17 August 2008

Latvia and Georgia

In the deluge of press on the war in the Caucasus and its background, not a few articles refer to Baltic and Central/Eastern European sympathy for Georgia, now and then with understanding (of varying depth, usually shallow) and sometimes with dismissive patter about "American puppets" suffering from "Russophobia." As I've often suggested before, for instance in my review of Edward Lucas' The New Cold War, a phobia is a "persistent, abnormal, and irrational fear of a specific thing or situation that compels one to avoid it, despite the awareness and reassurance that it is not dangerous" (American Heritage); there is nothing irrational or abnormal about the Baltic fear of our huge, imperialistic neighbor. There is no avoiding it -- geographically, historically, culturally, politically and economically, we are on the frontier.

In the map that serves as the frontispiece of Samuel P. Huntington's Clash of Civilizations, (which I purchased, oddly enough, in Damascus), the line dividing "Western civilization" from "the Orthodox world" runs through Ukraine but to the east of Latvia. In reality, despite our Euro-Atlantic integration -- that line should run through Latvia, too. Latgallia, the comparatively impoverished eastern region in which I live, was the only part of the country to vote against joining the EU. On New Year's Eve, not a few fireworks go off at 11 P.M. -- midnight Moscow time. Cable TV and radio broadcasts are almost entirely in Russian. Euronews is Yevronoose, but most of those watching get their information from Russia's state-controlled TV. Sipping some of what was on offer the other night, as Russia's "triumphant" invasion continued, I had to pull the plug. As Andrei Illarionov writes in his "Thirteen Conclusions about the War": "The degree of manipulation of public opinion, and the speed with which the society was brought to mass hysteria, are clear evidence of the regime’s 'achievements', and pose an undeniable and unprecedented danger to the Russian society."

Stretched similes abound, to 1938 and 1968 -- some worth reading -- but most of the reactions that try to address the Baltic and Polish response lack meat. Even in terms of rather recent history -- how quickly we forget! At New Kosova Report, which has published some interesting articles on why Ossetia and Kosovo should not be equated, I came across this article from Time, 28 January 1991.

Shaking their fists defiantly, protesters last week massed at the government house in Tbilisi, capital of the Georgian republic, chanting, "Lithuania! Lithuania! Lithuania!" For this fiercely independent nation of 5.4 million in the Caucasus, the troubles in the Baltics far to the north seemed alarmingly near. Georgians had already felt the Kremlin's determination to keep the union intact, when Soviet paratroopers armed with sharpened spades brutally dispersed a nationalist demonstration in April 1989, killing 20 people. Just as the Baltic states showed support in that hour of crisis, Georgians embraced the tragedy in Vilnius last week as if it were their own.

The photograph in this post is of a work by Jūlijs Straume, an artist renowned for his textiles; I thought I would avoid the photos of carnage one can find everywhere these days. Long resident in Georgia and an avid researcher in Georgian traditions, he was also the first Latvian envoy to the short-lived Democratic Republic of Georgia, proclaimed in the same year the Baltic states declared their independence. The Baltics, with all our tragedy, had better luck -- like Belarus, which also declared its independence ninety years ago, Georgia was crushed before it could enjoy the two decades of nation-building we did. Twenty years, sullied by our own descent into authoritarianism and blighted by the shadows of the approaching war, might not seem like much -- but our parents and grandparents remembered being free. The maps I grew up with in America almost always bore the note that the United States and most Western countries did not recognize the annexation of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania by the USSR. The fervent hope that we would regain our independence seemed to be an absurd dream to many even at the fall of the Berlin Wall. The maps had no such note for Georgia, Belarus, or Ukraine -- though Georgia did have some success in achieving diplomatic recognition for its doomed Republic, fate and Stalin dictated otherwise.

But the emotional intimacy some of us feel isn't merely rooted in our republics having been born at the same time -- as close relatives in that our politics were Western, the black sheep joining the Bolsheviks -- or even in the relations between the popular fronts that brought about the collapse of the Soviet Union that Lt. Col. Putin calls a catastrophe. The intimacy comes not only of the Russian subjugation we suffered -- it springs from the knowledge that subjugation wrought, which can indeed color our views but also gives us insight others lack. Even now, as Georgia is raped, one Jean Matouck can write of a Russia "which is recovering and which obviously has no desire other to develop and enrich itself with dignity [sic]."

Another Time article, from 1993, recalls Foreign Minister Kozyrev's rants about the "near abroad," that twilight zone to which the Kremlin -- and not a few European politicians -- would have confined us... and to which M. Matouck would condemn Ukraine and Georgia by denying them Euro-Atlantic integration. That use of the word "dignity" recalls Hitler's rants about the humiliation of Versailles. Bullies are not dignified, as a rule, and Matouck's contention that Russia "had every indication of becoming powerful again without being aggressive" unless provoked exhibits a stunning ignorance of Russian thinking, not to mention a blithe disregard for the right of free nations to chart a course not hobbled by deference to the wounded pride of the prison house of nations.

I am not arguing against prudence -- I'm arguing for it. I don't doubt that Misha poked the bear; Saakashvili is not my idea of an urbane diplomat. Nonetheless, anyone paying any attention to the relations between the Baltic states and Russia must know that Russia can perceive most anything not in line with its incessantly refried falsifications of history and its increasingly fascistic imperial ambitions as a "provocation." Its current Ambassador to NATO talked about invading Estonia in response to the removal of an offensive statue to a cemetery, after all. No need to poke the bear -- let the statues the occupiers erected stay where they are, I say.

