18 April 2008

The Sad Saga of the Strawberry Cake

Last fall's Case of the Mysterious Briefcase, which led to the resignation of the man who'd once been the world's first Green Prime Minister, Indulis Emsis, couldn't exhaust the Green Peasants' flair for black comedy, it seems. One of yesterday's headlines was MINISTER TO REIMBURSE STATE FOR STRAWBERRY CAKE.

The Minister in question is the Special Assignments Minister for Electronic Government Affairs, Ina Gudele. She didn't use the taxpayers' money to pay for her birthday gift, a hammock (a fact she's apparently proud of). She did use the taxpayers' money to rent the space in which her birthday party was held, buy the wine with which it was celebrated, and obtain the by now notorious strawberry cake.

The Green Peasants' leaders quickly gathered to insist that she retain her Cabinet post -- she's "responsible only morally," according to them. The cake, of course, is the symbolic tip of the iceberg our ship of state long ago struck -- as Laila Pakalniņa points out in her editorial, the PM was probably not thinking about the Green Peasants when he didn't ask for Ina Gudele's resignation... or at least not as much as he thought about his fellow party member Ainārs Šlesers of Latvia's First Party, who has mishandled far more funds than a cake costs but remains the Minister of Transport, presiding over some of the world's most expensive bad roads and a post office that is all but bankrupt. How can one take action on a cake when we are building what might end up being the world's most expensive bridge?

Meanwhile, people have started signing up for yet another referendum, a ballot initiative to raise the minimum pension to subsistence level. This type of populism is unworkable -- there isn't any money for such an increase (what with the cake budget...). The sentiments, however, are perfectly understandable, like those of one Anatols on the front page of Diena yesterday. His 107 LVL monthly pension is now 118 LVL (ca. 167 EUR). He says it's possible to survive as it was during the war, when everyone was starving and lice-ridden. Or as they did after the war, when his father promised him a kilogram of candy if he didn't join the Young Pioneers -- he never got the candy because there was no candy available. Or like in his childhood, when he got two hot potatoes and felt so very happy. But not now, and not here. Anatols went to every demonstration for Latvia's freedom, from the very first protests called by Helsinki-86. Anatols is tired of waiting.

Anatols no doubt knows that the salary of a Cabinet Minister in 2009 is to be 4512 LVL (ca. 6420 EUR) a month -- and still it is difficult for Ina Gudele to get her own strawberry cake.

Update: Gudele is resigning after all.

Labels: , ,

14 April 2008

"The Genocide Loophole"

Henry Alminas at the soc.culture.baltics newsgroup drew my attention to Jonah Goldberg's recent article in the National Review. It begins: "Last week, Russia’s lower house of parliament passed a resolution insisting that Josef Stalin’s man-made 1932-33 famine — called the Holodomor in Ukrainian — wasn’t genocide." In view of some of the debates in the comments at this blog, like those that followed "Прибой," I thought I would highlight Goldberg's piece.

Today, Mao and Stalin aren’t in Hitler’s class of evil because Hitler wasn’t a “modernizer,” he was a racist. Note how the Russians have no problem copping to the charge of mass murder but recoil at suggestions it was racially motivated.

It’s a wrongheaded distinction. Murder is murder, whether the motive is bigotry or the pursuit of allegedly enlightened social planning.

It’s also a false distinction. Racial genocide is often rationalized as a form of progress by those responsible. Under the Holodomor, Ukrainian culture was systematically erased by the Russian Soviets, who saw it as expendable. No doubt the Sudanese janjaweed in Darfur and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army in Tibet believe they are “modernizers,” too.

Read the entire article here.

The mask is from the Occupation Museum. "Such masks were tied on to protect the face from frostbite when working outdoors in temperatures as low as -40°C (-40°F). The mask was made for the political prisoner Kārlis Ārgalis in the Amur region in the 1950s."

Labels: , , , , , , ,

12 April 2008

W(h)ither the Nation? (III)

As the diabolus and fouteur de merde in me expected, I've received a lot of responses to the last installment in this series of musings, some privately. Not surprisingly, parts of the last post rubbed some of my more rightist friends the wrong way.

Snork, Vidas, and Giustino, among others, also provided ample reason for further ruminations in their comments, so here are some scattered thoughts.

