losing something real today... something they built, a physical place, now lost in rhetoric and legally yet further from Europe (whatever that is), a place that was raped, "cleansed," and basically decimated by Russia (Soviet Russia, the USSR). At All About Latvia, Aleks offers a translation of the notes of a spy.

RIA-Novosti, at least, is getting friendlier.

The image is of the town seal.

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25 March 2007

"The Surf"

Today is one of the two major days of remembrance set aside for the victims of Soviet genocide in Latvia. Last night in 1949, many received the dreaded midnight knock on their doors. Others were arrested at work or taken to trains directly from school.

Fifty-eight years ago this morning (and for two days thereafter), 42 322 Latvian citizens were deported to Novosibirsk, Krasnoyarsk, Amur, Irkutsk, Omsk and Tomsk. Ca. 11 000 were under the age of 16. 3369 were under the age of 7. 734 were over the age of 80. 167 were pregnant. Their property was sold or distributed to the kolkhozes -- or simply stolen. The operation bore the Russian code name "Прибой" -- "the Surf". The top secret instruction "Concerning the Procedure for Deporting Several Categories of Inhabitants from the Latvian SSR, Lithuanian SSR and Estonian SSR" had been issued by the Kremlin in January -- Vilis Lācis, one of Latvia's most popular novelists and a leader of the occupation régime, signed the decision for the Latvian SSR on March 17th.

Anna Rancāne, a poet and journalist, wrote a fine article in
Diena two years ago about "the Hawks of Latgallia" -- high school students who tried to resist the occupation and managed to foil the deportation of some rural Latvians by stealing the list of persons to be deported and booby-trapping the road from Rogovka to Ruskulova. The organization was later betrayed, its members shot or deported. Antons Ludboržs is among those still living -- he returned to Latvia after Stalin's death. When Lenin's statue came down in Rēzekne after the restoration of independence in 1991, he was the one who cut it down.

Breaking rocks in a copper mine in Kazakhstan, watching the guards stab skeletons drawn from the shaft, his only prayer was: "Lord, give me a little piece of bread so that I might walk to the Latvian border, lay down my head and die."

An analysis of the 1949 deportations by the historian Heinrihs Strods is available in English here. The photograph of people laying flowers at the Freedom Monument in Rīga was taken today by Reinis Oliņš for Apollo -- more pictures from today's commemoration are avalable here.

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13 March 2007

In Extremis

Graffiti similar to the graffito in the photograph above, taken in Bread Street in Daugavpils but reportedly scrawled in other strategic locations (across from the Russian Consulate and the Russian House), was seized upon by the usual propagandists as an indication of a problem with supposedly renascent "Latvian fascism" prior to October's parliamentary elections. (Translation of the writing on the wall: Russians! Latvia -- for Latvians.) So, whilst the muse that ought to have made me write reflections on the elections avoided my invocations last fall (what kind of Latvia blog is this, if there wasn't even an assessment of that insipid poll and its predictable result?), I began some brief musings on extremes and extremists instead.
By the time I first heard about the "fascist graffiti" (not a little of which is within a "bull's spitting distance" from my home, as I interpret that ancient Lettish measure), it had been removed. This second graffito, though, has been around the corner for years -- it says "Stalin" (in Cyrillic script), the "A" circled in the customary symbol for anarchism (how one could try to reconcile Stalinism with anarchism is... beyond my scope). I actually learned about the "fascist" scrawls in the foreign media; I never saw them nor heard about them from locals, so quickly were most of them removed. When I went to take the snapshot of "Stalin" at the request of my friend Dmitry, a Latvian Russian who has long lived in Nottingham, I finally encountered the example on the red brick wall.

Obviously, it only takes one juvenile delinquent (whatever his or her physical age) with a can of spray paint to create this sort of ruckus. "By any standard, extremism in Latvia has been quite weak," Nils Muižnieks (one of the foremost experts on human rights in this country) noted five years ago in his overview of these sinister sports. The idea that there could be a significant movement devoted to Russian-bashing in a rather harmoniously multicultural city where ethnic Latvians make up only about a fifth of the population and Russian is overwhelmingly the
lingua franca is quite simply ludicrous to anybody who knows this town.

But this is really about resonance and perception, isn't it? We're quite accustomed to an annual scandal on March 16th, when a few surviving veterans of the Latvian Legion commemorate the sacrifices of Latvians who served in the Waffen-SS during the Second World War (it should be noted that not only ethnic Letts did so, by the way -- for those who read Latvian or Russian, there is an article entitled "Latvia's Russians on Hitler's Side in the Battle Against Bolshevism" available here), most of them forcibly (and illegally) conscripted. The former Legionnaires, who never had any sympathy for Nazism and try to go about their memorial services solemnly, are lately outnumbered by loud Russophone radicals (including even Cossacks) and young Lettish extremists. Last year, in what many saw as a sign of post-Soviet repression, the Freedom Monument was fenced off to prevent clashes -- this year, five groups of radically different persuasions have received permission to gather (others, who didn't apply for permits, might also have a go at it -- that would include the National Bolsheviks who painted "Stalin" on the gray wall above).