And yet -- the ground beneath these symbols can recall The Night of the Living Dead. It is all well and good to let bygones be bygones -- but not by denying our history or betraying our friends. The Western European refrains that paint us as stuck in the mud of the war don't take the zombies into account. "Europe has moved on." Indeed it has -- but Russia has not. Its Stalinist mythology underpins the foundation of the empire it is trying to restore, the pilings sunk in soil soaked with 19th C concepts. One needn't poke the bear -- but one mustn't pretend it is a tame creature.

Writing about another victim of Russian aggression, Chechnya, nearly a decade ago, Mel Huang contrasted the views of secondary school graduates from Estonian-language and Russian-language schools, observing that "the comments from the Russian-speaking graduates seem horrific and brutal, but if one watches Russian TV, one sees that this very much represents normal public opinion in the country." One can say the same today -- and one would have to include the local Russian-language media in Latvia, which inspires demonstrations like this one, by Russophones in Rīga supporting the Kremlin.

A few years ago I watched a documentary about the art of Jūlijs Straume. People like Nino Yakubidze, who heads the Georgian Association in Latvia, have worked hard to develop relations between Rīga and Tbilisi, where there is a Latvian Association. Cooperation between NGOs, scholarships, art, books about the ties between Georgians and Latvians... but these days Nino Yakubidze has to talk about death and Russian disinformation instead.

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14 August 2008

Latvia Strongly Supports Georgia

The strong statement on Russia's invasion of Georgia by the heads of state of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland has been followed by a vote in the Saeima, Latvia's Parliament. The Saeima voted this evening for a very harsh resolution condemning Russia for its aggression against Georgia -- a resolution with teeth (thanks primarily to Sandra Kalniete, one of the leaders of the Popular Front in the Singing Revolution, a writer and diplomat with extensive EU experience). Among other things, it calls upon our Government to continue to push for Georgian NATO accession, to ask that the EU reevaluate the EU-Russian partnership (including visa restrictions), and to ask NATO to strengthen security and security guarantees for Russia's neighbors. It also asks for clarity in future EU expansion, so that those countries implementing reforms know the score (and urges visa liberalization for candidate countries).

SC (Harmony Center), the ostensibly "moderate" coterie of pro-Moscow MPs, walked out and did not participate in the debates, leaving a handful of PCTVL radicals who have vowed to defend Abkhazian and Ossetian interests as the only MPs opposed, making inane arguments ("in the current economy we must think of our own people first" rather than antagonize innocent Moscow) whilst amendments giving the resolution its teeth passed with large majorities.

Considering the fact that the parties in power and New Era rarely agree on anything, the unity in this special session was remarkable (despite some sniping). The vote was 64-4 with 1 abstention. Bravo!

The photograph is from the demonstration in support of Georgia that took place in Latvia's capital on Monday -- more photos are available at Apollo, whence I filched this one.

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04 August 2008

Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn, 1918-2008

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was the first translation of Russian literature I ever read. Skipping lunch, I hoarded my allowance to acquire the rest of Solzhenitsyn's oeuvre in English, at a dismal chain bookstore in an aging suburban shopping mall. The bearded, long-haired clerk, a Trot stranded among the Harlequins, tried to disabuse me of my anti-Communist convictions. Aleksandr Isayevich's disdain for materialism was what most attracted me in adolescence. Looking back -- and one can't do that, unfortunately, without choking on the anachronistic vagaries of his Slavophilia, touched upon in the New York Times obituary -- I know I'll have to go back and reread him. The older English translation of Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita captured me back then, too, and again later, in the much finer Latvian translation by the poet Ojārs Vācietis... but rereading it not so long ago, I was struck by how many levels in that novel opened only upon living here, or after catching the merest fading shadow of the collapsed imperium. To be transported to "Matryona's House" from middle class American suburbia by literary magic was wondrous. It must read so very differently in a hovel in the hamlet of Slutišķi, called "Latvia's Siberia" because used as a Siberian backdrop in a soap opera... or in any nearby backwater, filtered through the dark, dense foliage of the stories here, innumerable individual histoires, lives direct or overheard, the tangible sense of tragedy hovering over abandoned farmsteads and unmarked graves, the trenches of the First World War still visible in the forest -- the place colored by the reading, the reading to be colored by place. To listen to those who suffered is often to hear

Gradually it became clear to me that the line separating good from evil runs not between states, not between classes, and not between parties -- it runs through the heart of each and every one of us, and through all human hearts. This line is not stationary. It shifts and moves with the passing of the years. Even in hearts enveloped in evil, it maintains a small bridgehead of good. And even the most virtuous heart harbors an uprooted corner of evil.

R.I.P., Aleksandr Isayevich.

The photograph of Solzhenitsyn as an inmate is from a biographical sketch at Vēsture sauc.

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03 August 2008

The Hottest Day of the Year

A partial solar eclipse on Lammas was followed by the hottest day of the year on Saturday (not that this part of the world gets to resemble the Sahara -- the mercury reached 28° C in Rīga... but we find that insufferable).

Yesterday was also the day our citizens were given the chance to vote to amend the Satversme, Latvia's Constitution, to allow the people to sack the Saeima, our Parliament.

The powers that be mostly urged people to stay home rather than vote for or against these changes -- a technique that is not exactly redolent of democratic convictions. Summer in Latvia is short and sweet, not conducive to traipsing to polling stations -- many people head for the countryside on the limited number of balmy weekends. Still, with 995 of 998 precincts reporting, 608 202 persons voted in favor of the amendments, 18 831 against.

That means, however, that the "servants of the people," as our Members of Parliament so love to describe themselves, can relax and return to misrule unhindered -- for the referendum to be valid, at least half of Latvia's eligible voters would need to vote in favor of the changes. The 40,14% garnered is insufficient.

Veiko Spolītis looks at some politicians' views on the referendum here.

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