Vidas wrote: 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 isn't finished - and its not really a success story yet.

I certainly agree that we're a work in progress (and as the first epistle suggested -- there are days when the Castle of Light seems out of sight, not only a few decades' climb ahead, and nights when it seems we're stumbling in the opposite direction [Denk' ich an Lettland in der Nacht...]) -- but the Baltic experience won't ever be finished, at least not till we're extinct. Pace Fukuyama, but I don't see history ending anytime soon.

In the meantime -- we can't exist in a no-man's-land, jiving to provisional measures as though we weren't in the here and now; that was part of my point in asking how long can one be in transition in the post. Later, in the comments, I said that 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 Baltic experience is applied to places on other continents. We were strong supporters of the American invasion of Iraq, which is not in Europe. We have troops in Afghanistan, which is not in Europe. We have voices in the UN, where we vote on measures that affect people in East Timor and the ice packs at the poles.

We are, no matter how you slice it, playing in the big leagues -- and we play on a team, the one led by liberal democracies. We're not great players, to be sure -- but we can't and don't sit on the sidelines. We're full members of the EU and NATO -- according to their standards, we are democracies that are at least healthy enough to have met the entrance requirements. Are we thriving? Nope.

When I wrote it's time we realized it, I was thinking of something somewhat tangential -- of the moment of silence for the victims of the massive terrorist attack in Madrid. LTV showed how it was observed in various European capitals -- cars coming to a halt... okay, I'm sure a lot of cars just kept going even in civilized Europe. But -- in Rīga? Nobody noticed, except perhaps LTV. We don't feel like we're part of Europe. That lack of feeling (or is it lack of communion?) exists elsewhere, to some extent -- I remember signs at Victoria Station saying "Trains to Europe," for example. But we aren't islands, and we're definitely not islands with strong parliamentary traditions that cradled liberalism. Tallinn feels closer to "Europe" than Latvia does -- 'cause it is... always was, whether one looks at the watching of Finnish TV during the occupation or the behavior of Estonians at the time of our liberation ninety years ago. Lithuania has its vaunted ties to Central Europe -- how real those are, I sometimes wonder. (Andrius makes me wonder even more.) In Latvia, one often still hears phrases like "he's in Europe." The bus companies advertise "buses to Europe." Europe is elsewhere.

In my post, I included this parenthetical remark on our (current) independence and should have underscored 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.) I really mean that. Really, really. Because we do have a lot to show for our independence. Latvia slipped slightly in the RSF Press Freedom Index, for instance -- to 12th place -- but all three Baltic states are very highly ranked. We rank higher than beacons and bastions of democracy like the USA and the UK. Does that matter? You'd better believe it does! I spend a lot of time being critical -- because I think that's crucial -- but if we are talking about human rights... with all of our problems, Russia (ranked 144th, below Yemen) and China, which occupies Tibet (ranked 163rd, just above Burma/Myanmar) are night to our day.

I feel compelled to retell one of my favorite stories -- true story, told by someone close to me, A. A is asked by an Australian about her hard labor in the colder climes of Soviet Russia, and because it's an in-depth question gets a rather detached, clinical earful about how A ended up in the Gulag, how this house was confiscated, what the camps were like, in detail. Australian pauses. "Why didn't you call a lawyer [solicitor]?"

I find, talking to people from countries that haven't suffered what this one has, that many people just can't grok what totalitarianism was and is. If you talk about the abrogation of personal freedom in the occupied Baltics, you're liable to hear comparisons to the Patriot Act. And then there are the willfully blind, like your compatriot Andrius, who refuse to recognize the differences between flawed democracy and wholesale oppression. There's little you can do for them. One of the most popular throwaways here, even among some friends I otherwise respect, is that "democracy is bogus." This is where the critique comes in -- I am quite willing to acknowledge that the experience has not been happy so far... it was even unhappier in Russia in the 1990s. One cannot expect people who've seen their social fabric torn apart to be gung-ho about this here and now -- I intended to hint at that with those potatoes and salt. The solution, though, is better democracy -- not a return to hell. Even the great democracies, the ones we vote with, often without question, are entering a period of intense self-doubt. I have no truck with the doubters on basic principles. Certainly, it's easier for me than it is for people who are having trouble surviving to be so arrogant, and I fully recognize that. But I think it insane to abandon our democratic values for some quasi-Belarusian or Cuban comfort. I think it perverse to try to go back to our cages. We're free, and the element that prefers the prison to figuring out how to act at this time is the same element that served as dead weight for decades.

