Activists in search of a cause

Kicking-off last fall’s annual executive board meeting of the World Federation of Free Latvians (Pasaules brīvo latviešu apvienība, or PBLA) in Rīga, president Jānis Kukainis outlined the organization’s future challenges. What role should it play in the fight against corruption and how to assist the process of social integration in Latvia? How to help develop cultural and educational ties with Latvia and strengthen Latvian communities abroad? What type of support to provide to help reach so-called national political goals? How to help Latvia’s economic development by leveraging Latvian contacts abroad?

Judging from reports in the press, there was little progress resolving these questions. Perhaps one shouldn’t be too harsh judging PBLA given that it, along with the American Latvian Association, had recently successfully lobbied in Washington for Latvia’s ascension to the NATO defense alliance and now needs some well deserved time off to regroup and refocus.

Before we go rushing off, it is necessary to step back and ask whether PBLA and by extension, Latvians abroad, have any role in the future development of Latvia.

Recent efforts late last year to salvage Baltic language Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFERL) broadcasts illustrate how old habits refuse to die. Latvia has free and thriving media, it has been accepted into the European Union and NATO, and yet we still had urgent appeals to continue funding for broadcasts that had their place during the Cold War and immediate years after restoration of independence. It was as ludicrous as instituting broadcasts to Portugal, Denmark or Greece. A more appropriate response would have been to say thank you and suggest the funds be better spent by being redirected to the ‘Stans in former Soviet Central Asia.

Even more troubling was the argument put forward to Congress that it was important for the U.S. perspective to continue to be heard in Latvia and the other Baltic states through VOA and RFERL broadcasts. Are we talking about promoting broad-based democratic Western perspectives or are we talking about pushing the line of the current and future U.S. administrations? Iraq is a case in point. While Latvia joined the “coalition of the willing,” it did so only because to do otherwise would have jeopardized U.S. support for its NATO bid. Had this not been the case, it is doubtful that there would have been sufficient political and public support in Latvia to join the U.S.-led effort. And where would that have put U.S.-based Latvian activists, many of whom are Republicans and quite comfortable with the politics of President George W. Bush?

As centre of the world’s only super-power, it is important for the Latvian community in the United States to maintain continued political presence in Washington, D.C. The trick will be to handle what will likely be at times different Latvian and American perspectives. But whose position will they represent in Washington and Rīga? And once Latvia is a member of the European Union it will be increasingly a common European position that will have to be accommodated. Rest assured, there will be differences. Latvia is in Europe. Its future lies in the European Union. That means that the United States and Canada, countries where the Latvian communities have been politically most active, will have a limited political role in its further development. And the pickings are even slimmer in other countries represented in PBLA. Australia is far away and in the new global order it is an Asian and Pacific country. The number of Latvians in South America is inconsequential. And while Latvian communities in the United Kingdom, Sweden and Germany are front and centre within established EU powers, they have been too ravaged by age and assimilation to function effectively as lobby groups to counter such constant Russian accusations as leveled in European forums about supposed mistreatment of the Russian minority in Latvia.

Even though PBLA has had some success raising awareness in Latvia on issues like the judicial reform and demographics through periodic and popular seminars, the direction on issues like corruption and social integration will be set by common European policies and standards whether we like it or not. But PBLA could do worse than continuing to profile key issues, particularly if it is done collaboratively with local parties such as nongovernmental organizations, repatriates or sympathetic government officials and members of parliament—as well as brokering the engagement of Latvian specialists abroad.

Opportunities for the Latvian community to help the economic development of Latvia are even fewer. Economic activity will be dictated by factors other than the sentimentality of some senior manager of Latvian ancestry in an American or Canadian firm. Latvia is a small market of little interest to most overseas companies. It is in Europe and will be part of a common EU market. Latvias economic development is being driven by the Swedes, Finns, Norwegians, Danes, Germans and ,to a lesser extent the Brits, not by Latvians abroad who have been able to leverage business contacts.

When independence was restored a dozen years ago there were more than a few émigré Latvians who had visions of business opportunities in their ancestral homeland. Today there are few survivors. Those who have succeeded can be described as professionals leveraging their skills locally in the Latvian job market or those who are niche small business players. The local competition has proved tough, smart and well-connected.

