Still in deep water: Latvia 10 years later

Most tourists love Latvia. In their brief visits, they see Rīga restored to its old glory, fashionably dressed youths in its trendy bars and restaurants, and shops offering a range of goods on par with Western capitals. A quick glance suggests that this country is steaming ahead.

This view is not entirely wrong, because an enormous amount of change for the better has happened since 1991. However, beyond the cappuccini and the platform shoes, this is a country with deeply troubling problems in many crucial areas.

With Rīga celebrating its 800th birthday, and commemorations of the 10th anniversary of independence (marked without much fanfare), 2001 was a big year for stocktaking. And with national elections set for October, people are starting to think a bit about the future as well. In this article, I would also like to cast an eye on what has been and what may be.

Unfortunately, the view is not all rosy. To put the problem in a nutshell, come with me on a trip Rīga’s main public swimming pool at Ķīpsala, just over the river from the center of town. Walking over the Vanšu Bridge please note the multitude of cars inching their way into the city. Hardly a Soviet model is to be seen. The mechanical horde is a clear indicator that the standard of living has improved for many people.

Casting a glance back at Old Rīga, you will see a beautiful European city lovingly brought back to life. As we arrive at Ķīpsala, we are greeted by another positive architectural development: rows of townhouses built to accommodate the yuppies driving their Audis and BMWs over the bridge.

But if these budding capitalists decide to join us for a swim today, they will find themselves back in the Dark Ages. This establishment is such a minefield of useless rules administered by grumpy Brezhnevites that just getting into the water is a daunting obstacle course.

Forget about enjoying a spontaneous paddle and just remember whom this place is for (not you)…

Step 1: Go to one office and pay in advance for your next month’s swimming. You have to commit yourself to the exact days and times you will be coming for the next 30 days and you will be assigned a lane in the pool for each visit. Sign a piece of paper stating that you are aware of the numerous rules and regulations. Hand over a photograph that is fixed to your ID card to prevent you from doing something as outrageous as letting a friend have one of your sessions.

Step 2: Proceed to another office for feet checking. A grizzly matron will order you to remove your socks, and then inspect your footsies to make sure you are not bringing any fungus into the hallowed grounds. If you pass, she will bang a stamp onto the back of the id card certifying you are pox-free for the time being (you have to repeat this every month). I have swum in the Olympic pool in Sydney without anyone taking an interest in my toes, but maybe Australians just aren’t aware of the risk they’re taking.

Step 3: go back to the entrance hall and leave your coat, shoes and socks at the cloakroom. If you do not have a plastic bag for your footwear, you will be yelled at: "Is this a shop? Do you expect us to have bags for all of you?" If you don’t have a swimming cap, this is your last chance to buy one from the kiosk in the lobby. Without one, you will be abused for trying to infect the pool with your grubby follicles.

Step 4: Hand over your ID card to a woman in a booth, who will give you a token. Proceed down a corridor where an old man will take the token and hand out a locker key.

Step 5: Undress. Before pulling on your trunks, observe the instructions on a large sign ordering you to shower completely naked before getting in the pool. Remove your flip-flops and wade through a shallow pool similar to a sheep dip. Those fungi have no chance.

Step 6: Proceed down another long corridor and jump into your assigned lane for 45 minutes of aquatic bliss. Don’t miss the deadline, because the lady at Checkpoint A holding your ID card has a color-coordinated system for easy detection of cheats.

It is a sign of how Latvia has progressed that this bizarre routine is worth mentioning, because the whole country used to be run on similar lines. However, it is far from an isolated example of how much in Latvia has not changed, and points to what I believe is Latvia’s biggest failure: the fundamental failure of governments and their institutions to serve their people.

In the private sector, the people of Latvia have displayed an astonishing ability to learn new ways, to be energetic and entrepreneurial. Walk into any restaurant or shop and the quality of the goods and the service leaves nothing to be desired compared to the West. However, if you have dealings with the government—registering property, starting a business, applying for a passport, collecting a package from the post office, or doing 101 other things to make life tick over—you enter a Kafkaesque world where stamps and documents take complete precedence over common sense and human decency.

If this situation was just an everyday annoyance, it could be shrugged off as a curious cultural relic. Unfortunately, however, it has an extremely negative effect on people’s lives and on the future of the country. If on the off chance any candidates for next year’s elections are reading this article, I would like them to take a look at the statistics in the sidebar. Basically, they suggest that Latvia shows signs of becoming a third world country, and in almost every case government indifference is a major contributing factor.

