Common ground in a sea of diversity

Labvakar! Labas vakaras! Head ööd! God afton! Guten Abend! Dobry wieczór! Hyvää iltaa! Gu kvell! Добрый вечер! Good evening!

What you have just heard are 10 of the most popular ways for people to say hello to each other in the Baltic Sea region. Those of us who live around this region have been using those same words for thousands of years. That was just 10 phrases, but we know that there are hundreds and maybe even thousands of others.

If we go back far enough in our history and deep enough into our forests, we know that many different cultures have come and gone through this region, each saying hello and goodbye in their own unique tongues. Some came as traders, others as invaders. Some built up castles and cities, and others came in and tore them down. Everyone who has ever ridden around, sailed to, or walked through the lands that surround the Baltic Sea has left their mark on this region in some way.

As a result, this region has no shortage of diversity. For that, we can thank the millions who have lived and shaped these lands before us. But many of us who live here suspect we have a great deal in common as well. Despite our various languages, cultures and histories, there is something about the Baltic Sea that draws us together.

If there is something that draws us together, could it give us a common regional identity? And if it could, do we really want it?

Today identity is a marketing tool, so then when we debate whether our region wants or needs a common identity, we need to take this into account. An identity establishes the nature of your relations with others. Each of us individually establishes an identity, companies and organisations actively establish identities to promote themselves and countries are polishing their identities for the global political marketplace.

Do we want the Baltic Sea region to have a marketable identity in the world?

A thousand years ago the Baltic Sea region had a clear and vivid identity for potential visitors. It was the place you stayed away from if you didn’t want to be attacked by Vikings. It was that chilly northern sea where the Danes fought the Swedes, the Swedes fought the Couronians, the Couronians fought the Livs and Livs looked around for some Estonians to fight. And when they could, the Baltic Vikings all got together and fought the Celts. Some of them even took time out from fighting to help the Norwegians discover America.

Then came the Germans, who brought the Hanseatic League, the Teutonic Order, the stone castle and the fiery cross. Exactly 800 years ago, a German Bishop came here, stood not too far from this site and established a city. With the help of German Crusaders, this bishop named Albert built a fortress, a church, a castle and then called it all Rīga.

Only a statue of Bishop Albert remains, but the city seems to have done quite well over the last 800 years without him. He was clearly a clergyman who understood the value of prime real estate.

If this region has a common cultural identity, Rīga is its creation, reflection and continuation. All the languages that I greeted you with earlier, have been spoken in this city for 800 years. All, at various times, have been used to either rule it, do business here or create art.

Language helps determine identity and it has always played that role in Rīga. Since the earliest settlers on this land were Liv and Latvian tribes, Latvian as a language has always been part of this city. But over the years those who have ruled and run this city have done so in German, Swedish, Polish and Russian, depending who was in power at any given time.

You can find this changing identity personified in a street in the very heart of Rīga. In 1818, while under czarist rule, Rīga’s main boulevard was named Aleksandra boulevard. One hundred years later, when Latvia achieved its independence in 1918, it became Brīvības iela—Freedom Street. When Rīga was occupied by the Soviets in 1940, it became Lenin Boulevard; when the Germans came in one year later it became Hitler Strasse, and when the Soviets came back in 1945, it became Lenin Boulevard again. Ten years ago, in 1991, when Latvia re-established its independence again, Rīga’s main thoroughfare—Aleksandra/Brīvība/Lenin/Hitler/Lenin boulevard/street—became Freedom Street once again.

Rīga is clearly a city of multicultural diversity, and yet it has survived and thrived for 800 years because at least some of the people who have lived here have found—or created—common ground. They say that common ground is a place where common interests can use common values to deal with common concerns.

Diverse peoples originating from different cultures speaking different languages, can live together and cooperate if they can share common interests. We are all living in a globalised world where the factors that once kept us apart—geographic distance and information isolation—are no longer a barrier to communication and cooperation.

In fact, some believe the pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction—local and regional identities are being superseded by global identities. McDonald’s, Coca Cola, Mercedes Benz, Volvo, Nokia and Champagne are all products of distinct national origins—yet today, they are globally recognised names that can be found anywhere in the world. Many who use these products no longer know where in the world they come from.

The Vikings navigated the fjords and rivers of this region and eventually found gateways to other societies, as far away as Byzantium and the Black Sea. Today anyone of us can navigate the global networks of cyberspace and make contact with anyone in the world, any time we want. The moment we go online, we get connected to the rest of the world.

In a globalised world, regional and national identity take on whole new dimension. But even in cyberspace, one needs to identify one’s self. We have to log on as someone, from somewhere. You could say that one of the goals of the Baltic Sea Region Identity Workshop is to discuss how we log on when we wish to make contact with the rest of the world—and whether it matters. Are we Rīgans, Latvians, Balts, Scandinavians, Northern Europeans, European Unionists—or merely global citizens speaking English with regional accents?

This year the city of Rīga is celebrating its 800th anniversary, and the marketing people responsible for promoting Riga’s identity have called it the City of Inspiration. In the next four days we will find out whether that is true or not.

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