March 16th is marked because it was the one occasion when both Latvian divisions fought side by side against the Soviets, in the Ostrov sector of the Eastern Front -- otherwise, the Germans were careful to keep the Latvians apart. Not an official day of rememberance (in fact, the President advised true patriots to stay at home), it is nonetheless the focus not only of ragtag radical groups on both sides of the fence -- it is an annual public relations débâcle diligently amplified by Moscow. The Latvian foreign policy expert Atis Lejiņš wrote:

March 16 is a repeated opportunity for certain circles that cannot reconcile themselves with Latvia’s regained independence and a free Latvia’s and Russia’s political relations. We are too independent. An opportunity like March 16 to avenge Latvia for regaining independence is too good to pass by.

Why are we giving our enemy this opportunity? Is it because we simply aren’t politically wise enough, or is it because something foul remains from the Nazi occupation, which we don’t want to admit to as candidly as we have to the Soviet occupation? Or is it, after all, that an evil root is hidden in 1939 and a year later, when we surrendered without even the smallest display of resistance?

Despite being habituated to the vagaries of a very small and complex country's public image abroad, against a background of ignorance and well-oiled spin (not only with regard to Latvia and the Baltics, but to all of Eastern Europe), I still suffer from bouts of nausea (most recently after reading Konstantin Kosachev's Guardian piece). As Andrew Ezergailis, the primary historian of the Holocaust in Latvia, noted recently in a diffuse debate about these topics at Latvians Online:

For example, why is it that after the smoke of WWII has cleared, or should have cleared, there are numerous well educated and clever people who think that the people who lived between Germany and Russia, those people who were conquered, economically exploited, disarmed (yes! disarmed), deported, and murdered by the million, by either or both of the imperial powers, end up being considered the real murderers and evildoers of the Twentieth Century. My emphases is on them rather than us, although I am fully aware that in this situation there is a risk of confusing object with subject. I have come to suspect this absurdity happened because the rhetoric and sources of historical texts, the Holocaust in particular, have been in the hands of both imperial powers. I have also come to conclude that it was the Nazi who blessed us with the most ingratiating line. It penetrated the minds of the victors and the vanquished, the victims and the torturers, the devils and the angels.

As can be seen from some of the comments on Kosachev's piece, ideology also helps to blind many to the truth about our history. George Galloway still has a following, after all. Asked if his position was that of the "Stalinist left," Galloway said: "I wouldn't define it that way because of the pejoratives loaded around it; that would be making a rod for your own back. If you are asking did I support the Soviet Union, yes I did. Yes, I did support the Soviet Union, and I think the disappearance of the Soviet Union is the biggest catastrophe of my life."

Alina Lebedeva, who brought Daugavpils fifteen minutes of fame by whacking Prince Charles with a carnation, found adulation from that end of the spectrum in "Old Europe." When I spoke to her, she professed strong admiration for Stalin ("he made Russia great") and for Eduard Limonov's spree with Radovan Karadžić, when the National Bolshevik leader fired a sniper rifle into Sarajevo (quoth Alina: "he was defending the Slavs"). I'm used to the broad definition of "fascist" many homines sovietici brandish (my friend Dmitry, for instance, was called a "fascist" for resisting the Soviet draft), but we're now in a world where part of the left defines itself only by its anti-Americanism. Not only is the unknown or misunderstood modern history of Latvia cause for the demonization of our country in certain quarters -- so are Rīga's intimate relations with Washington.

Not that we don't have severe problems -- there is indeed intolerance of various types in Latvia, society is definitely sharply divided, and the political scene often makes one wish one didn't have a nose. That said, back to the rôle of that kid with the spray paint -- this is a nation that is rapidly recovering from over half a century of totalitarian rule, Soviet and Nazi. The legacy of the occupation(s) is an almost unimaginably difficult one -- unlike the satellites, the Baltic States were forcibly incorporated into the USSR. Thinking about the frequent confusion between "the Baltics" and "the Balkans" one actually still encounters at times among those who know nothing about the "New Europe," one might consider how remarkable the recovery here has been -- except for those killed by OMON at the time of the Barricades, the intense tensions of restoring our lost statehood have not resulted in any bloodshed. In only fifteen years, the foundation for democracy and a civil society, wholly absent under the Soviets, has been laid -- Latvia ranks above Britain, Denmark, Canada, and the United States in press freedom, for example, according to Reporters Without Borders. Latvia is a better example of how difficulties can be overcome than it is an example of strife, which is practically non-existent. Compare, for instance, Northern Ireland, in that cradle of liberal democracy, the UK. When the ultra-rightist NSS marches in Rīga on the 16th -- bear in mind the fact that it garnered a mere 1172 votes in the last elections, or 0,13% of the total.

