#31   Brains, birches and song.

Over the summer the Latvian Institute asked the young people of Latvia to tell us what kind of Latvia they want to see in 10 years. In September we received over 500 responses from some very bright girls and boys. While talking about the project with a journalist, he asked me what my vision of Latvia in 10 years would be like.

I was taken by surprise. All year I had been asking the kids of Latvia how they would like to see this country, but what about me? Once I started to think of things, I realized my wish-list could go on forever. As a citizen, I wanted to see a country where people felt secure, happy and prosperous. As a parent, I wanted to see a country where my children and grandchildren would be glad to live.  As a diplomat, I wanted to see a state that was respected internationally and had good relations with the global community. As a person concerned about Latvia’s image in the world, I wanted to see a country that left a good impression on anyone who visited, and had a good reputation among those who hadn’t.

I wanted to see a Latvia that was admired by tourists, but not so popular that our streets are taken over by endless tour groups. I would like foreign investors to take a serious interest in Latvia, but not so much that they control our economy. I want Latvia to be in the news, but not for problems, crises or scandals, but because of successes, victories and achievements.

I’m sure that my wishes aren’t that different from those of most of the 2.3 million people who live in Latvia. The problem, as always, is how do you get there?

I then thought of the Latvian Institute’s recently completed research on a potential brand strategy for Latvia. It concluded that Latvia’s reputation in the world could grow considerably, if we developed three specific areas of our national identity: 1) Our respect for knowledge, science and education, 2) Our love for nature, 3) Our rich and multi-faceted culture.

So, if you’ve got brains, love birch trees and like to sing, you have a lot in common with the Latvian people. On the other hand, if we can make our people even smarter, make our environment even greener and rely on our culture to make it all come together, Latvia will not only be better known around the world, it will also be a better place to live.

#32   When dreams come true

I was working at the Latvian Legation in Washington, D.C. when Latvia restored its independence in August 1991. We received a lot of congratulations in the ensuing days, from old and new friends, but there is one I will never forget.

After interviewing me for a radio program, a young American reporter turned off the tape recorder and blurted out a confession. “I really envy you Latvians. You have just won back your independence, thrown off the shackles of an occupation and have been given a chance to rebuild your country! The past is over and everything is ahead of you now. In America we had our revolution and war of independence over 200 years ago. We have nothing to rebuild here, just a lot of things we have to fix. That’s boring. You Latvians have an exciting future ahead of you, no matter what happens, you now can do something about it.”

I have to admit, I did feel lucky back in 1991. And it was exciting. It seemed almost unbelievable. After 50 years in a Soviet Union everyone thought would last forever, Latvia was independent again. Latvia had changed, the world had changed, and those of us who wanted to live and work in Latvia had our work cut out for us.  But it was work we had always dreamed we could someday do.

In the early 1990’s we reshaped the government, the laws and the way we interacted with the world.  We privatized and made unheard of profits. We established embassies, joined international organizations, rebuilt cities and sent our presidents around the world. Our economy grew, new opportunities opened up and yes, new problems replaced the old ones. Today our economy is struggling, our political parties are bickering, and the euphoria of those early days is a faded memory.

But I think that the American reporter had it right. Life in Latvia has not been boring. For me, it has been a rare stroke of luck to be a Latvian these last 20 years. It’s also been a privilege to participate in so many aspects of Latvia’s rebirth, development and growing pains. I have not only seen a dream come true, but have also had a chance to contribute something to it.

Of course, that dream is not yet fully realized. We are still rebuilding and in some cases, already fixing things we built not that long ago. The restoration of a country and the healthy regeneration of a nation takes time, hard work and toughness. There are always many disappointments along the way.

But when a dream comes true once in your life, you start to believe it can happen again.  So if we want to make Latvia even better than it is, we have to keep dreaming.

#33   Still Being Latvian After All These Years

There are more than 6 and a half billion people in the world, and most of them have some kind of national identity. Our planet is full of people who call themselves Chinese, French, Venezuelan, South African or Norwegian. All of us have some national identity, although by the 21st century most of us have inherited many national ancestries.  We tend to pick and choose which countries and nationalities we want to identify with. Some with the country they live in, others with the place they were born, others simply grow to like a certain part of the world and become a part of it.