The reality is that there are few real Latvian entrepreneurs abroad with capital to spend. Those who do understand that the potential return on investment for ventures in Latvia is problematic unless you are prepared to relocate and fight it out locally. A notable exception is the Vītols dynasty from Venezuela, who have converted capital built up over the years from real estate and construction into Māras Banka, a successful banking venture in Latvia.

As for national political goals? One can point to the pivotal role of the community abroad in the creation of the Occupation Museum in Rīga, in the restoration of the Freedom Monument and the building of the war cemetery in Lestene, a fitting tribute for those in the Latvian Legion who lost their lives fighting for their country albeit under German command. But other efforts under the banner of national political goals have been less than successful if not problematic.

The Daugavas Vanagi veterans organization raised money to publish the Melnā grāmata (Black Book) to chronicle the destructive impact of the Soviet occupation of Latvia. It was hoped that the book would set the record straight about the Soviet occupation and its repercussions particularly the status and impact of the large non-Latvian minority present in Latvia today. It was to be a Latvian equivalent of the Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror and Repression, published in 1997 in France by Stephane Courtois, Nicholas Werth and others. Instead it languishes on bookshelves in Latvia and has been largely ignored.

Another hot topic for many abroad is orthography, undoing a number of very specific changes that were made to Latvian spelling during the Soviet era as well as cleansing the Latvian language from Russian and English influences. This is going nowhere unless the issue gets wide support from Latvia’s intelligentsia. Otherwise it is doomed to failure, seen as an attempt by disconnected émigrés telling Latvians in Latvia how they should talk and write.

Then there’s the question of instilling patriotism in Latvia’s youth. A generation of older Latvian émigrés looks back fondly at the patriotic values they were inoculated within the schools of pre-war Latvia. They see today’s Latvian education system as cosmopolitan, unable and unwilling to transmit patriotic values. Well, the world has changed, and today the successes of Maris Verpakovskis and the Latvian football team or victories against Russia by the Latvian hockey team are far more successful promoting patriotism and national pride than the ways of the past. Still, there are lessons that Latvia could learn. The allegiance to the flag and other national symbols get prominent play in American schools. In Norway, students wave national flags and parade past the monarch at his palace on independence day. Even in Canada, where the gung-ho type of U.S. patriotism is frowned upon, most students start the school day singing the national anthem. Quietly exposing Latvian politicians and educators to practices in other countries would be far more effective than launching pointless verbal attacks.

So what’s left for those Latvians abroad who still want to make a difference in Latvia? There are still lots of point-to-point opportunities to connect. The professional skills of doctors, dentists, lawyers, teachers, accountants, the military, social workers and others can be parlayed into meaningful skills transfer experiences in Latvia. Professionals abroad can help open doors in the West for their Latvian counterparts. Interests and hobbies can provide similar avenues for interaction. An example is the participation of the Latvian team at last October’s World Cycling Championships in Hamilton, Ontario. Local Latvian cycling enthusiasts worked hard to handle the accommodation and transportation for the team. Similarly, Hamilton and Toronto families hosted the Liepājas Metalurgs boys’ hockey team in 1991 and 1992, ensuring their participation at local hockey tournaments where they whipped Canadian butt. These are not isolated cases. You don’t have to look too far in Latvia to find needs where even limited resources can make a difference.

This is not exactly new and not what Kukainis had in mind when he challenged the PBLA board in Rīga, but this is exactly the type of role that Latvians abroad better get used to. It is different than the role the émigré community played during the Cold War and long years of exile, different from the role played during days in the fight for independence and different from the initial years stabilizing and rebuilding the state.

Those of Latvian descent who live abroad do so by choice. While retaining a Latvian identity or connection, they have also made a commitment to a country which is not Latvia. It is within this context that the community needs to formulate new strategies for continuance.

Perhaps a good place to start is to look at other ethnic communities. If you travel around the Great Lakes of North America, to mill towns like Thunder Bay, Sault Ste. Marie or Duluth on both sides of the border, or farther west into Minnesota, North Dakota and Manitoba, you will find a significant Scandinavian presence. While Finnish, Norwegian, Swedish or Icelandic is rarely spoken, you can find stores and eateries with Scandinavian staples and treats, museums that attest to earlier generations of immigrants from Northern Europe, place names and surnames that are distinctively Scandinavian, travel agencies that offer tours to the lands of the midnight sun, airplay by Garrison Keillor and his “A Prairie Home Companion” radio show on public radio. And have you ever wondered why Minneapolis is one of Icelandair’s North American gateways? All this attests to a positive connection with Scandinavia. Look at the German community. Alongside boisterous Oktoberfest parades and celebrations you will the Goethe Institute as a place of immersion into German language and culture. Granted, the Institute is funded by Germany and present in 77 countries around the world. Nevertheless, the two can and do co-exist both for Germanic descendants as well as those who feel an affinity for that country and culture.