The reality is that many of Latvia's current problems are not so different from the problems many European countries face -- confusion and apathy in the face of globalization, consumerism, kleptocracy, pauperization and a distant eurocracy... a resurgent far right, an intellectually bankrupt left, and a greasy polittekhnologiya, all crowned with a neoliberal political center that is out of touch with the people. The kid with the paint is always trying to draw attention to himself, like the woman above -- the wife of a prominent (and anti-American, and euroskeptical) folk singer who converted to Orthodoxy, she's blocking a car containing gay activists (the photograph is by Nikolai Alekseev -- that's holy water she's holding, by the way, not vodka). Parties like the NSS, affiliated with the European National Front, and Raivis Dzintars' more moderate rightist party (which got only 13 469 votes) are far from the mainstream, but they are increasingly adept at protest techniques (such as standing about shirtless in subzero cold).

What's really worrisome with regard to intolerance is its creeping aspect, for want of a better description -- the legitimization of odious ideas by the mainstream: the willingness of serious politicians to pander to them, their inclusion in major public debates without a caveat, and... lately, their international connections (for example...). In a united Europe, we are experiencing the paradox of anti-European groups working together (an excellent example was the instant contribution of the far right in Romania and Bulgaria to the creation of a bloc in the EP). On the other hand, I am quite convinced that muzzling extremists is the wrong thing to do. Open debate is what we need. The other side can and does cooperate, too, whether that is the European Movement, LGBT rights activists, or the spawn of the generous George Soros. Abrogating freedom of assembly and freedom of speech is as ugly when it's done by the politically correct as it is when it's done by dictatorships, and I briefly joined the right emotionally when the Freedom Monument was surrounded by a fence last March -- we must cross our fingers and hope that the police do their duty better than they did during the gay pride events last summer, but I would rather see a mêlée than muzzles.

In Latvia, we use the term sarkanbrūnie -- "the red-brown." Some people, especially those from the Western pseudo-left, don't seem to realize that groups like the Vanguard of Red Youth,
also planning to take to the streets on Friday, are closer to brownshirts than they are to whatever decent left we have left (their Russian acronym, AKM, also stands for a type of Kalashnikov). My recommendation to those observing Friday's events from afar, or through a filter, is to try to read some real history, like Ezergailis' latest book, and to take care to separate polemics and propaganda from fact.

The first two photographs are mine (like all others on this site, unless otherwise noted). The third photograph is by Nikolai Alekseev. The English translation of the extract from Lejiņš is by Elizabete Rūtens. For much more pleasant Latvian graffiti than the two examples I shot, see this site.

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11 March 2007

The Showdown

The crisis that has been brewing since last autumn's elections (when Aigars Kalvītis became the first Prime Minister to survive an election in a Baltic State since the restoration of independence) has come to a head. In a step no Latvian President has taken since democracy was restored, Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga announced yesterday that she was suspending the promulgation of the ill-conceived security legislation that the governing coalition rushed through the Saeima, Latvia's parliament. The President invoked Article 72 of the Satversme, Latvia's constitution, which reads:

The President has the right to suspend the proclamation of a law for a period of two months. The President shall suspend the proclamation of a law if so requested by not less than one-third of the members of the Parliament. This right may be exercised by the President, or by one-third of the members of the Parliament, within seven days of the adoption of the law by the Parliament. The law thus suspended shall be put to a national referendum if so requested by not less than one-tenth of the electorate. If no such request is received during the aforementioned two month period, the law shall then be proclaimed after the expiration of such period. A national referendum shall not take place, however, if the Parliament again votes on the law and not less than three-quarters of all members of the Parliament vote for the adoption of the law.

In a January article on the darkening political skies, "Experts Warn of 'Oligarchs' Usurpation' in Latvia," Ben Nimmo of Deutsche Presse-Agentur quoted Lolita Čigāne of the Providus public policy NGO: "What we're seeing is the oligarchs' usurpation of Latvia's institutional framework by putting 'their' people in the right places. It's not completely illegal or dictatorial, but we're moving towards becoming just a token democracy." Nimmo also wrote a piece about the Saiema's subsequent defiance of the President's veto, and the first English-language article on yesterday's dramatic events.

Sandra Kalniete, a leader of the Third Awakening and now the presidential candidate from the opposition party Jaunais Laiks (New Era), said that the President "is currently the sole guarantor of democracy in Latvia" and called for the resignation of Aigars Kalvītis' government. Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga's final term as President ends in July. Aivars Endziņš, formerly the chairman of Latvia's Constitutional Court and a harsh critic of the governing coalition's consolidation of power, hints that the President's invocation of Article 72 could be a prelude to Article 48:

The President shall be entitled to propose the dissolution of the Parliament. Following this proposal a national referendum shall be held. If in the referendum more than half of the votes are cast in favor of dissolution, the Parliament shall be considered dissolved, new elections called, and such elections held no later than two months after the date of the dissolution of the Parliament.

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