Let’s start with those areas where, unfortunately, Latvia is the statistical world leader. According to data from numerous organizations, compiled by The Economist magazine, Latvia will have the world’s lowest crude birth rate (the number of live births per 1,000 people) from 2000-2005. It has the world’s lowest number of men to women, at a proportion of 86:100. And, beaten only by a few other postcommunist states, it is in fifth place for having the world’s slowest growing population from 2000 to 2005, a very marginal improvement from its fourth place in the preceding five years.

Add this to the fact that it is 10th internationally for having the oldest population (the percentage aged 65 or older) and you have a small nation that is rapidly getting smaller still. Much richer countries are fretting over how they will deal with their "gray revolutions," so how Latvia will pay all the pensions from a rapidly shrinking workforce is going to be a daunting challenge. Ethnic politics is a touchy subject in Latvia because Latvians fear that they face extinction. If their numbers continue to decrease, the issue may acquire even sharper edges, with unpredictable consequences for political stability.

It is beyond my competence to analyze all the varied factors contributing to these trends, but it is probably fair to say that economics is a major one. Latvia is in ninth place, between two war-torn African countries, for recording the slowest economic growth from 1990 to 1999. It is in the top 10 for having the slowest growth in industrial output and agricultural output over the same period. As a result, it has lower Gross Domestic Product per head in purchasing power parity (PPP) than Botswana or Turkey. (Roughly speaking, PPP is the amount of things people can buy with their income on a scale calculated to take away exchange rate differences.) It’s no wonder people aren’t having many children.

The population decrease may also be affected by Latvia’s being one of the world leaders for certain causes of death. A newborn baby in Latvia is in 16th place in the world for having a chance of dying from a heart attack. The same infant is globally fourth in line to get killed in a motor accident, equal in Europe with Greece and Portugal. But leaving aside the theoretical chances, and looking at the rate of people killed in motor accidents, Latvia takes fifth place in the world. Its closest rivals in Europe are Turkey in 20th place and Albania in 21st place. If those candidates for office are still paying attention, can you please try to answer one question; Why are Latvians at least three times more likely to die on the roads than other Europeans?

Of course, statistics can always be misleading. For one thing, we cannot be sure that the Soviet economic data, the base from which Latvia’s plunge in GDP is measured, is accurate. As anyone will tell you about purchasing power parity, in the old days people had money in their pockets, but nothing to buy with it. And, after a huge fall in the early 1990s, economic growth has been quite healthy in the last few years. Some individuals, social groups and regions have done much better than others in grabbing a slice of the good life, so a 30-year-old accountant in Rīga will have a different perspective to a pensioner in Daugavpils.

Additionally, you cannot entirely blame current politicians for inheriting the mess the Soviets left or for all of the problems that transformation handed to them. But they could have done much better, and their performance today is still not good at all.

In recent years, some left-wing economists have started attacking what they call the “Washington consensus” on economic policy in postcommunist countries. In brief, the argument goes that 10 years ago the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and other Western policy organizations had to decide what advice to give to countries trying to move away from communism. They prescribed rapid privatization, trade liberalization, sharp budget cuts and other measures in the belief that by getting big government out of the way, private enterprise would fill the vacuum with efficiency, ideas and investment.

But while private business has certainly taken off in most former communist countries, this has been achieved at a frightening human cost. With the benefit of hindsight, the critics say that a lot of the pain could have been avoided if policies had been more closely tailored to the needs of individual countries. Instead, they were all diagnosed with the same disease, for which the cure was an ultra-right-wing ideology that no Western government would dare inflict on its own citizens.

A lot of Central European governments went along with the medicine, and Latvia’s still does. It is telling that the big newcomer for the elections, former Bank of Latvia President Einārs Repše, has said his policies will mean lower taxes, less state spending and less regulation in the economy. It is a bit odd that the man touted as a breath of fresh air in Latvian politics is promoting the same ideas that have been government policy for the last decade. As for the left-wing parties, in the six months the Social Democrats have been in charge of the Rīga City Council, they have proved to be as adept at making scandals and dishing out favors to their cronies as the right wing groups. Across the spectrum, there is a decided lack of thought and imagination as to how things could be done differently.

