Latvia in the Aftermath of 1991

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Latvia along with other Baltic States was the first to break ties with the Soviet Union. It has been West-oriented ever since, trying to move away from Russia as far as possible.  It had been rapidly modernizing its economy to bridge the gap with other European countries. The results of such reforms were, first, joining the NATO in March 2004, and then, becoming a part of the European Union two months after.

Such distance from Russia resulted in a new driving force for Latvian rhetoric. It started to represent Russia as an aggressive massive neighbour, trying to return its borders. Ever since the collapse of the USSR, the Soviets were shown as occupants who replaced Nazi-regime. Following this approach, it meant that Latvia placed the Soviets at the same level with the Nazis. This way of thinking has been evolving and becoming more powerful each day.

Following the events in Ukraine, especially after the Crimean annexation, these assumptions seem to be on the rise. The relations with Russia have begun rapidly deteriorating.  However, these interpretations of the events are different between Latvia and Russia. This, unfortunately, impairs any positive developments between the countries.

This article presents Latvian political discourse after 1991 through post-structuralistic approach (a theory in international relations). The theory itself has caused many controversies in the international relations. Many claimed that it is not a reliable theory, because it failed to establish any new theoretical basis that is able to provide scholars with an authentic framework to comprehend relations between countries (Blair, 2011; Jarvis, 2000; Selby, 2007). However, the very fact that it has generated so much heated arguments makes an immense contribution to the school of IR.

To briefly give an outline of the theory, we can start by saying that relations between countries may be understood by means of a structure that is different from reality and abstract ideas. It claims that there is no neutral point of view from which anyone can access knowledge. As Scott Burchill (2013, p.190) writes, “There is no ‘truth’, only competing interpretations. Knowledge is dependent on power. Though in philosophy and social frameworks, it has to be free from any external influences and be based on rationality, it was Kant (1991, p. 115).  who cautioned that “the possession of power inevitably corrupts the free judgment of reason”.

In Nietzsche works, for instance, it is noted that by saying something about the world, a person inevitably says something about the perception of the world (Bleiker and Chou 2010, p. 9). That means that people treat facts and phenomena according to their assumptions and previous knowledge, acquired over time and later codified in language (Ibid.). Peoples’ mind is reflected by the means of language; in its turn, how the mind works depend on language. Our mind is able to construct and produce knowledge. Further, this knowledge constructs reality in which society lives.

The reality of the people who live in Latvia (yet, hardly of the people with the status of “non-citizens”[1]) is that Latvia was occupied by the USSR. On 22 August 1996, the Latvian parliament declared that the Soviet Occupation of Latvia in 1940 was a military occupation and, therefore, illegal under the law (Case of Kononov v. Latvia, 2010). Moreover, along with the government of Latvia, it has been recognized by the United States of America and the European Union. The occupation of Latvia is usually supported with the provisions of the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and its Secret Additional Protocol of August 1939 with Nazy Germany[2], when both countries divided their spheres of influence. However, Russia itself did not acknowledge the impact of the pact on the sovereignty of Latvia, therefore did not admit the occupation.

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Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Latvia says that “The Latvian Government of 1940 had to decide between a hopeless, bloody resistance and acquiescence to an ultimatum under the threat of overwhelming military force. The regime was… under the guise of legality”[3]. It concluded that its destiny over the next 50 years was sealed by external secret treaties, protocols and agreements. This trauma drives the current political discourse after it 1991. It does not recognize the Soviet input into economy and aims to erase the history that unites Russia and Latvia.

This knowledge drives political discourse of Latvia for a long time as well as it is being delivered in all the schools of Latvia. It is told on the streets, written in the newspapers and shown on the walls of the Occupation Museum of Latvia. Yet, another historical point of view is often disregarded.

For example, according to the editor of the book in IV volumes “Latvians and Latvia”, Janis Stradins, during the Soviet time there were not only repression and oppression, but also positive things (Freecity, 2014). Apart from the presence of attributes of a sovereign state, Latvia was developing as a nation. “Latvians and Latvia” represents Soviet time only from one negative aspect. What it does not mention is that during that time many economic sectors were thriving. For instance, the largest factory of electronics and the leading communication technology producer in the USSR, Valsts elektrotehnikas fabrika (State Electrotechnical Factory) was rapidly developing. In addition, new medicine was being discovered and new technologies were being created. “Latvians have had an ability to express themselves”, says Stradins (Ibid.).

