There Are Many Different Kinds of Latvians
An interview with Latvian Member of Parliament and former Ambassador to the United States Ojārs Kalniņš. Interviewer: Filip Mazurczak
FILIP MAZURCZAK: I will be unoriginal and ask you a question you are probably sick of hearing incessantly for the past decade and a half. Why did you, a middle-aged man raised in the United States, decide to go back to your parents’ home country?
OJĀRS KALNIŅŠ:That’s a question I’ve been asking myself for 30 years. It seems like the decision was made for me in 1978 when I first visited Latvia at the age of 28. While I had heard about Latvia, the war and the Soviet occupation from my parents all my life, setting foot on the soil of Soviet-ruled Latvia for the first time made a lasting impression. It literally changed the course of my life. I realised this was my country, that I cared about it and, like most of the people living there, wanted to see the occupation end and independence return. What struck me was how European Latvia was, despite the years of inept Soviet rule.
In 1985, when the Latvian-American community offered me a full-time job in Washington, DC, to lobby Latvian independence, I made a full commitment to the cause. When that independence actually came about in 1991, I was already working closely with the people who formed the new government and foreign ministry. They asked me to stay in DC as an ambassador, which was a logical continuation of what I had been doing as a Latvian lobbyist. I gave up my US citizenship in 1991 without hesitation because I couldn’t imagine anything more important, or interesting, in my life than working for a free Latvia. In effect, I have fulfilled a dream I had when I walked the streets of Soviet-ruled Riga in 1978: the dream to live in an independent Latvia that had once again restored its rightful place in Europe. Living here and taking an active part in the rebuilding process has been a rare privilege. My parents were forced to leave. I feel extremely fortunate to have come back in their place.
You say on your website that you never entirely felt “American” growing up in the United States. Do you feel “Latvian” in Latvia?
Yes, very much so. But there are many different kinds of Latvians. After the restoration of independence in 1991 there were two big categories: former Soviet Latvians, who had spent their formative years living and working in Latvia, and diaspora Latvians, mostly refugees from WWII and the occupation. When we came together in Latvia after 1991 we brought different experiences, knowledge and attitudes. Sometimes they complemented one another, sometimes they clashed. But over the last 23 years these differences have become less and less palpable, since both groups have been simultaneously engaged in the process of rebuilding the country. What you did and where you did it two decades ago is more of a historical footnote; what you are doing now is what matters most to most Latvians. In fact, I have one thing in common with the new generation of Latvians who were born after 1991: none of us has ever lived in the USSR. While I felt Latvian in my head growing up in Chicago, I feel it in my heart when I’m celebrating the summer solstice in the Kurland pines along the Baltic Sea shoreline. I feel very Latvian then.
You write that growing up in the United States, hardly anyone had heard of Latvia. Is this different today, as Latvia is independent, a member of NATO and the EU, a largely pro-American nation and with a booming economy? Not to mention that Latvia won the Eurovision in 2000 and Brainstorm conquered the airwaves across the Old Continent then.
It is very different today. For starters, members of the European Union, NATO, UN, OSCE and hundreds of other international organisations know who we are. Those who follow world affairs, international economics and other global issues have a pretty good fix on Latvia and its place in the world. The average American may pay less attention to international affairs, but US politicians, businessmen, investors, tourists and academicians who follow Europe are now very aware of us. We are also big with ice hockey fans, opera lovers and choir music enthusiasts because we are really good at these things. Paul Krugman has also inadvertently helped in making us popular by questioning the wisdom of our economic recovery. When world opinion makers are publicly arguing about the nature of your success, you know you have made it.
What do you think contributed to Latvia’s economic success? Now, Latvia is one of the fastest-growing economies in Europe, has joined the euro at a time when everyone flees the currency and got out of recession quickly, while Greece is experiencing its seventh consecutive year of economic decline?