In opening up the economy and creating conditions for private business to operate, Latvia hasn’t done too badly. According to the Economic Freedom Index, a scale on which five means governments interfere completely in private business and one means a great deal of freedom, Latvia scores a respectable 2.65, ahead of Israel and Poland. However, by other measures, human beings have been left behind by all this liberalization. The Human Development Index is a scale created by the United Nations Development Program that combines GDP figures with those on adult literacy, years of schooling and life expectancy. Although Latvia’s score of 77.1 places it in the category of "medium human development," its ranking is lower than those of Mexico, Panama and Cuba. In other words, in factors that are critical to people’s lives, Latvia has to catch up with Latin America before it can even start to compare itself with Western Europe.

In my opinion, Latvia doesn’t need even less government involvement in providing public services. Rather, it needs fresh ideas as to how they could make government institutions work better. It is notable that while Latvia has those horrendously high levels of deaths from heart attacks and motor accidents, it also has figures comparable to Western countries for the number of doctors and hospital beds per head of population. That’s all well and good, but they obviously aren’t doing a good enough job of keeping people alive. This is not to denigrate the efforts of doctors and nurses who do their best with limited resources. Indeed, Latvia has lower rates of infectious diseases than France or the United States, suggesting that in some ways the system does work. But there are plenty of ways in which things could be made a lot better.

While there is obviously no easy solution, I can name Latvia’s biggest problem in one word: alcohol. Now, I enjoy a drink, but the free market has gone mad when hundreds of 24-hour stores in Rīga sell vodka for five bucks a bottle at four o’clock in the morning. The shopkeepers never ask for proof of age, or God forbid, give a thought as to whether the purchaser is about to get behind the wheel of a car. Some Latvian towns, notably Valmiera, are experimenting with nighttime bans on the sale of hard liquor, and this should be tried in more places. The usual argument put against this by the alcohol lobby is that it will only drive people into the arms of bootleg traders. However, in my opinion those people who are prepared to go to some seedy cellar to buy pure spirits are beyond help anyway. Combined with a curfew should be a very active program of drugs and alcohol education in schools. You might just end up with fewer road deaths. Perhaps fewer people might drop dead from heart attacks, and families might have an easier time if dad has more difficulty in getting soused.

It also is notable that for many of these statistical indicators Estonia and Lithuania seem to be doing better than Latvia. Estonia’s economic figures are much better than Latvia’s, and on the Economic Freedom Index it is in company with Western countries. Although Estonia has its own problems, the bottom line is that its government has got the public-private balance better sorted out, and this shows in its people’s living standards.

Latvians seem to have an inferiority complex toward the Estonians, believing that they are doing much better. Some explanations as to why this is so include the large amount of foreign investment Estonia has received from Scandinavia, or its longer exposure to Western influences (for example, people in Tallinn were able to watch Finnish television long before the Soviet collapse). But instead of blaming geography or historical determinism, Latvians would be better served by learning from the Estonians in a number of policy areas.

We may well ask why our northern neighbors have a slightly higher rate of car ownership but a much lower number of traffic deaths. Part of the answer may be found in the behavior of Latvian motorists heading up to Tallinn. They speed before reaching the border, knowing they can easily bribe the Latvian cops with LVL 5, but slow down on the other side because the Estonian police have a reputation for being virtually incorruptible. Canadian-Latvian political scientist Juris Dreifelds suggests this is because a few years ago a large part of the Estonian police force was fired, and the remainder had their salaries doubled, thereby promoting efficiency and honesty.

Dreifelds has half-jokingly suggested that the Latvian government should set up a "Watch Estonia Ministry." The idea is not a bad one. The Latvians could certainly learn a great deal about how to market themselves as a tourist destination. The Estonians have a well-funded, well-planned, imaginative advertising campaign going, while numerous scandals and slip-ups have meant that Rīga doesn’t even have a regular ferry line to Stockholm. Get that in place, with a good promotional campaign, and the city’s attractions would have Swedes coming over in droves.

Getting online is another area for catching up. Why is it that Latvia and Estonia have roughly the same number of telephones per head of population, but the number of Internet hosts in Estonia is higher than in Germany or Ireland? Part of the reason is an interesting private-public partnership in Estonia called the Tiger Leap, which has raised funds and conducted education campaigns so that today virtually every school in Estonia has a computer with Internet access. Rīga has many Internet cafes, but the only campaign the Latvian government has involved itself with was to set up a few terminals around town for tourists during the Rīga 800 party—and they are all gone now. Latvians had a one-off tourist gimmick. Estonians have a resource that will guarantee their children a better education.

