07 April 2008

A Couple of Epistles (W[h]ither the Nation? II)

Extracts from two obliquely related missives I wrote today, slightly altered, posted here as part of what I hope will be a response to Giustino's question about the national malaise.

I

According to the Lettish Europhobes at nato.lv, a study showed that ca. 37% of Lithuanians think independence since 1991 has been the worst period in the entire history of Lithuania. Whatever one thinks of surveys, lies, damned lies, etc. -- I don't think Andrius [a Lithuanian in Ireland devoted to singing the praises of the USSR] is a ghostie, primarily because I've met innumerable people who think like him, more or less.

In Latvia, too, there are people who simply detest the direction we've taken (or is it the lack of direction). Most of these people wouldn't take the radical tack Andrius takes -- it'd usually be more like "yes the deportations were awful and so was __ and __... but now we have nothing." And one can easily step into their shoes -- health care is catastrophic, education is in the pits, the scientific base was destroyed, manufacturing is dead, prices are astronomical, corruption is rampant, etc., etc.

Direct experience does affect the view in a very deep way; I have only a very slight familiarity with not being able to make ends meet, but it only takes a few months for psychological devastation to set in. A little more time, and you learn to live with it. A teacher here said "in 1992 we ate potatoes and cream, in 1993, potatoes and oil, in 1994, potatoes and salt..." Meanwhile, you'd see the odd Maserati streaking down the street. You know who sat in it. I will never forget being on the beach at Majori, a purple topless jeep roaring down the water line for sheer pleasure -- make them sunbathers jump. Meanwhile, PM Birkavs was dissing the pilchard-eaters (his term). If anyone will decide anything, it'll be the elite. Who loves the elite? Does this elite deserve love? And "time, time, time, in a sort of Runic rhyme" -- how long can one be in transition? To what? The noble ideals of the Singing Revolution included an understanding of "we don't do this for ourselves as much as we do it for our children" -- but some of the people forced by this economy (and even more so -- by this society) to seek sustenance in the Emerald Isle or elsewhere have grown up in independent Latvia. We already passed the mark of how long democracy lasted (1920-1934)... soon we'll pass the mark of our entire period of independence between the wars. What do we have to show for it? (And I am not trying to detract from what we do have to show for it -- I just wouldn't paint the overall picture in bright colors.)

When I was in Rīga on Friday, I had a meeting with a millionaire. He's a hardworking guy who produces real value and does a lot of things because of what they are -- substance, not easy money. His impression of where we are, the state of the nation? That people who work hard and have capabilities and talents, like himself, are totally screwed, pushed to the edges of the stage. Screwed by people with no conception of real value. We live in a credit bubble blown by thieving abstractionists who could care less about this country. And this is not a ne'er-do-well or a whiner -- he's a successful workaholic with assets galore.

II

(In response to remarks on how the Baltics and Tibet are apples and bathtubs.)


What we need is a principled foreign policy -- not only because of what we can do for Tibet, but because of what the lack of decent policies does to us. In Rīga some years ago, the Dalai Lama remarked that independence without a spiritual component is hollow. In my view, to turn around and ignore the strivings of others after basing our own strivings on principles we supposedly hold calls our grasp of these principles into question. It's crying "let me go, let me go" to a captor and the world, all the while appealing to moral right... and then, as soon as we are let go, pretending that the girl down the street isn't being gripped by a rapist -- her situation is different, we don't have the strength or resources to stand up for what's right, etc., etc. ...those are excuses, and bad ones.

Part of the reason we lack strength is that we don't adhere to the principles we espouse. That's what makes the "oh you are just American lackeys" litany one hears so often so painful -- it's close to the mark. What we really don't have the strength for is Realpolitik. There are also real benefits to taking a moral stand -- Denmark's determination re the caricatures, for example, resulted in a boycott by the Arab world... but admiration for Denmark in the West actually caused a rise in Danish exports. We seem never to pursue many of our actual strengths -- ecology, devotion to liberty, the sympathies that exist between small nations. C (whatever happened to him?) had the right idea with his stork branding, basically -- besides our environment (Latvia is mostly forest) we could become known for our decency. That would mean taking a risk and taking the lead, though -- something we can't seem to do in anything. Oh my, Edward Lucas wrote an article, so PM Godmanis has suddenly discovered that Latvia has things in common with Tibet... or is it that Angela Merkel spoke?

