10 February 2007

Borderlands (II)

The Saeima, Latvia's parliament, voted 69:26 on Thursday to authorize the coalition government led by Prime Minister Aigars Kalvītis to sign the Border Agreement with Russia (hyperlinks to some of the nitty-gritty, background, and commentary can be found in my previous post on the subject). Ben Nimmo of Deutsche Presse-Agentur, one of the better foreign correspondents in Rīga, writes about the vote (and the protest pictured at left) in an article entitled "Nationalists left in the cold as Latvia warms to Russia," available in English here. The address to the Saeima given by Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga, Latvia's President, at the outset of the dramatic debate that began ten days ago, can be found in English translation here. Over at All About Latvia, Aleks writes:
"Most Latvians, I believe, don’t care about Abrene. There’s enough poverty to go around without this piece of land that is a bit larger than 1,000 ha. From a legal standpoint, the issue here is much larger: is the present-day Latvia a so-called Second Republic, or is it a continuation of the Republic of Latvia formed in 1918?"
Callous as the first sentence cited may sound, Aleks' belief is borne out by surveys -- a 2005 poll showed that 53,9% of Latvia's residents would be prepared to "give up" Abrene (here and henceforth I am using the term to refer to the six civil parishes annexed by Russia in 1944 and not to the entire district, most of which is still in Latvia -- nowadays this is the most common usage; "give up" is meant in the legal sense, of course, since the area has long been de facto part of Russia), whilst only 22,9% would object. As Anita Daukšte recently noted in Neatkarīgā Rīta Avīze, 47% of People's Party voters want Abrene returned, but only 34% of those who vote for the "Fatherlanders" do. The People's Party is the party of the Prime Minister and is eager to sign Abrene away -- Fatherland and Freedom is the furthest to the right one can go and still get into parliament (the men demonstrating outside the Saeima in the photo, half-naked in -17° cold, are further to the right, but they are the young far right and received only 13 469 votes, or 1,48% of ballots cast, in the last election). The paradox Daukšte points to isn't surprising, though: the Fatherlanders' voters don't want the region returned because it was ethnically cleansed. It's not the territory many Latvians don't want to see given back (even in an ideal world where it might be) -- it's the people who live there now they wouldn't want to see (and one must note that most surveys about these issues are of everybody in Latvia -- non-citizens included). Not only ethnic Latvians but also many of the ethnic Russians who lived in Abrene, and formed a majority of the population there (many of them actually Russified Latvians, ethnically, to be precise -- and almost all of them Latvian nationals), were driven out after the war.

The grand debate in the Saeima and on the airwaves (Latvia's premier political talk show, What's happening in Latvia?, for instance, produced an extra-long extravaganza that dug up politicians I haven't seen in years, in addition to august and wry historians, the awe-inspiringly brilliant Ineta Ziemele [now a judge at the ECHR in Strasbourg, speaking via Skype], and the rather comically earnest Raivis Dzintars, leader of the half-naked young men) was bound to be more emotional than it was rational. By weight, I'd even guess that Domburs' TV show (during which the call-in polls -- which are, of course, the opposite of scientific -- showed overwhelming opposition to signing the Border Agreement now) contained more substance than the parliament's marathon speechfest, especially from Ziemele. Speeches in the Saeima were limited to a Warholian fifteen minutes (my prize goes to the distinguished Uldis Grava, who described the Russian Ambassador, Viktor Kalyuzhny, as slavering with delight at what the legislators were doing -- Kalyuzhny has indeed been drooling his venom with even more frequency than usual; a man who has repeatedly noted that he sees no difference between the EU and the USSR, His Excellency gave a wide-ranging interview in the latest issue of Republika magazine, riding his favorite hobby-horses [Latvia was not occupied, how can we talk about occupation when there were no concentration camps /and there was no barbed wire!/ and the intelligentsia flowered... factories were built and not shut as they are under Brussels, etc.])

Though much poetry was quoted from the podium during this grand debate, the fifteen-minute limit (slightly exceeded by Visvaldis Lācis, the sometimes impolitic rightist Soviet apologists love to hate) prevented true grandeur. The longest speech ever given in a Latvian parliament lasted several hours, and it, too, was laden with allegory -- in fact it, too, was about land. That was long ago, in a very different land. Perhaps explaining a bit of the historical Latvian relationship to land will illuminate this for those who visit my blog but don't grok what Aleks calls "not your usual Eastern European country." Latvian peasants had lost their land twice -- once in the Middle Ages, when Letts were gradually reduced to a peasant class (as opposed to a nation, which took so very long to come into being) by the invading Germans, and once again when the serfs were freed. Their freedom, in Latvian, is called "birds' freedom" -- the equivalent of that line in the Kris Kristofferson and Fred Foster song made famous by Janis Joplin: "freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose..." In fact, another song (sung to a Joan Baez tune in exile) contained the words: "Land, land, what is land if you have no freedom -- freedom, freedom, what is freedom if you have no land?"