The phone system in Latvia has improved a great deal. To make an international call five years ago, you had to go to a post office. Now, most people can do it from their homes or from any phone booth. But with global telecommunications changing so rapidly, that is not the end of the story. If Latvia wants to stay competitive, it has to make the Internet available to many more people.

The Estonian government itself has gone online, making all cabinet documents accessible to the public available in almost real time. Prime Minister Mart Laar spends a portion of his day reading messages from citizens, who are invited to send him e-mails. (Laar, in his second tour of duty as prime minister, announced last month that he plans to resign Jan. 8—ed.)

Meanwhile, communications between the rulers and the ruled in Latvia are still very poor. A major reason for this is a paradox in the way ordinary people involve themselves in politics. In some ways, Latvians take much more interest in current affairs than Westerners do. They vote in large numbers. Turnout at the last Saeima elections in 1998 was 71.9 percent. They are enthusiastic newspaper readers. Watching the nightly news show "Panorama," which covers local and international issues in considerable depth, is almost a religion for many people. And they are keep their own eyes wide open about what is going on around them.

As a result, as anyone who has talked with the locals in Latvia will know, they are well informed and have detailed opinions about a wide range of issues.

But on the other hand, they don’t get involved much in trying to change things they don’t like. Diena, the most respected national newspaper, publishes about three letters to the editor every day, compared to the whole page that its Western equivalents devote to the public’s opinions. Few pressure groups lobby the politicians, and strikes, pickets and other forms of direct action rarely take place.

This situation is partly a holdover from the Soviet era, when people were adept at reading between the official lines, but felt they couldn’t do anything. It is safe to say that today a large proportion of the population still do not trust their politicians, and the numbing frequency of corruption scandals contributes to a vicious circle of apathy: the more arrogant politicians get, the less the public feels it has input in the process, which makes the pols think they can do anything they like, which leads to tax evasion, and so on.

President Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga’s annual open-air speeches on November 18 are just about the only instance where the leadership gets out and tries to communicate its views. Most parliamentarians do a whirl of baby-kissing during election campaigns, and then disappear behind closed doors for the next four years.

A few years ago I covered the Saiema as a journalist, and what I saw made me think that its day-to-day routine exacerbates the gulf between politicians and citizens. I must admit that it has been a while since I have set foot in the place, but nothing I have seen or heard would suggest that things have changed. Its subsidized dining hall offers cheaper meals than school cafeterias do, while the taxpayer-funded Mercedes Benzes parked outside are a world away from how ordinary people live.

Unlike Western legislatures, which let everyone from school kids to pensioners come and watch debates, Latvia’s seems to want to want to keep them out. To get inside, you must first receive a special permit. After that, intimidating and rude security staff, variously dressed in black, green or blue military-style uniforms, examine the permit and your ID documents (only government-issued ones with photos are acceptable). This process may be repeated in a similarly abrupt and unfriendly manner at various points inside.

The most annoying thing about the procedure is that at no point are visitors searched or made to pass through metal detectors; indeed, some deputies have been seen carrying pistols in the Parliament chamber. In other words, the whole silly game does nothing to improve security. It’s a bit like the pool mentioned at the start, except that here we’re talking about the workings of democracy, not about having a swim.

Unless something in this situation changes, Latvia is not going to get either the politicians or the policies it needs to deal with its problems. Perhaps entry into the European Union will bring some change, but maybe it will just mean that power shifts to an even more inaccessible location—Brussels. Perhaps in a second term President Vīķe-Freiberga will involve herself more actively in domestic policy, in addition to the great work she is doing as a foreign representative. And perhaps the younger generation will feel freer to express its views, but for the moment young people seem even more apathetic than their parents.

Some electoral reform might help. Bringing in a voting system so that at least some members are elected from constituencies would make politicians more directly answerable to voters, unlike the current system where you can only vote for a party list, with the result that a lot of unknown non-entities get elected off the backs of a few big names. But such reforms would require political will that neither the voters nor politicians seem to possess right now.

Signs are that things may be changing. The campaign to restore Rīga’s Freedom Monument, which was organised and financed by a wide range of individuals and community groups, was a fine example of civic pride and responsibility. One political faction, the People’s Party set up by former Prime Minister Andris Sķēle, has recently set up a system in which party officials regularly make themselves available to hear citizens’ views. These are steps in the right direction.