The main effect is on us. One of the roots of apathy and nihilism here is that most people realize that we're dissembling about everything. High-minded speeches about freedom ring hollow if they're so selectively conditional -- Adamkus and VVF could wax eloquent about liberating Iraq, but couldn't muster clear condemnations of other criminal regimes. We suck up to lovely democracies like those in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

Lithuania bends over for lucre with regard to Kosovo, too -- see Ruslanas at Lituanica.

I took the photograph of the neighbors' house a few years ago.

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17 Comments:

Blogger Baltic said...

Increasing pessimism whilst talking to most of the folks in Riga indeed. Lets wait for preliminary results from the CVK tomorrow, because the hope really dies the last one:)

07 April, 2008 14:58  
Blogger Vidas said...

Peteri, if you're talking about government responses to Tibet - then I agree. The Baltic governments should provide statements of support towards Tibets independence movement.

Kosovo, I'm not so sure about. That ones trickier. I'm not convinced.

Where I disagree with you, and others who want to grab this issue and run with it, is that the Tibetan independence movement isnt comparable to the Baltic independence movements - especially in the arena of world opinion and realpolitik. Granted, our movement (well, the Lithuanian one) drew -some- attention from Pope John Paul II - but this pales in comparison to the rock star like icon status the Dalai Lama enjoys. Maybe because media is broader now - maybe, but like I wrote to you - I would have liked to see a fraction of the attention Tibets struggle receives after Romas Kalanta set himself on fire.

I suspect some may want to attach themselves to the Tibetan cause as a means to relive the romantic Baltic rebirth of the late 1980's. It's the new cause celebre.

I read Ruslano blog regularly. Very well presented arguments. Does he know you're a Lithuanian Jihadist ?

08 April, 2008 04:54  
Blogger Taras said...

Pēteris, your introspective dissection of the double standard makes me want to reflect on the fresh scars of our Ukrainian experience.

Take Merkel and Sarkozy. They’re tough on the Beijing Consensus, yet soft on the Moscow Consensus.

In Ukraine, their geopolitical maneuvering effectively aligns them with these political players:

http://youtube.com/watch?v=OcIqSViKb98
http://youtube.com/watch?v=8MccTD_tax4
http://youtube.com/watch?v=zYxT3nYyK-c

08 April, 2008 08:30  
Blogger Giustino said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

08 April, 2008 10:48  
Blogger Giustino said...

Why are people connecting the direction of the state with the existence of the state?

08 April, 2008 10:51  
Blogger Pēteris Cedriņš said...

Thanks to everyone for your comments.

Vidai, part of the reason Tibet receives so much sympathy is doubtless the spread of Buddhism in the West... but I don't think that's a bad thing at all. Tibet is exceedingly unusual in that it is as much a "spiritual country" as it is an unrecognized nation-state, in a way no other land is.

Taras -- thanks for the links! I completely agree with you. I did spout "vive la France" in a forum yesterday, in reaction to the actions of the mayor of Paris... but I also remarked upon the French screwing Ukraine and Georgia.

Giustino -- I don't think I get what you mean... could you dilate a bit, please?

08 April, 2008 12:09  
Blogger Pēteris Cedriņš said...

P.S. Taras -- on the positive side, Latvia has at least been strongly supportive of Ukrainian accession to NATO.

08 April, 2008 12:36  
Blogger Giustino said...

Giustino -- I don't think I get what you mean... could you dilate a bit, please?

I am referring to those who feel nostalgia for the USSR.

It's just that I am unaware of, say, Irishmen who, when times were tough, said, "hey, maybe we should have stayed in the UK" or Icelanders who, during a recession, said, "maybe we should have stayed subservient to Copenhagen."

Can you imagine Americans seeking solace in the arms of Great Britain every time they hit a rough patch?
I mean the elite in nearly every country is self-interested and somewhat corrupted by those interests. How naive can people be about how states function? Do they just expect a larger pay off for their silent acquiescence?

