What is Latvia for?

A few years back when nation branding expert Simon Anholt was interviewing civic leaders in Latvia he began each conversation with a simple question: “What is Latvia for?”

Anholt usually poses this question to help governments get their priorities straight before committing themselves to a nation branding strategy. What politicians invariably discover is that the pursuit of economic growth, tourism, and investment (the usual reasons nations seek a brand) is much easier if it is built on a solid set of clearly stated values. Ones they actually believe in.

A recently proposed text for a preamble to Latvia’s 91-year old constitution does exactly that. It tries to explain what Latvia is for, why it was created, and why it matters so much to the Latvian people.

Most constitutions tell us how someone plans to run a country, but they don’t always explain why. Many, like ours, were written right after a war and the number one priority was to get things running again. To the founding fathers, Latvia’s ‘reasons for being’ were self evident enough not to require a lengthy explanation. They figured someone else could do that in more stable times.

It appears that the required stability has arrived because many people in Latvia from all walks of life are starting to actively debate the whys and wherefores of putting a preamble in front of our longstanding constitution.

The point of a preamble is to explain what you are for, and this one does it. It states that Latvia is for many things, but most of all, it says that Latvia was created to allow the Latvian people to live in their native land, where they can fully embrace their language, culture, history and traditions.

While keeping Latvia as Latvian as it can be, the preamble also guarantees the same rights for everyone else, regardless of ethnicity, race or creed. It encourages a civic society and proposes three guiding principles of nationhood: democracy, justice and social responsibility. For all.

There are plants and animals that thrive best in a particular valley, along a particular river, in a locally distinctive climate, nourished by the food and water that exists only there. The same goes for human beings who have developed rich and varied cultures through this living interaction between man and nature. If we truly value this planet for its diversity, these cultures and their unique habitats should be preserved, nourished and encouraged. While Latvians can grow anywhere, they do it best in Latvia. The preamble encourages others to do so as well.

By tradition, a preamble should offer the legal and historical grounds upon which a state is based, and in Latvia’s case, that all began in 1918, was threatened by a half century of occupation, and was won back once again when full independence was restored in 1991. Legal experts call it continuity, but to the rest of us it simply means we are willingly accepting a legacy left to us by our grandfathers.

Once the legal precedents are established, the preamble presents the primary responsibilities of the Latvian state. In this case, they are: To promote the spiritual, social, cultural and material welfare of all who live here. To provide them with order and justice in a secure environment. To protect the land we love and all the things that grow, live and thrive on it.

It also adds one relatively new responsibility that may or may not be a sign of the times: it recommends that we pursue our economic interests in a “humane way”. After the global economic crash, many long for a kinder, gentler capitalism.

In forming a state, a society can agree on certain red lines that can’t be crossed without compromising the very reason the state was created. The preamble lists those as independence, territorial integrity, the sovereignty of the people, and Latvian as the only state language. In the minds of the authors of this text, these are Latvia’s untouchables. If the will of the people ends up approving this preamble, it places upon them a solemn responsibility to preserve and protect these principles.

But civic responsibility doesn’t end there. We are urged to take care of ourselves, our loved ones and our fellow neighbors for the good of society as a whole. We are asked to leave this state and land in good condition for the next generations. And we are reminded that both traditional and Christian values have shaped the historical Latvian identity.

Thus, in addition to the guiding principles of the state, the preamble also spells out the basic social values of the people who choose to live here. They include a respect for freedom, decency, honesty and solidarity, as well as the family unit.

But Latvia is not an island floating in the vastness of space, so the preamble also expresses some internationally state-like thoughts about its place in the global community. It stresses Latvia’s active contribution to the humane, sustainable, democratic, and responsible development of Europe and the world. Here we announce our desire to be good global neighbors.

The first draft of the preamble has been made public and as expected, a vigorous and lively debate has ensued. Some question why we need one, some wonder whether we’ve said enough. Everyone will have a say and the process could take a long time before we all agree on the words and the way they reach final approval, either by parliamentary vote or referendum, or both. 

It does answer Simon Anholt’s existential question, and someone even saw it as a pre-birthday present for Latvia’s 100 anniversary in 2018. Of all the commentaries I have read, my favorite is a woman who took to Twitter to share a revelation after reading the preamble over and over again. Her observation was aptly poetic. She saw it as a love letter to Latvia. I’m all for that.

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