The way how one piece of history is represented results from the notion of genealogy that expresses relation of knowledge and power. As Roland Bleiker (2000, p. 25) says, “genealogies focus on the process by which we have … given meaning to particular representations of the past, representations that continuously guide our daily lives and set clear limits to political and social options”. Likewise, interpretations of the Soviet past by Latvia leave strong imprint on its society and guide peoples’ thinking and attitudes towards modern Russia. This, therefore, leads to the particular behavior when it comes to international relations.

Following the theory, these formed attitudes have been possible because power and knowledge are mutually supportive. In 1991 when Russia was recovering from its own political and economic decline, Latvia was enthusiastically celebrating its independence, freedom from the enemy. Textual construction of the USSR began with horrors and violence of the past, omitting many advantages, because it was not beneficial for political power. Russia, on the other hand, was not politically strong to be involved on that matter. This rhetoric remained in the hearts of the Latvian people that is why the nationalist political party received so much support from its population.

In this way, political power seeks its support in knowledge and at the same time it creates knowledge. Thus, knowledge and power are always interconnected. Foucault (1987, pp. 80-85) writes that one implies another: power does not exist without knowledge; knowledge does not exist without power.

This type of thought has been produced by many other scholars. Ashley (1989) draws attention to Foucault’s interrelation between the state and knowledge by referring to the principle of “statecraft is modern mancraft”. He further claims that it is man who originates knowledge, meaning that it is man’s responsibility to give meaning to events (Ibid. p. 264). Indeed, the interconnection of power and knowledge is undeniable.

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Yet, a renewed Russia, which returned to the world stage after the sharp decline of the 90s as a strong political player, does not seem to be able to reverse these past and current attitudes. As powerful as it might be, Latvia has gone through almost 30 years of certain textual reconstruction that shaped the reality in which its society lives. These textual representations are fuelled by other countries who suffered from the USSR (for example, other Baltic States). All in all, interpretation of history written by many victims (and let us not forget about a strong negative image, constructed by the USA) is more powerful in the terms of influence than a single history of one country. This might be a reason for a strong political and social response after the events in Georgia in 2008 and in Ukraine recently.

However, coming back to Latvia itself, it should be highlighted that the Latvian Government has drawn a distinct line between “self” and “other”. The notion of “us, Latvians” and “them, Russians” is deeply felt because of the history and continuous political reminders that USSR undermined their independence, therefore, is to be treated as an enemy.

Scott Burchill (2013, p. 205) describes this threat for difference as a constitution of political identity. These distinctions between “self” and “others”, “us” and “Russians” are integral for Latvia which national identity has not been entirely formed. This approach significantly implicates the situation with the Russian minority. According to statistics, only around 61% of the population is Latvians. Other 32% comprises the Belarusians, Ukrainians and Russians, i. e. Russian-speaking population (The remaining 7% are people of other nationalities)[4]. Still, the majority of the former still has a passport of nepilsoņi, namely, non-citizens.

Even a sharp separating line between Russian and Latvian languages has been drawn in order to maintain Latvian identity and independence. In this scenario, all that comes out of domestic space is treated as alien, foreign and dangerous (See Campbell, 1992; 1999). Thus, the danger should be excluded.

Recently, the Centre of National Language (CNL) has obliged the citizens of Latvia to speak only Latvian language at the workplaces and even in the breaks. These restrictions are not only common in daily life but also in the social networks. For instance, mayor of Riga, Nils Usakovs has been fined by the CNL because of using Russian on his facebook page (ves.lv, 2016).  Further, the CNL voiced its concerns regarding the decision of the US Embassy in Latvia to use Russian language along with Latvian and English (DELFI, 2016).  On the one hand, there is comfortable environment which is inside of the country. On the other, there is a threat, posed by outside environment (See Ashleey, 1988).

Many key points of post-structuralism are issues of power and authority. It is power and authority that is able to impose certain knowledge (in the case of Latvia, the Latvian Government). It is power that may interpret events and persuade people into this. If Soviet legacy is thought to be impairing Latvian identity, then authorities will try to construct certain political discourse in order to distant itself from unwanted factors. They will consider specific time frame, choose significant facts to support arguments as well as certain perspective. This is the reason why the same facts of history (or events) are interpreted differently.  After all, it is human nature to perceive, interpret and give meaning to different events.

