24 April 2019, Wednesday, 0:03
For our and your freedom!

Latvia: 100 Years of Independence – Lessons for Belarus

Alexander Mikhailov

During the month of November 2018 Latvia will celebrate the culmination of ceremonial events marking its 100th independence anniversary.

The actual proclamation of the Independence of the Republic of Latvia took place on November 18, 1918. The schedule of festivities includes hundreds of cultural, educational, sports, building and construction projects, as well as special events for tourists and visitors. The initial celebration commenced in 2017, with further events continuing until 2021. The whole country has been living with the symbol: “Latvija 100 gadi” for the entire year starting November 18, 2017.

The centenary programme is a nationwide celebration. The duration of festivities underscores the long road to Latvia’s independence and its struggle for liberation from ‘Soviet occupation’ (this was the official terminology for the period of Latvia as part of the USSR). The celebration programme has not been a top-down creation, but rather has seen growth and support from the grass root level, truly embracing the whole nation. State authorities do no limit the programme of celebration, putting all those who want to mark the 100th year anniversary into one single park through metal detectors; on the contrary – Latvians are inspired to volunteer their own ideas to mark the centennial and to put everyone’s efforts forward together.

Latvia has definitely changed from the time of the creation of Atmoda (Latvian National Popular Front) in 1987-1988, and the consequent final farewell to the USSR. Memories of the developments of the historic events that took place during the late 1980’s – early 1990s in Latvia and in Riga are preserved carefully. This historic period is also referred to as the “Revolution of Songs”. Walking around the city center of Riga one can vividly recall the events that took place during January 1991 in the park not far from the Freedom Monument between the Bation Hill and the building of the former Ministry of Interior of the Latvian SSR. Here are located monuments in honour of the heroes fallen during the standoff between the rally participants and special militia force of Riga.

Among those who gave their life for the nation’s independence is Belarus’ militiaman, the honourable Vladimir Hamanovich who perished on January 20, 1991. The Independent Latvian State gives special attention to commemoration of those events in January 1991, also known as the “barricade time”.

The national importance of those events remains unchanged even though Latvia has already faced 9 parliamentary election campaigns since 1991, and the political leadership formations have changed after every campaign. Perpetuation of the memory of victims and the honourable distinction of those who fought for independence shows respect to the men and women for whom Independence has been the dream and goal of life.

More than 30000 barricade participants, both Latvians as well as those from neighbouring ex-USSR Republics, have been awarded Commemorative Medals. Following the tour of Riga city center one can also see the former KGB and Ministry of Interior “Headquarters,” both of which have been out of service for a long time. No respect in Latvia is given to the repressive structures of the former USSR, the general attitude towards these is overwhelmingly negative. The former KGB building now accommodates the so-called ЧК cellars museum. As a final farewell to the Soviet past, in September 2018 the Saeima adopted a law to make the archives of the Latvian SSR KGB available to the public.

Common recognition is also gradually given to definition of the Latvian Nation. “Latvians” – this is how all people living in Latvia are now correctly called. Due to the fact that in times past there had been many ambiguous situations with the usage of the terms “Lett” and “Lettish”, the State of Latvia definitely needs the name of the country – “Latvijas Republika” – as it correctly reflects the people living here. Hence, everything that has to deal with Latvia is correctly called “Latvian”, whereas “Lettish” is used to show the correspondence to the national ethnos.

Whereas a foreigner may start smiling at this point, Latvians take this with understanding and seriously. Since the mid 1850’s when in Latvia emerged the first national movement of the root nation against assimilation with Germans, Letts had been dreaming of independence, fought for it and lived with it in their thoughts and senses. The wave of the national sentiment was permanently growing; the Latvian flag was for the first time seen in chronicles as early as in 1272 as the banner of the Latgalian guard on the Venden battle (nowadays – Cesis), as well as coat of arms is the pride of Latvia. The carmine-white-carmine flag colour was adopted as a reference colour of the national flag in 1920s.

In early 1990s all Latvians were speaking and standing for independence of Latvia. Tourists visiting Riga have on many occasions told me that with the avalanche of national flags and other heraldic symbols, Latvia exceeds even the US in patriotism. By law, every household is obliged to hang out the national banner on public holidays and commemoration days. However, most of the people don’t take down their flags at all. This underlines once again – the national coat of arms and banner are the items of national pride!

By late the 1980s the lettish language (as well as belarussian) arrived at a dangerous point of cessation. For example, in the USSR technical research publications in lettish were limited and the lettish language was withdrawn from numerous state institutions. This was deplorable - one has to recall a postulate was proclaimed that the lettish language was not rich enough to be used in science, and some claimed it a “peasant” language. After Latvian independence, the comeback of the lettish language as the sole state language has given it, and its dialects (ex. Latgalian), a new life. In 1990-1991 the ratio of Latvians who could speak and could not speak the lettish language was 50%-50%; however, today the number of the permanent population of Latvia who do not speak the state language is down to a minimum.