08 April, 2008 17:01  
Anonymous Snork said...

Ah, the traditional Latvian (or not just Latvian?) pessimism yet again. It was quite ironic to read a millionaire saying that “people who work hard and have capabilities and talents, like himself, are totally screwed”. Well, if he is still a millionaire, he is not that much screwed, is he? Or, at least, we have one person who did become successful by working hard.

Having looked at a few opinion surveys, I began to notice that most people tend to be rather satisfied with their own living standards. Most people would say, I think, that their lives have changed for the better in the last 3, 5, or 10 years. Yet these same people would see themselves as a fortunate exception in the sea of deprivation. I can vaguely recall one journalist writing something along the lines of “people complaining about the falling living standards, all the while throwing more and more stuff into the supermarket basket”.

09 April, 2008 01:32  
Anonymous Snork said...

And speaking of Tibet – as far as I remember, most of its residents are by now ethnic Chinese. I think they would have something to say about Tibet becoming independent from China.

09 April, 2008 01:33  
Blogger Pēteris Cedriņš said...

Tibet is 92,8% Tibetan.

09 April, 2008 03:21  
Blogger Vidas said...

Tibet is the "new black" when it comes to making protest fashionable. If you want to talk about a country that should have a voice in Europe - and a country that has very close parallels to the Baltic experience - then lets talk about Belarus.

There is more pressure on the Baltic governments today to take a firm stand on Tibet than there is for them to take a firm stand on Belarus. Except for the occasional news spark, like the suspicious death of a high ranking Lithuanian official - there's nothing (even with this event there's practically nothing). Hell, Lukashenka has admirers in the Baltics for how clean Minsk is and the lack of crime. You know what I'm talking about.

And what about Kaliningrad ?

I'm supposed to concern myself with Tibet ? Thats practically in another world.

09 April, 2008 03:36  
Anonymous snork said...

OK, I checked it and it seems you are right on ethnic breakdown. My mistake, sorry. I must have confused it with Xinjiang, or just wrote without thinking.

09 April, 2008 03:59  
Blogger Pēteris Cedriņš said...

A reminder on a couple of things: (1) the Dalai Lama, who is the head of state of the government in exile in addition to being the spiritual leader of the Tibetans, isn't asking for independence and has said so categorically -- real autonomy is the goal -- and (2)the government in exile is opposed to a boycott of the Olympics. The Chinese government is indulging in Stalinist lies on all of these subjects, including the (non-existent) role of the Dalai Lama in the riots. H.H. the Dalai Lama: "Chinese telling me, liar, liar. So please, you investigate, who is liar?"

Vidai -- re the protests being "fashionable," it sounds almost as if you're jealous of the movement's success. I've long written about Belarus (there's a post on the front page of my blog now), and the Latvian media have focused on our neighbors and on "post-Soviet space" from time to time (e.g., Diena once ran an editorial entitled "The Scream," with regard to a protest in Minsk and the need for Latvia to support the opposition there, on its front page), and there hasn't been undue focus on Tibet here -- there's been too little coverage, if anything.

To me it makes no sense to say things like "I would have liked to see a fraction of the attention Tibets struggle receives after Romas Kalanta set himself on fire" -- that's reminiscent of the not infrequent complaints by some about the coverage the Holocaust gets versus the crimes of Stalin; if one wants to rectify the imbalance, one should draw attention to the latter, not complain about the former.

I'm supposed to concern myself with Tibet ? Thats practically in another world.

We are part of the world, and part of the global economy, and part of the European Union... and it's time we realized it. The EU imports more from China than from anywhere else. Though Chinese trade (almost all of it imports) in the Baltics is not yet especially large, it is rising by leaps and bounds (for Latvia, by ca. 60% from 2005 to 2006, for example).

I agree that we should place especial focus on what we have the most connection to -- Estonia's concern for Fenno-Ugric minorities in Russia, for example, is very healthy -- but as long as we have states in the international system and ostensibly act as guardians of democratic values, it's our duty to speak up about Burma, Tibet, Zimbabwe and many another distant place. As I said in the post, we are rarely at the forefront -- someone like Meri could make a clear, principled splash by refusing to attend the OSCE summit in Istanbul in response to Russia's oppression of Chechnya, for example. For Ilves -- not going to the opening ceremonies in Beijing is a "scheduling conflict." For Latvia -- it's mumbling pat phrases about human rights whilst waiting to see what others say, meanwhile promoting a "new Silk Road" that involves sucking up not just to China but to a chain of more or less authoritarian regimes.