Though a middle class came into being and many Letts purchased or repurchased what had been stolen twice, in the 19th C, the problem of the landless was... a burning one, as we saw in 1905. This problem was solved by the constituent assembly and parliamentary Latvia, and the radical land reform can be seen as essential to the interbellum Republic (the article I am linking to includes comparisons between the land reforms undertaken in Central and Eastern Europe, which is why I chose it). Those early emotional debates I mention invoked the Dark Knight, finally defeated after six centuries as oppressor. Though the economic success of the land reform is indeed debatable, to put it mildly -- politically and socially, the redistribution brought stability. Latvians got land, one of the principal demands of the revolution -- the Bolsheviks, so very attractive prior to their brief rule in part of Latvia, lost their support, except in isolated pockets of Latgallia; working for the state didn't seem very different from working for the noblemen to most.

I'm painting with a broad brush, of course (and I realize that the situation of Latvian peasants wasn't and isn't unique). The thing is, though, that the rocks with crosses cut into them, liminary stones, stayed important during the occupation -- so did the documents some people hid on their person, praying that one day they would see their property restored. Many did see that -- one couple, both partners centigenarians, returned to their farm in Courland to work it. When the right wing speaks of Abrene, quoting poets like Andrejs Eglītis:

Turiet savu zemi ciet!
Zeme taisās projām iet,
Prom ar šūpuļiem un mājām,
Prom ar svešu ļaužu kājām.
Turiet savu zemi ciet!
Zeme taisās projām iet.

(A crude gloss: "Cling to your land! / Your land is preparing to leave you, / To steal your cradle and your home / And take it away on foreigners' feet. / Hold fast to your land! / Your land is ready to leave you.")

...when lines like those are cited here, they resonate. The hideous irony, of course, is that the blame for the near-death of agrarian Latvia can be laid at the door of neoliberalism as practiced here as much as the Soviets are to be blamed; interestingly, Kalyuzhny shares a cry with the Lettish far right when he notes that the sugar factories of Latvia weren't closed by those, er, to him non-Russian non-occupiers -- they were closed because of the economic realities of a globalized world, as interpreted by bureaucrats, speculators, and oligarchs in a kleptocracy with historical pretensions.

My late mother and my elderly mother-in-law and anybody from the Ulmanis generation could recall the admonition of the dictator -- put three spoonfulls of sugar in each coffee or tea, one for each of the factories.

Raivis and his half-naked men remind me of throwbacks to the 1930s. The trouble is that I'm not sure what "the élite" reminds me of -- well, okay, I am: of that segment of the bourgeoisie that did not give a rat's ass about this nation at the cradle of the nation-state, and was summarily shunted aside by a suddenly empowered people. Many of the elected politicians who dare to speak of principles whilst playing with democracy for their own or some shadowy benefit do nothing but enlarge our already bloated cynicism. One of the most popular takes on the Abrene question in these past weeks has been to recall the intransigence of the arch-nationalists during the Third Awakening (as Daukšte does). This makes little sense, because the situation is drastically different -- as RIA-Novosti recently reported: "Estonia’s prime minister said Tuesday that his country does not need any border agreements with Russia." We're in the EU and NATO, and this Agreement is only necessary for economic reasons -- if that, considering that Latvia's economy is growing at "breakneck speed."

There ought to come a time when our government begins to think a bit more about how necks get broken.

The photograph is from Latvijas Avīze -- more pictures of the half-naked young men are available at their site.

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Blogger jams o donnell said...

Thanks Peteris, These posts are fascinating as ever. On a flippant note I really do wonder if it is worth getting hypothermia for your principles!

10 February, 2007 13:05  
Blogger Pēteris Cedriņš said...

Glad you liked it, Jams. Your land has a harder time leaving you, it being on an island. Except for Ulster, of course! [grin]

10 February, 2007 16:20  
Blogger Stefan said...


sorry for the delay. you were right when you emailed me, i was interested in this post.

2 reactions:

neoliberal policies have led to the shut down of so many factories and has caused soaring unemployment, brain-drain, etc., thus making some folks rather nostalgic--in a certain, limited but quite reasonable way--for the soviet past . . .especially since, though there are now a plethora of things to buy and an overheated economy, many latvians struggle to enjoy the neoliberal sense of freedom (i.e., consumerism, or freedom defined as consumer choice of whether to buy this exact same product made by this company instead of that other one) because they can't hardly meet their basic needs, slaving as they do at the lowest wages of the EU. so, as you asked, who is the overheated economy helping? whose necks are being broken, and who is breaking them?

second, i really like your emphasis that land reform contributed to social stability, if not, immediately, economic stability.

in ukraine, the failed president that is viktor yushchenko, has failed, to my mind, by virtue of the way he forsake his promises for social justice and social programs in a supposed effort to create a stable market for investors (for as his neoliberal ideas told him, the market would, of course, take care of the rest). social stability needed to be built--i.e., trust between the multitude of pro-OR ukrainians and the political establishment needed to be built. the only way to do so was to make real steps toward meeting the populist goals of the orange revolution. yu and gang betrayed utterly their populist promises, and the gulf between the multitude and the gov. is as wide, if not wider, today as it was before the OR.

so yushchenko has now failed on all three fronts on which he claimed he would struggle: no social programs (like public works projects to rebuild ukraine's roads), no social justice (reprivatization and prosecution of kuchma-era crimes), and certainly no economy that is all that much friendlier to foreign investors than it was a few years ago.

social solidarity with his base leading to susbstantial social stability should have been yushchenko's primary focus. ukrainians, i believe, would have tolerated more economic instability if they saw that some kind of justice was being done. now they have continued economic instability without social justice and even rudimentary social services, especially in the villages. and their cynicism is probably much the higher.