Furthermore, Latvians have a great track record of political action. Some of the demonstrations for independence in the late 1980s involved a quarter of the country’s population. This grass roots movement sustained its energy for four years, and achieved even more than its objective—it both freed Latvia and helped bring down the Soviet Union, thereby changing the whole world for the better.

The time for mass protests is over. But today, if people apply the energy they showed a decade ago in other subtle and creative ways, 10 years from now Latvia could be an example to the world in how to build a prosperous and democratic society.

Jūrmala scene

From the Gulf of Rīga and throughout the country, says commentator Philip Birzulis, Latvia still is in deep water. (Photo by Andris Straumanis)

Documentary shows Rīga in the raw

Rīga pēc desmit gadiem

Līga (far right) with her family in Rīga. (Photo by Jānis Eglītis, Kaupo Filma)

Television shows and films about Latvia are rarely seen elsewhere in the world, and those that do make it onto the screen often make the locals cringe. In recent years, the only depictions of this small country seem to have been dubious exposes about prostitution and alleged ethnic troubles.

However, a documentary that recently premiered in Rīga is an interesting change from all that. Made with Western money and local talent, Rīga pēc desmit gadiem (Rīga After Ten Years) is one of the most honest and insightful films this reviewer has seen about the Latvian capital.

The premise is simple: During the winter of 2001, a camera crew followed four young people ages 21 to 28. We are given glimpses into their everyday lives. It may sound like a reality show, but this one achieves a lot more depth than is usually the case with that genre.

Karīna, a lawyer, is grieving over her boyfriend who committed suicide. Līga, a promising opera singer, is pondering whether to leave Latvia to join her lover in Spain. Aivars, a police academy cadet, is already flirting with the temptations of power and corruption. And Romāns, a butcher in Rīga’s central market and the oldest of the four, seems to be making the best of his life despite a childhood spent in various institutions and a grueling workload as an adult.

The film is rescued from mere voyeurism by the obvious trust that the production team has won from the subjects. And while the main focus is on the individuals, as the title suggests a lot is also said about Rīga a decade after independence.

Not all of it is pretty. While these young people seem to be making the best of things, they are beset by money and relationship difficulties, and it is made clear that other members of their generation are falling victim to drugs and alcohol. The troubled atmosphere is reflected in the footage of Rīga itself. A few shots of churches and cobblestones are outweighed by darkened, smoggy streets and tiny apartments. But somehow Rīga still comes across as a place of energy and tough optimism.

The film was financed by French TV channel ARTE. It was screened in October in France, Switzerland and Germany as part of a series about young people in five European cities (the others are Istanbul, Rekyavik, Belgrade and Bilbao.) An important part of the deal was that locals have artistic control over the films, and in Latvia this opportunity was handed to Arta Biseniece of Rīga-based Kaupo Filma.

Biseniece said that all of the action in the films is spontaneous and no one was specially auditioned for the parts. She wanted a policeman, a singer, a worker from the central markets, and Karīna, who is a personal friend of hers. The only other candidates were a young Russian man at the markets, who turned down an offer to take part, and a Russian DJ, who was to have been a fifth subject until the production team decided that he had nothing interesting to say.

In fact, Biseniece said her goal was to focus on ordinary people.

"For some reason Latvians are always making films about artists," she said with a laugh. "They get a musician and film him on a roof playing a saxophone."

The director said she developed a lot of affection for her subjects, even for Aivars the policeman, whom she respects for being honest about his views on the world.

And she firmly defended the images of Rīga shown in the film.

"The film was made in winter, which is always less picturesque than summer, but more importantly, everyday life is not a holiday," she said. "Rīga is not just the Old Town, most of us live in Purvciems or Ziepniekalns (Soviet-era housing estates), we go to work through muddy tunnels and come home exhausted after dark."

Just 31 herself, Biseniece said she can completely relate to her quartet. She suggested that they are an intermediate generation which still has memories of Communism but is young enough to adjust to the new realities.

Oddly, she said that she had not been at all influenced by an earlier documentary about young Latvians made by Juris Podnieks in the late 1980s, whose title posed the question, Is It Easy to be Young?

However, as that film implied about youth under glasnost, so this one suggests that the answer today is still a resounding no.

Rīga pēc desmit gadiem won the award for best documentary in the Lielais Kristaps film festival Nov. 16, the Latvian equivalent of the Oscars. No plans have been announced to distribute the film outside of Europe, and video copies aren’t available yet either. However, when it does come on screen, this film should be seen by anyone who wants to look into the very heart of the city.