Due to the patriotic sentiments towards Latvian national symbols and its language, coupled with the aversion to the symbols of the past (the Soviet symbols in Latvia are almost completely prohibited), Latvia has been a regular headliner in Russian news purporting the suppression of the local Russian-speaking population and the unanimous desire of the Russian population to leave Latvia for Russia forever. Let us not speak of the notoriously divisive topic of the “aliens.” Suffice it to note that the process of legalized naturalization and Latvian citizenship has long been launched and over the last ten years the number of “aliens” have been reduced by two-fold and now accounts for less than 10% of the total population. A much more important and critical issue has to be faced – namely, the emigration of the population away from the country at large.

Both in 1918 and in 2018 the population of Latvia was about 1.9 million, whereas in 1980 – for example – it was about 2.5 million. The logical question is where do the remaining 600000 live? Official sources indicate most of them reside in the UK and other EU countries; whereas Russia, which anticipated Latvia’s immigrants with spread-out hugs, has taken only a measly 2% of this population.

Evidently, when the problem of immigration and former industrial production decline is assessed, the statistical figures will not leave a positive impression (imagine – in Latvia the official statistics do not differ from unofficial numbers, as none of the state authorities will dare to publish known unfair data). Like the other “small” EU countries, Latvia will soon face serious demographic problems, and the general complex attitude to them remain on the agenda: this will be one of the challenges for the new Saeima, which has been elected shortly before October 6, 2018.

However, these and other problems such as the national economy, the usage of the state language, and many other such problems, are not hushed up; they are on the agenda every day and are a matter of the fierce polemics in the mass media.

In Belarus these problems are literally turned upside down and Belarusians don’t know which size of tears they will cry upon hearing the unending promises by Lukashenka of an average salary of 500 USD, or of new assurances that the struggle against corruption has entered a new and decisive stage. By the way – a couple of words about the head of the state. The President of Latvia has much less power than his Belarusian “colleague” - the President in Latvia is elected by the parliament. We’ll talk about the presidents later. During the absence of Latvia’s President (e.g. – vacation), his power is transferred to the Head of the Parliament, it is subject to public announcement, and it is impossible to imagine the President goes on vacation at the expense of the state budget.

Latvia has taken first steps to encourage the return of emigrants, those who left Latvia for the EU since 2004. Accordingly the state does not offer any cross-subsidizing of the economy: the banking and leasing sector allows credit resources with low European interest rates; investment is attractive; industrial production has seen growth in most regions which recently suffered from the suspension of the Soviet industrial giants – in Riga, Liepaja and Daugavpils.

As mentioned the main irritating factor in external relations for Latvia is Russia. While living in a state of “implacable” friendship with our eastern neighbor, Latvia is the recipient of constantly decreasing economic profit out of this relation (which is a matter of fact), and also receives an internal emotional burst to prove itself correct in its chosen path. Turnover with Russia since the time EU sanctions were introduced against Russia has fallen to 3% of the national turnover.

Commencing with the independence in 1991 a complete or partial degradation was permanently predicted to occur to Latvia because of reduced relations with Russia. Nevertheless, in spite of every new reduction the Latvian economy shows growth. An example is the intransigent war with the questionable financial flows, during 2015-2018, coming from Russia and CIS countries via Latvian banks. The largest private banks with national and Russian capital suffered most; however, the government went to the very end with this struggle, even in spite of the fact that this strict position may the Prime Minister’s position to the present post holder Maris Kucinskis.

Despite the most pessimistic forecasts – including that of financial default - the economy has not only managed the challenge, it has grown: the financial sector is now functioning much more transparently. In addition, even without the plan of an average salary of 500 USD for each, the average wage in Latvia has reached 1000 EUR, and this without interference of separate orders of the president to the national economy.

Some of the actions may cost a position to the present Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics. In particular one cannot exclude that the new coalition will ask hard questions about Rinkevics’ excessive dialog with Lukashenka’s regime, a regime which does not always follow the mainstream of European politics and human rights.

Paticular subject in Latvia – Predient’s post. I wouldn’t say that there is an intermediate relation with the retention of the national memory, however it should be mentioned that the record of the most famous President of Latvia – Karlis Ulmanis (took his office in 1934) is not at all democratic, he became an authoritatiran ruler and was governing Latvia till the occupation in 1940, after occupation by the USSR deported to Siberia. At that time (late 1930s) Latvia boasted to be the Europe’s leading manufacturer of livestock per capita for several years, with the industrial production being on the high level as well. Much to our regret, neither Latvia nor Estonia at that time were destined to follow Finland, which at that time was able to defend its independence.

Latvia is a parliamentary Republic, which as seen already 5 Presidents starting 1991. The President is elected by the Parliament and can stay in the office no more than two terms in a row. Since 1991 among Latvian Presidents there were Vaira Vike-Freiberga – proficient politician with American roots, descendant of Karlis Ulmanis. The present President of Latvia – Raimonds Vējonis – was born in a Latvian family in Pskov oblast’ in Russia.

Latvia has been an EU-member since more that 10 years already, therefore the “eternal president” factor is excluded at all. Once can say for sure that before the new president is elected in 2019 (or possibly Raimonds Vējonis is re-elected for the second term), a wide public discussion will be hold, the present President will be put under critics by all the political parties and mass media. Thereby the present President, like his predecessors have got used to crisicism as a normal and constructive mechanism of the communication of the electorate with the state authorities and vice versa.