Both examples represent models of what the Latvian community abroad could be like in 20 or 30 years. And we could do worse. Alternatively there could be little if any Latvian emotional, cultural and social footprint left and only surnames to point to the earlier existence of the community.

In an earlier article I argued for a multitiered and modular community, one which is re-enterable and welcomes anyone with a Latvian connection, one which can respond to the requirements of its members, one which works to preserve the use of Latvian while at the same time recognizes and accommodates the presence of a second predominant language, which in most cases is English. I pointed to England in particular with its tradition of both Latvian and English language 3×3 family seminars as well as the success of Anglo-Latvian Society as examples of a multitiered community in action.

The reactions were mostly positive but not without criticism. The article received much broader circulation and distribution than I expected. It was for example handed out at the annual council meeting of the Latvian umbrella organization in Great Britain and reprinted in a Milwaukee bulletin. The reaction indicated that the time was right to breach these topics. However, others tut-tutted: guardians of Ptomkin villages, they took offence at the welcome mat laid out to those who had not taken the time and effort to learn Latvian or pass it on to their offspring, or who had shown no more than a passing commitment to the community—while they themselves had made great personal sacrifices to maintain their Latvian heritage.

One can only agree with Daina Bolšteins in her Latvians Online commentary. Let’s be missionary and preach the intrinsic value of learning another language, in this case Latvian. But let’s remember that despite our best efforts there will be those who chose not to learn Latvian, or individuals who will only go so far.

In the 2001 census figures from Statistics Canada, there were 22,610 Canadians of single or multiple (i.e., mixed marriages) Latvian origin. Of those a total of 8,230 claimed Latvian as their mother tongue, of which only 410 were children and youths under 20 years. The number rose to 770 for those between 20 and 39 years, to 2,600 for middle-aged boomers between 40 and 59, and to 4,450 who were 60 or older. Approximately 4,750 Canadians or 21 percent of the total claimed to use Latvian at home on a regular basis. They represent the hard core, the ones who keep our community going today. Of these, almost half live in Toronto and a whopping 85 percent live in Ontario with the bulk probably in the area surrounding Toronto. If we apply simple math that means only 236 children and youths, 444 adults up to 40 and an additional 1,500 adults under 60 speak some Latvian at home. That’s not a lot to sustain schools, parishes, folk dance groups, choirs, the theatre and community centres. The numbers are not encouraging and are probably no different in other countries.

It’s time to accelerate the debate. We need to take stock of the current situation and our community’s go-forward requirements. Some are obvious.

We need to identify and channel resources to fund key regional centres—such as Gaŗezers in Michigan, the Latvian Canadian Cultural Centre in Toronto and Straumēni in England—that provide places for Latvians to congregate. We need to rationalize community holdings to ensure that instead of two or three struggling and competing organizations we have one organization that is strong and resilient. This process is happening, though not without resistance.

It has often been said that the Latvian church was the first organization that was founded abroad and will be the last organization that remains standing. There is truth to this. Where it represents the only community presence, the church will need to play a temporal in additional to spiritual role welcoming non-practitioners who want and need a Latvian venue.

Latvian language, history and geography teaching material is needed for school-age audiences who have different levels of Latvian language competency. That includes material in English for those who do not speak Latvian. It is not enough to point to texts and workbooks published in Latvia. They need to be customized and packaged. The curriculum guidelines and programs produced by the American Latvian Association are good but they target those with reasonable Latvian language proficiency and teachers who are prepared to invest significant time working with the materials. It is getting difficult to find teachers for Latvian schools abroad. We need standard and turnkey training packages that can be used in different settings. ALA’s “Sveika, Latvija” travel program for teenagers is great and should continue, but how about a “Hello, Latvia” program for those who cant speak Latvian?