For me, being Latvian gives me an interesting vantage point for functioning in the world.

First of all, I didn’t choose it, I was born into it. My parents both were Latvian, and as far as I know, most of their parents and grandparents were also Latvian.  Although I was born in Munich, Latvian was the first language I heard around me as an infant. I later went to school and started a career in an American-speaking country called the United States, where I was reminded every day that I was a Latvian.  (With a name like Ojars Kalnins, you always get questions.)

Language, ancestry and other people’s curiosity have made me very aware of the fact that I am a Latvian. Having worked for Latvia in some capacity for the last 25 years has also made me a bit more national-identity conscious than your average person. Being a Latvian among Swedes, Russians, Danes and Germans at an international conference on the Baltic Sea region, gives me a totally different perspective on any issue that is raised.  The Swedes are watching it all from Stockholm, the Russians from St. Petersburgh, and I see it all from Riga’s Old Town. We are all looking at the same sea, but we are seeing it through our national filters.

Being Latvian is fun at ice hockey games, and being Latvian is an experience unlike any other during the Song and Dance Celebrations. When the economy dips and inflation rises it doesn’t much matter what nationality you are, tough times are tough on everyone. But as a Latvian, I can escape into the forests of Kemeri and regenerate my spiritually batteries along the white sands of the Kurzeme coastline.

My parents taught me that their parents taught them, that being Latvian means surviving obstacles and appreciating the goodness of life when you can. When I look at the tall, straight pines of Sliltere I remember that they have weathered forests fires and Baltic Sea storms, and look as beautiful now as they did a thousand years ago.  That’s when I enjoy being Latvian the most.

#34  In the middle of things

Throughout its history, Latvia has always been in the middle of things.

From the moment the words ‘Baltic States’ first became known in the international community, Latvia was always the middle one. We couldn’t escape that. Never will. As long as the countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are always lumped together and called the Baltic States, Latvia will always be the geographic, political, cultural and spiritual middle one. It must come with the territory.

Latvia is also in the middle of everything that is going on in Scandinavia, Russia, and the North Sea, which is one of the main reasons why Riga looks the way it does today. Although there are financial centres throughout the EU, Riga is pretty much in the middle of all of them. If it happens in London, Paris, Brussels or Berlin, it has an effect on Riga.  Things that happen here are felt in those cities as well.

Latvia is so used to being in the middle of everything, it comes as a surprise when we are left out.  When Germany and Russia agreed to run a gas pipeline through the Baltic Sea, we were offended that they didn’t include us in the deal. Lithuania and Estonia are equally concerned, as are Sweden, Finland and a lot of other neighbors, but Latvia is in the middle of it all, any way you look at it.

Some would say that Latvians take a middle road in most of the things they do.  Back when the Baltic States restored their independence in 1991, foreign affairs analyst Paul Goble liked to distinguish the temperaments of the three nations by telling this slightly enhanced story about how we each dismantled our hated Lenin monuments:

“ In Lithuania, Landsbergis gave an impassioned speech on TV and thousands of Lithuanians rushed to the public square in Vilnius and tore it down with their bare hands. In Latvia, the government appointed a committee of politicians who supervised a committee of engineers, who studied the project for several days and then quietly dismantled the statue in Riga in the middle of the night. In Estonia, no one knew where the Lenin monument was located, so the government hired a Finnish company to come in and take it away.”

When President Bill Clinton came to toast the Baltic States in 1994, he met all three presidents in Riga, the midpoint of the legendary 1989 Baltic Way human chain that he mentioned in his speech.  When NATO decided it was time to have a summit in the middle of the Baltic States in 2006, it chose Riga as the place to host it.

At times it seems like Latvia is midway between everything. Between success and failure, prosperity and poverty, the past and the future. North, south, east or west, from Riga you can look in any direction you want and Latvia seems to be in the middle of it all. It’s not that we are self-centered as a people. We‘ve just always been surrounded by the rest of the world