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Whether the Latvian political discourse will remain, it probably depends on the situation with migrants. After all, willing or not, Latvia has more in common with the Russian people than with incoming refugees of different culture and religion (this has been repeatedly said by the Latvian newspapers for the last months). In the end, the Soviet time, no matter how difficult it was, has left its imprint on Latvian identity. Whether Latvia will accept it is yet to be seen.

References

  1. Ashley, R. K., 1989. Living on Border Lines: Man, Poststructuralism and War. In: J. De Derian and M. J. Shapiro (eds.). International/Intertextual Relations: Postmodern Readings of World Politics. Lexington, Mass: Lexington Books.
  2. Ashley, R. K., 1988. Untying the Sovereign State: A Double Reading of the Anarchy Problematique. Millennium, 17 (2). Pp. 227-262.
  3. Blair, B. 2011, Revisiting the “Third Debate” (Part I). Review of International Studies, 37 (2), pp. 825 – 854.
  4. Bleiker, R., 2000. Popular Dissent, Human Agency and Global Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
  5. Burchill, S. et al., 2013. Theories of International Relations. 5th Ed. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.
  6. Campbell, D., 1999. Violence, Justice and Identity in the Bosnian Conflict. In: E. Edkins, N. Persram and V. Pin-Fat, Sovereignty and Subjectivity. Boulder: Lynne Riener.
  7. Campbell, D., 1993. Writing Security: United States Foreign Policy and the Politics of Identity. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
  8. Case of Kononov v. Latvia, May 17, 2010. European Court of Human Rights. [online] Available at <http://hudoc.echr.coe.int/eng?i=001-98669#{“itemid”:[“001-98669”]}> [Accessed 18 June 2016].
  9. DELFI, 2016. US Embassy Began Using Russian Language While Communicating with the Latvians. [online] Available at: < http://rus.delfi.lv/news/daily/latvia/posolstvo-ssha-v-socsetyah-nachalo-obschatsya-s-latvijcami-na-russkom-yazyke.d?id=47806159> [Accessed 30 July 2016].
  10. Foucault, M., 1987. Nietzsche, Genealogy and History, In: M. T. Gibbons ed. Interpreting Politics. London: Oxford University Press.
  11. Freecity, 2014. Academician Stradins: During the Soviet time Latvia has Preserved the Attributes of a Sovereign State. [online] Available at: <http://www.freecity.lv/obshestvo/17182/> [Accessed 25 July 2016].
  12. Jarvis, D.S., 2000. International Relations and the Challenge of Postmodernism: Defending the Discipline. Columbia: South Carolina.
  13. Kant, I., 1991. Political Writings. H. Reiss, eds. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  14. Selby, J., 2007. Engaging Foucault: Discourse, Liberal Governance and the Limits of Foucaudian IR. International Relations, 23 (3), pp. 324-345.
  15. Secret Supplementary Protocols of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Non-Aggression Pact, 1939. [online] September 01, 1939, History and Public Policy Program Digital Archive, Library of Congress. Available at <http://digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/document/110994> [Accessed 18 June 2016].
  16. lv, 2016. Usakovs is Punished. The Centre of National Language Has Fined Him on the Grounds of his Facebook Posts in Russian. [online] Available at: < http://www.ves.lv/ushakov-nakazan-tsentr-gosyazyka-oshtrafoval-ego-za-posty-v-facebook/> [Accessed 27 July 2016].

[1] Non-citizens are individuals who possess neither Latvian nor any other citizenship. These are immigrants (or their descendants) who lost their USSR citizenship after its dissolution and resided in Latvia after it. Although these people are protected by Latvian law, their rights in some cases are restricted (for example, they cannot travel without a visa in the European Union).

[2] Secret Supplementary Protocols of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Non-Aggression Pact, 1939. [Online]. September 01, 1939, History and Public Policy Program Digital Archive, Library of Congress. Available at http://digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/document/110994 [Accessed 18 June 2016].

[3] Museum of the Occupation of Latvia, 2004. Occupation of Latvia, Three Occupations: 1940-1991. Riga: Occupation Museum Foundation. [online] Available at <http://www.mfa.gov.lv/data/file/e/P/Occupation%20of%20Latvia.pdf> [Accessed 18 June 2016]

[4] Centrala statistikas parvalde. Population Census, 2011. [online] Available at <http://www.csb.gov.lv/en/statistikas-temas/population-census-30761.html> [Accessed: 19 June 2016].

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Alexandra Goman
Specialist in linguistics/translation. Excited about cognitive, psycho- & neuro-linguistics, curious about political semantics and international relations. A complete traveller.