Then there's the hypocrisy -- are Iraq, where we leapt to support an invasion, or Afghanistan, where we have troops under the aegis of our devotion to building democracy, any closer than Tibet? Why should anybody buy the platitudes about freedom and democracy we spout, already like unto a broken record of refried clichés, even for many of our own people (including those who admire Belarus... their misplaced admiration having to do more with Part I of my post, Belarus having preserved a social net no matter what one can and should say about repression there).

Jānis Ziemelis sent me an article by Nima R. Taylor Binara, "The world should stand beside Tibet": "Looking forward, as with many colonized nations, there comes a tipping point when a sufficient number of people rise up and say 'enough'. That point has been reached in Tibet."

Kaliningrad? It's not and never was a nation -- it was a part of Germany that was ethnically cleansed as a result of the war and is now populated primarily by Russians. Though it has a small pro-democracy movement -- it's very small. Has a tipping point been reached in Belarus -- which happens to be a sovereign state? The situation there is dramatically different.

I don't see how paying attention to one place might mean that we have to reduce focus on another. David McDuff observes how, in 2006, Tibetan flags flew in almost 300 towns and cities across the Czech Republic in defiance of letters and e-mails sent by Beijing's ambassador in a tradition that's now in its twelfth year, i.e., not related to the current spotlight.

Here is Václav Havel's view -- it's signed by some other prominent people, none of them Balts. Is the Czech Republic closer to Tibet, Vidai?

Finally, there's the possible fruit I hinted at -- imagine what the dramatic, outspoken, consistent defense of human rights, in Tibet and elsewhere, would do for us in terms of how we are viewed... and how we view ourselves. A clear stand, amplified by the "fashionable" movement you seem to resent, would be better PR than orgs like the Latvian Institute could drum up in a century, and wouldn't require retaining Simon Anholt.

09 April, 2008 11:18  
Blogger Vidas said...

Peteri,

I'm not criticizing you directly here. I have great respect for your thoughts and your points of argument are solid. Yes, you have posted previously on Belarus - more so than me in fact.

But... You have to acknowledge that the masses who gather in support of Tibet likely know very little about it or its history. If Tibet is a compelling case for independence, so be it - but whats the status of all of the other compelling cases ? The imbalance is truly awkward.

My greater point on the Baltic connection relates to our current political conditions. The Baltics are not healthy thriving democracies. We are not success stories yet. That work needs to be done before the Baltic experience is applied to places on other continents. The Baltic experience isnt finished - and its not really a success story yet.

11 April, 2008 04:34  
Blogger Vidas said...

Forgive the repetition and grammatical errors. It was a stream of consciousness thing...

11 April, 2008 04:38  
Blogger Mykolas said...

Latvia and Lithuania remain adrift in relatively uncharted waters in regards to the current conditions and how they compare to quality of life under Soviet Occupation. For those who long ago accepted the reality of being ruled by Moscow and choose to adapt to such conditions or even become comfortable with them...Their 'security blanket' was abruptly torn away from them!
Others may be disappointed by the pace and demands associated with rebuilding. The true spirit of both Latvia and Lithuania will remain obscure until those generations who are without memories of life under the thumb of the Russian's become of age to take control of their countries destinies. Perhaps their youthful exhuberances will eventually be somewhat tempered by realities during their time at the helm. But
they will remain in control and be better equipped to plot a course and head straight for it. If one desires to sample the winds of a not so far off tommorrow, I would suggest that more focus upon and study of the youger generations might be in order. If a citzen of Latvia or Lithuania want's to ensure a better near future I would highly recommed that you make great efforts to teach your children well, Help them understand how they fit into our Baltic legacy and remind them often of your confidence in their ability to assume their role as guardians of our heritage and future decission makers.

Mykolas
http://bieksia.wordpress.com/

16 June, 2008 06:06  

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