18 February, 2007 15:22  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

France is on its fifth republic, I believe, and I dare say no one contests its "continuity" since the Revolution. I am no constitutional expert by any means, but as long as Latvia holds on to, and lives up to, its constitution, the continuity of the 1918 republic should not be in doubt, except of course by the many propagandists in Moscow.

I enjoy reading your comments on the Abrene district, here, on LOL and Wiki, Pēteri. A potentially thorny issue to be sure, but one where there is no turning back. The de facto situation should be made legal - afterall, the current border is not in question - but there really is not need for expediancy IMHO.


18 February, 2007 21:14  
Blogger Pēteris Cedriņš said...

Liels paldies, Pierre and Stefan, for your excellent comments.

Pierre -- but France was not occupied for half a century after a mere two decades of existence. If you go to my previous "Borderlands" post, there's a link to Loeber's paper on, er, the lameness of continuity -- see, it's not so simple, and that's the problem; whilst many countries didn't recognize the incorporation, neither did they deny it at every level, including levels that matter. We weren't even allowed to pay our League of Nations dues, for instance, whilst that organization was coming apart and becoming the UN. In the 1990s, not a little of this was Latvia's fault. The recent history of diplomatic failure will still be written.

As many have pointed out, the internal and external arguments on these questions differ. Legally, by the way, we are not "giving up" Abrene even now, by signing this Agreement -- we are merely demarcating the border (there is an interesting moment in the Domburs mega-show when Ziemele says she hopes that the PM has not said what he said on the show externally and in those terms, and he, looking like he's about to cry, says he hasn't).

The way this is being done disturbs me more than doing it, and I hope I hinted at that strongly enough in my posts on the subject. I have had it up to here [gestures at neck, and not to point at Pyotr's brand] with how the most serious questions we face in this country are "settled" for us -- we've been reduced to reņģēdāji ("pilchard-eaters," as Birkavs described Džo Sīkspēks).

Which permits a perfect segue into a response to Stefan -- I agree with you completely, but I am at a total loss as far as a solution goes, unfortunately. I'm not among those who think tinkering with the electoral mechanics will fix things. You did a fine job at your blog, describing how the spirit of the Barricades departed -- I suppose it's because you the spirit of the Orange Revolution is also abscondite, or... was stolen?

Nostalgia for the Soviet is very limited here -- the trouble is that possible courses are still driven by that dread dichotomy; years ago, I called Lattelekom about a problem (that I was paying hundreds of lati a month for the Internet and they refused to offer me DSL) and got an ideological lecture from the young flunky manning the phone, explaining that they have to charge me so much because Socialists force them to subsidize pensioners, unlike in America. I patiently explained that many a utility in the States is indeed forced to provide cheaper, limited services for the poor and old, and that in a country not known for its socialism, capital "S" or otherwise.

The Lattelekom deal, lauded by such as Kaža, was a total débâcle and doubtless lined many a pocket -- it was, by the way, a huge deal, one of the largest such deals in Eastern Europe. But I'm merely using it to anecdotally illustrate part of the reason we haven't a Left. As I'm sure you know from Ukraine, market freedom as interpreted by many a post-Soviet is pretty simple -- take what you can get. In Latvian: "štrunts par bitēm, ka tik medus." ("Screw the bees, so long as there's honey.")

A decade and a half after destroying much of the infrastructure, we can go to the Internet potals and read about how we need a plan to distribute economic growth and subsidies regionally -- well, that train left a while ago. In R&D spending, despite a sudden rise percentage-wise, Latvia is closer to Cyprus than it is to a "normal" country, and neither is this Estonia (oh, but I wish...).

Sorry for griping at such length -- there's plenty of silver in the lining, and Paiders was perhaps not being so absurd when he suggested that we might be better off as a piratical statelet than we would be as an EU Member State; even in the EU, our aptitude in the gray economy is still economically vital (and being a back door for bad money adds a buck...).

The nation in the old sense, and even as an outgrowth of the old nation, is pretty much finished. It consists primarily of its trappings.

19 February, 2007 11:01  
Blogger martintg said...

Perhaps after signing the border agreement, Latvia will do a similar thing to Estonia in regard to the ratification law?

27 February, 2007 09:36  
Blogger Pēteris Cedriņš said...

I doubt it, Martin -- it's pretty obvious that the Government wants to conclude the Agreement, not watch Russia withdraw its signature. There is a chance that the Constitutional Court will cause the matter to be put to a referendum, however -- an arduous, expensive, and unpredictable process in Latvia.

27 February, 2007 10:09  

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