A week ago I read the IHT on the bus. Had a great article. Closing line: "They tend to be very individualistic," she said. "They think they survived communist efforts to collectivize them, so they will survive this. They don't realize the European Union and the global market are even harder." Yeah, they are. Acting out under the monkey bars of a sick nostalgia won't make them easier or softer. The Luddites lost.

The video is of the Prayer at the Sea, 1989.

Labels: , , , ,

11 April 2008

Referendum, ra, ra!

The head of the Central Election Commission (CVK) reports that ca. 213 000 persons signed in favor of amendments to the Satversme, Latvia's Constitution, that would make it possible for the people to initiate the dissolution of Parliament. That's far more than the number needed -- 149 064, a tenth of those eligible to vote in the last parliamentary elections. There may be some duplicates from those who provided notarized signatures prior to the month-long collection by CVK, but signatures collected abroad haven't been tallied yet.

In short -- we ("the people"), and the trade unions sponsoring this signature drive, have won... or, it proves that at least 213 000 people haven't yet surrendered to nihilistic apathy, our national beast. The process ahead is tortuous, as Veiko says, and I won't describe it here -- but the success of this first stage should inject some more well-deserved fear into the marrow of our darkling political elite. What many care about most is their seats, of course, and they'll continue to shudder a little.

I must say, though, that the proposed changes are risky. As experts in the law and politics have pointed out, rallying the people to "throw the bums out" will probably always be pretty easy. The next time we choose from our 60-odd parties in a flurry of
kompromat, slick advertising and shady financing, assuming that the people are given this power, it's possible that someone can fund a "throw the bums out" campaign the next day. In this country, smaller than many a city, "political technologies" can be employed like shots in the dark, from guns without serial numbers.

Still, I signed... because I trust our people -- our nation -- a lot more than I trust our so-called elite. When the Government threatens us with "chaos" -- the only response can be that the Government has long been dragging us into a half-light oozing lies and sinister lucre. As Laila Pakalniņa suggested, we -- the people -- could at least have an instrument with which to respond in extremity.

Photo: Reinis Oliņš, Diena.

Labels: ,

10 April 2008

Rain, referendum, can sit on the ground now...

Returned through the driving rain from the dreadfully Soviet Palace of Culture in the Химпосёлок, where we went to sign for a referendum on changing the Satversme, Latvia's Constitution, to permit the people to initiate a vote on dismissing the Saeima, our Parliament. Veiko has details and updates here. The last day to sign. People are standing in long lines in the rain. It's also Anitas, my mother-in-law's name's-day. Balzams.

Thunderstorm. Can sit on the ground now. Couldn't make it to the pro-Tibet demo in Rīga. Lithuania's PM has announced that he won't attend the opening of the Olympics. Latvia's Parliament refused to consider a resolution supporting Tibet today -- 28 in favor of putting this on the agenda, 24 against, 31 abstaining. Those against led by the usual culprits, but joined by right-wingers who are in the parliamentary support group
and the China group. Šmits and Ozoliņš, for example -- two of Latvia's most prominent homophobes, of the zoological strain. Šmits was human rights guru -- human rights don't apply to gays or Tibetans though, I guess. And Tabūns, of course -- Russophobe of the loudest mouth. Всё нормально.

Photo: AFI. They stamp your passport when you sign. That's not such a nice thing if your employer thinks signing is an invocation of chaos.

Labels: , , , ,

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.


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.


(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.

Labels: , , , , , ,

01 April 2008

W(h)ither the Nation?

Returning to this question -- keeps coming up, even from left field. "Think about Tibet as Latvia, with very tall mountains," Professor Donald S. Lopez writes at openDemocracy.

The song above was an anthem of the national revival in the 19th C. The concept of the Castle of Light -- of an enlightened people. To prove to the Baltic Germans and the Russian Empire -- and to ourselves -- that we, too, are a nation (and a Kulturvolk), with a right to a seat at the table of nations.

The project of building a National Library takes that name.

The video below is of Ieva Akurātere singing what became one of the anthems of the Third Awakening.

Labels: , , ,