Rīga pēc desmit gadiem

Arta Biseniece, director

Kaupo Filma,  2001

Notes: In Latvian. Documentary, color.

We, the neurotic

As Independence Day approaches again, familiar patriotic sounds are filling Rīga’s chilly air. Flags snap in the drizzle, politicians dust off speeches, and fireworks get tested for another whiz-bang extravaganza on the Daugava.

However, every year this author’s brain makes some other, subversive noises. For as much as I love the frolicking festivities, enjoy belting out some Fatherland-loving fanfares, the party always strikes me as being a bit odd. Not boring by any means, just slightly off the wall.

A few examples may serve to illustrate the whacky nature of the celebrations. Firstly, the last couple of November 18ths have witnessed military parades through the capital. Now there’s nothing wrong with a bit of khaki pomp and circumstance, but you have to realise that Latvia’s armed forces probably couldn’t repel a few determined Jehovah’s Witnesses knocking at their door—and wouldn’t have made much of a fist of it in centuries gone by either. Apart from the Latvian Riflemen whose feats eight decades ago are the reason for the event (or their Lenin-defending Red cousins, who are not PC today), the young men of this country have never been good at beating off the rapists and pillagers.

The date itself is also a worry. In case nobody has noticed, thanks to the collaboration of singing patriots manning barricades in Rīga and some heroically stupid generals in Moscow, Latvia has been independent for the last decade. But you wouldn’t know it from November 18, which commemorates deeds in 1918 that are alive only to a few old men. The tenth anniversary of Aug. 21, 1991, when Latvia broke free from the Soviet Union, was marked this year by overwhelming apathy: a few television documentaries and a coincidental Russian rock concert in the Old Town. Traditions borne of faint memories are preferable to the realities of an independent country.

Then there is the matter of Death. For me, November 18 usually starts at an inhumanly early, hungover hour when my student fraternity marches to the Brothers Cemetery to lay flowers at the graves of those who fought the War To End All Wars. A week earlier, on Soldiers’ Remembrance Day, the whole country troops to the graveside to pay the same respects. Also squeezed into November is the Day of Remembrance of the Deceased, when people visit their nearest and dearest who have shuffled off the mortal coil. Granted, Latvians have always considered late autumn as the time to appease spirits walking the Earth, but does it have to be done three times? Is this fascination with the afterlife a sign of a healthy, forward looking society? May the ghosts strike me down, but I think not.

Yes, November 18 makes me think that Latvians are a tad loopy, an impression not undone by what happens on the other 364 days. However, I recently came across something that makes me think that we are not alone.

In a book called Fifty Years of Europe: An Album, veteran travel writer Jan Morris presents anecdotes, descriptions and reflections from half a century of cris-crossing the Continent. She does not neglect her native Wales or its people, whom she considers to be, well, a bit screwed up. The following quote is a sample of her psychoanalysis:

Politically unsure of themselves, conditioned by centuries of scorn and subjection, the Welsh still seem to doubt their ability to run their own affairs. Years ago I defined the Four Torments of Wales, like the curses of a Celtic fairy tale, and the older I got the more I realised that I was myself a victim of them all. There was the Torment of the Confused Identity—when was a Welshman not a Welshman; were some more Welsh than others? There was the Torment of the Torn Tongue—the anxieties of a society ripped apart by love, contempt, longing for or rejection of its native language and culture. There was the Torment of the Two Peoples—the ambivalence of the Anglo-Welsh relationship, bittersweet, love-hate, never altogether frank. And behind these conscious malaises there was the more elemental angst which was the Torment of Dispossession—the yearning, profound and ineradicable, for a nation’s own inviolable place in the world. These are neuroses, every one, but I suspect that, mutatis mutandis, they are common to patriots in all the minority nations of Europe.

Whatever mutatis mutandis means (they didn’t teach Latin where I went to school), this passage strikes me as being very applicable to the Latvians. Although there may be big differences of history, tradition and temperament between ourselves and the Welsh, I think we go through the same mental agonies.

Let’s consider first the torn tongues and two peoples, interlinked conditions that are central to Latvia’s future development. On the surface, most Latvians have accepted the fact that almost half their country’s population are Russian, by descent and language. Inside, however, there is a gigantic collective maladjustment to the situation.