Latvia – unlike Belarus’ – is proud of being a true winter sports’ nation, where especially ice hockey and bobsleigh as well as skeleton are the national pets. The Rigas Dinamo outfit is sold everywhere and enjoys high popularity and is a matter of pride and high spirit. In Latvia any national symbolics is sold in every shop and brings the nation to be pride of itself. Boys selling national flags at pick intersections in Riga boast to earn 200-300 Euros a day with just selling national flags, but repeat once again Latvian fans can be seen from far away one can see them not only because of the carmine colours but also by the way themselves they outscore all our neighbours.

Together with their skill to sing and to celebrate on the National holidays and celebration days, which are for example the Ligo holiday as well as the National song and dance festival Latvia represents a very mery and airily celebrating nation with particular vocal skills. Due to the fact that each nation refers to itself as the great song singer, let us just explain why you will never prove to Latvians that they are not extraexclusive. The National song and dance festival in 2018 has been reported to be the largest and memorable over the Nation’s history, reports in internet can be followed at:

Back to sports, ice hockey in Latvia cannot boast any particular state support, it exists mostly out of sponsors funds and one can not talk about mass construction of ice hockey palaces, state support of ice hockey clubs etc etc. Here in Latvia everyone understands that ice hockey is an expensive kind of sports, the hockey industry has been built because of and for the fans love to ice hockey based on the resources available. In spite of the fact that the population of Latvia is 5 times less than that of Belarus’, Latvian hockey had been on the same level with Belarusian for 20 years, the last several years it has slightly grown (it goes without saying that such failures as degradation from the elite of the World Ice Hockey Championship, consequent misses of the Olympic Games are not expected here taken the confident play of the national ice-hockey team). Important is that the government doesn’t interfere with ice hockey, the fans are furious and faithful, and the national teams plays for its fans and for the nation. And finally – no one can even think of giving 30% of the state budget for sports to ice hockey.

Public control over expenditures in Latvia is strict, the nation is seeking to make sure that every one Euro given out of the state budget is under a transparent check.

In Latvia any, even the most ordinary article may become a prideful subject-matter. Naturally there are numerous national brands of Latvia famous throughout the world – Rigas Balzams, Dzintars, Latvian sprats. However, Latvia is also proud of the best rye black bread in the world, home-made kvass and beer, meat and fish smokies, glazed curd in chocolate, Gotina sweets as well as the unbeaten outmeal cookies. These products are the national visit card of Latvia.

Generally it is acknowledged that the most popular brand of Latvia over the last 100 years has been Latvian Lats. Definitely the national currency has been a matter of pride for the nation and it has been a subject of nostalgie reminiscences. Hard to imagine, but since 1993 when introduced till 2013 when Lats was exchanged into Euros the national currency has never significantly changed its rate against US Dollar.

Latvians are very hand-working and inventive. Traffic jams in Riga start as early as at 7 a.m. when everyone hurries up to the office. Fuel prices are say at least of it not enjoyable, city authorities are making greater efforts to volunteer oppidans to the public transport, bikes are widely advertised to move around. Growing number of cars proves the growth of prosperity, cars are civilization goodies and it’s evidently hard to reduce the use of individual transport during the coming years. However sales of bikes, scooters and others are definitely growing. Over the past time from regaining independence Latvia has identified itself with the velocity. Thereby in the evening the Riga as well as the other cities downtowns are сoming to life, if you stay for some time near the President Palace or Rigas Dome you can easily see high rank state officials just walking home or riding a bike.

Breath of Europe in Latvia nowadays can be felt everywhere. Latvia has been ranked the quickest European broadband internet nations, Riga is the WiFi capital of Europe. The Latvian state is following the digital economy and government path. You can hardly see any paper red tape in any state authority. Latvia, like any EU country has a definitely balanced system of the checks and balances of the authorities, independent courts, as well as professional police and army.

For the whole time of its history Latvia and its people have shown tolerant attitude to the people living with them and nearby, thereby they were always able to find the way how to define the primarity of their interest and to make others respect them One of the evident advantages of Latvia has been a tolerant and peaceful relation to the religious minorities, which are inhabiting Latvia. In 1940 – 1991 God saved Latvia from the massive destruction of the religious temples and sanctuaries. Riga’s most famous world architecture monuments listing the Dome, St Peter’s church, St John’s Church, Grebenschikov Old Believers’ Prayer Chapel, Nativity of Christ Orthodox Cathedral.

Coming back to the evident and plain economy one cannot but underline that without any excessive state regulation, without any directive methods of the economy management, Latvia meet the 100th anniversary of its independence and nationhood being world’s 48th economy in GDP per capita. The per capita GDP in Latvia is three times higher that of Belarus’. Thereby no one forecasts Latvia any serious falldown in the next years. Latvia is still far enough from Poland in the way of growth and development, however is surely growing this is a real, not “paper” growth. State regulators have experienced adequately latest crisis years and the economy is not trembling of new potential threats.

As they say here: Latvija var (Latvia knows how!)

Alexander Mikhailov, for Charter97.org