Today’s youth is multimedia oriented. Surprisingly, there is little original programming for children in Latvia and by extension for children of Latvian descent abroad. There are precious few original videos, television programs and computer games for younger or even adult audiences. Even many of the best children’s books are translations, but at least they are in Latvian. To some extent it’s a global issue with the preponderance of American pop culture. PBLA could profile the issue and encourage growth of a local cultural industry that is also focused on the needs of the youngest generations.

Virtual Latvia! Where would we be without the Internet and e-mail? Bring up the latest “Panorāma” newscast, listen to Latvian radio, watch an old Soviet movie with Latvian subtitles on TV5’s video stream, order your monthly fix of Lācis bakery rye bread through, check out where you can pick up a can of sprats or a six-pack of Aldaris beer, check out the latest rants (in English no less) in the Open Forum of Latvians Online, subscribe to a daily Latvian news group, chat in Sveiks, browse numerous Latvian Web sites to brush up on your history, check out photos from your latest fraternity reunion, linger on 360-degree panoramas from various Latvian cities and towns, bring up a Web site to double-check the date and time of the next function in your local community, look someone up in or, exchange e-mails with friends and relatives around the globe including Latvia where increasing numbers are going online even if it means using a friends computer, a connection at work or sitting in an Internet café. Add a visit to Latvia to every few years or so to recharge your batteries and youŗe all set.

While the oldest generation still relies heavily on Latvian newspapers (even that is changing because there are a lot of techno-savvy pensioners), and personal networks based on shared experiences that go back to Latvia, Displaced Person camps in post-war Germany and the early years in their adopted countries, later generations have gone online. The Web transcends time and space. You can be connected to Latvia and part of a global Latvian community regardless of where you are.

The Web has become essential for the survival of the community abroad. In fact we’d be in pretty sad shape without it. It must be funded by our central organizations. That includes Web sites for organizations going online and funding portals like Latvians Online that help pull it together and make connections.

We also will need to continue cultural traffic from Latvia. Whether we leverage groups and performers heading our way to local Canadian or American festivals or whether we invite them ourselves to song festivals and other events, nothing can replace real-live interaction. Be it the folk group Iļģi in a North American tour a couple of years ago, the folk group Vilki in Toronto for last year’s Independence Day celebration in Toronto, Euro pop-star Marija Naumova on a recent North American tour organized by TILTS, any one of these popular and talented ambassadors have done more to excite, invigorate and connect Latvians of various persuasions than anything we could mount on our own. And let’s not forget sports. While the Riga 2000 hockey team recently lost to three talented college teams in Minnesota and Wisconsin, they nonetheless attracted loud flag-waving Latvian crowds.

This discussion rests on the assumption that there is value in maintaining a Latvian community of sorts abroad. It assumes that even for those who live and were born far away from Latvia there is value in opening doors to their Latvian heritage, to Latvian culture and language, to the country itself. It assumes that in this age of globalization there is intrinsic value in connections that separate the individual and provide identity.

Spring in the northern hemisphere is the season of annual congresses. ALA, the Latvian National Federation in Canada, the Latvian National Council in Great Britain, the Daugavas Vanagi and others are all scheduled to meet. It’s time to take things up a notch and refocus the debate on the needs of those of Latvian descent abroad.

One thought on “Activists in search of a cause

  1. It has been truly exciting watching the development at PBLA and seeing them face the challenges presented by the changes in situation in Latvia and abroad. The support they have given to the Latvian communities in Siberia has been remarkable and their work in this field is essential since Latvian government refuses to actually do anything about the issues those folks are dealing with.
    Being a temporary Latvian ex-pat who over the last three years has lived in three different countries outside Latvia I have noticed another issue that the diaspora Latvian organizations have largely failed to tackle. There is a certain lack of upfront accessibility to these, often elitist, “clubs” when it comes to Latvians that are staying at a country temporarily, for studies or work reasons. There seems to be a wide informal web of young Latvians all over Europe that accommodate new arrivals and “new blood” and these contacts seem to be satisfying enough to prevent these energetic young people from getting involved with the already established official organizations. And although there is contact between the recent arrivals and the established community, it most often remains on a very informal social level. Although I know that there have been large discussions on this subject I have not seen any considerable conclusions and attempts to address the issue.
    One group that, in my opinion, needs particular attention is guest workers, especially the ones that are work at farms or enterprises with no other Latvians around. It is crucial to assist these people with establishing contacts in the local communities so that the work time is extended into a wider social educative experience. This is a simple way of assuring that as all the available know-how is transferred back to Latvia.

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