Today, this comes out in some weird contradictions. On the one hand, the more liberal (and dominant) wing of Latvian politics accepts that the Russians are here to stay, and that the best way to integrate them is to get them speaking Latvian. Ordinary Latvians seem to agree, grumbling about the immigrants who have lived here for 50 years and don’t speak a word of the local language.

And yet, when they come face to face with a Russian, most Latvians will quickly switch over to the Russian language.

Perhaps this is due to a general tendency to avoid conflict, which may have served well in keeping the peace through the past 10 years of jarring political and economic change. It could be the pride small nations take in being multilingual.

However, I think it has more to do with an inward looking, exclusionist way of seeing at the world. Big language groups such as the English, French and Russians are only too happy to have outsiders join their fold—and have often used force to get them to do so. Latvians, however, prefer to live alone. Traditionally living in isolated farmsteads, they can hardly stand each other, let alone strangers. So even though their birth rate is catastrophically low, even though they are almost a minority in their own land, they still resist assimilating the only population group that can keep them alive.

Nothing is more pedantic than a Latvian defending his language. Even when someone clearly expresses themselves, they will jump onto tiny grammatical errors to paint the speaker as virtually illiterate. Currently, some foreign Latvians are campaigning for the reintroduction of an obscure diacritical mark under the letter "r" that they claim the Soviets abolished in the 1950s. In the meantime, life is rolling over these linguistic niceties: for e-mailing and mobile phone messaging, the squiggles and loops are fast disappearing altogether. For the young, English is making inroads at least as deep as Russian ever did into the everyday vocabulary. What was once "kruta" is now "cool." Davai! Okay.

This hapless rejection of foreign influences is sometimes comically masochistic. I remember sitting at a table with three inebriated Latvians who were all chanting that the Russians should go back to where they came from. I put forward the obvious fact that the gene pool of Latvians is thoroughly mixed with Scandinavian, German, and Slavic blood, which they all agreed was true. In fact, the trio then confessed that each of their mothers is Russian, but the Russkies had still better damn well get out…

All of this is the result of centuries of foreign domination. Latvians have been fiercely successful in simply surviving, in not going the way of the Baltic-speaking Old Prussians and other small languages. But they have stayed alive only by simultaneously making compromises with the invaders, and at the same time keeping their inner world to themselves. The result is a great deal of confusion about how they should react towards the world.

Dispossession and confused identity are also two sides to the same coin. Not for nothing one of the most beloved songs of diaspora Latvians is "Zeme, zeme" (sung, incidentally, to the melody of a Jewish folk song): Land, land, what is the land, If you don’ t have real freedom? / Freedom, freedom, what is freedom, If you don’t have your own land?

In Latvian, the words for land and country are the same—zeme—and the struggle for both has been closely linked throughout history. Under German barons and Soviet commissars, Latvians have resented their occupants as much for kicking them off their few acres of soil as for imposing foreign political institutions.

The foreign overlords have also prevented them from being themselves. Latvians have won gold medals at Olympics, played crucial roles in history-changing battles, sung in world-famous opera companies, but usually under someone else’s flag. As a result, as anyone who has identified themselves as a Latvian when travelling abroad will know, the world doesn’t seem to know a thing about us, except maybe for a few sound bites from negative news reports.

There is something touching about the way Latvians cling to the few moments when they are in the limelight. Every spring, the world ice hockey championships cause thousands of young people to go berserk when their team is playing. Asked why they are donning face paint in national colours and singing in the streets, they usually reply, "Because it’s the only game we’ re good at." This inferiority complex translates into emigration. I have talked to numerous youngsters planning to marry, study or work overseas because, they say, "This country doesn’t have anything."

We can hope that Latvia will one day be known for other things besides war criminals and ethnic troubles. In the Soviet Union, the small Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic punched above its weight, producing musicians, sportsmen, chocolates, sprats and radios that were and still are household names over one sixth of the Earth’s surface. Given time, there is no reason why this shouldn’t be repeated in the West, but in the meantime there will be more pained soul-searching.

Still, small nations probably don’t have a monopoly on nervous nail biting. For all their legendary self-confidence, Americans have been doing a lot of navel-gazing after certain recent events. The Germans are completely mixed up about their history. The French like big military parades on Bastille Day, even though their war record is possibly even worse than the Latvians’. And let’s not even get into the murky depths of the Russian Soul…

Perhaps the joy of Independence Day is about being with your very own crazy people.