While there are many factors, I would single out two of the most important. First, we had a prime minister named Valdis Dombrovskis who knew exactly what Latvia needed to do to get out of the economic crisis. Next, a majority of the Latvian people trusted Dombrovskis, believed in him and were willing to undertake the hardships that were necessary. Dombrovskis worked in tandem with Finance Minister Andris Vilks, who has been praised as one of the best finance ministers in Europe. But they couldn’t have accomplished anything if the population had not supported them and given them the political mandate to do what had to be done. The Latvian people complained, but they complied. Dombrovskis showed them what could be accomplished if you have a solid plan and a strong commitment to carry it out. That’s one reason why many in the European Union are beginning to look at Dombrovskis as a possible candidate for president of the European Commission. He has the right temperament and right experience. The EU would be very fortunate to have him in a leadership position in the coming years.
Perhaps the biggest success of Latvian cinema in the past decade was that of Edvīns Šnore’s The Soviet Story, an excellent documentary about Soviet crimes that compares the USSR with Nazi Germany. What can the rest of Europe learn from Latvia and the Baltic republics and their historical experience of experiencing some of the ugliest crimes against humanity the Soviet perpetrated during World War II?
First of all, we demonstrated that with patience, care and a sincere commitment, justice can be served and dreams can come true. Back in the 1970s even those in the West who agreed that the Baltic States were under an illegal occupation by the Soviet Union, also agreed that we had zero chance of ever escaping it. We proved them wrong. I think it reveals the resilience of a people and the continuing importance of national identity, not just in Latvia, but around the world. However, Šnore’s film demonstrated something else, namely that the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany were complicit in the deaths of millions upon millions of people during World War II.
What, in your opinion, can make Latvia more independent in terms of energy from Russia?
Full energy interconnectivity with Europe, especially the Nordic and other Baltic States, new sources of natural gas such as LNG and an effective energy security policy in the European Union can increase our energy independence from Russia. We must also continue to develop renewable energy sources. Latvia has always been a green country and needs to exploit this resource by becoming a leader in green energy. As for Putin, one can only hope that in time he will realise that many of his policies, especially toward Russia’s neighbours, are not in the best interests of the Russian people. Having strong, prosperous, energy-independent EU members on Russia’s borders should be seen as a help, not a hindrance, to Russia’s overall wellbeing.
Latvia has a pro-American foreign policy. What can you, a Latvian raised in the United States, contribute to Latvian-American relations? And what do you think of the Obama administration’s “reset” policy towards Russia?
When I served as Latvia’s Ambassador to the United States, I helped the Latvian government understand the US, and I helped the US government understand Latvia. Since I had a pretty good understanding of both countries, their goals and values, I could take an active role in bringing them together. I am still doing that today, but now as a European as well as a Latvian. When I meet with US officials as a member of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, I try to help explain EU policies and interests in a way that Americans can appreciate. I also remind them that the United States was founded by Europeans.
I think Obama’s reset policy was well-intended but Russia likes to reset things itself in a way that serves only its interests. The US, like Latvia, needs to have a full dialogue with Russia, as well as trade and other kinds of constructive relations. Any attempt to improve these ties can be useful. But Russia also needs to be genuinely interested in promoting those ties in a mutually beneficial way. If Russia truly wishes to be a modern, prosperous country in a globalised world, its leaders need to reset some of their thinking. One place to start is in an honest re-evaluation of its history. Like the other Captive Nations, Russia also achieved its independence when the USSR collapsed. The sooner it can liberate its society from the old Soviet way of thinking, the better. A truly new Russia would be one that recognised the importance of international cooperation, trust and inclusion.
Ojārs Kalniņš was born to Latvian parents in Munich, Germany, in 1949. At the age of two, he moved to the United States and was raised in Chicago. From 1993 to 2000 he was Latvia’s ambassador to the United States, after which he moved to his parents’ native country. Since 2010 he is a deputy to the Saeima, Latvia’s Parliament, from the Unity Party and has headed the parliamentary committee on foreign affairs.
Filip Mazurczak is the Assistant Editor of New Eastern Europe. He studied history and Latin American literature at Creighton University and international relations at The George Washington University.