Co-Authors: Dr Gabriela Bereghazyova & Dr Zuzana Palovic
The Voices of the East: Perspectives in a Divided Europe? Series Part #8
The epicentre of the Baltics is in many respects a microcosm of Europe. Its territory was a playground of great European power houses experiencing both world wars in the most immediate and painful ways. Once the horrors of the First World War were subsided and Latvia started writing its own history, the cruel hand of fate interrupted them once again.
Nazi Germany and communist Russia took turns commanding and terrorizing the country. Yet, each fall was also followed by a rebirth. The greater the demise, the grander the re-emergence. Even when courage was running low, Latvia never gave up on hope. The country that borders the Baltic sea, breathed a nation-wide sigh of relief, when in 1990 Latvia regained its independence.
Today, Latvia is the fastest growing country of the region boasting a thriving high-tech and service industry in addition to agriculture and manufacturing. Yet, this Baltic lion is not lulling on the achievements of the last two decades.
Ms Baiba Braže talks about Latvia’s, now a full member of the NATO and the EU, sensitive radar forged by centuries of hardships is on alert to all threats to harmony and prosperity for themselves, but also for the region, Europe and the world at large.
Our history is one of great many transitions.
Latvians are old peoples who have existed for several thousand years. Yet, statehood is a different story. The many tribes that settled in the region governed themselves, but the first nation feeling happened when German knights arrived on the Baltic shores to Christianise this land at the turn of the first millennium. Then, from this German crusader state we passed into the hands of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, then into the Swedish Empire, before landing in the lap of tsarist Russia.
Our time came during the era of great transitions in Europe, WWI.
The 19th century sparked the idea of the modern Latvian nation, but it could only become reality during the turmoil of the First World War. It was far from straight forward. Some Latvians fought for the Russian tsar, others for the dream of the independent Latvia. We also had German troops on our territory fighting the tsar. It was a muddle. Eventually, the Republic of Latvia was established in 1918. Interestingly, the British recognised our independence a week before the formal declaration. But, our battle was far from over. We still had to fight the Bolsheviks, while also dealing with the presence of German soldiers. In the end, we celebrated success in 1921 and turned the country into an advanced economy on the level of that of Norway.
It was a tragic lesson.
History teaches us that it is in the interest of each country to be committed to the international principles and to the UN as the institution that safeguards them. Few expected the assassination of the crown prince of Austria-Hungary to spark a global conflict. Britain was far from the Balkans, yet a few years later British soldiers were dying in their thousands.
Sadly, independence was short-lived as another tragedy struck our country.
The Second Word War was very present in Latvia. First Stalin invaded in 1940, then Nazis took the territory only for the Russians to return in 1944.
Nothing is ever black or white.
There are those who think that the West gave up parts of Europe, including the Baltic states, to protect themselves. In doing so they sold us off, but it is far more complicated. Yes, we wish much of it had never happened. We wish we could avoid the suffering we experienced under Hitler and Stalin. However, we have learnt from our past. We are not going to give our freedom away, which is why the EU and the NATO are so important to us.
The population of Latvia went through unimaginable shifts.
During the First World War, many people escaped and many were killed. We lost 1 million people as a result of the war. Then, Hitler recalled Latvian Germans to Germany. They had to leave even though they had lived in Latvia for centuries. We still have very special relations with Germany thanks to our shared history. Soon after Stalin invaded Latvia, the massive deportations began. This was still a fresh memory to the Latvian people when the Soviets invaded our country for the second time in 1944. That is when hundreds of thousands of Latvians fled to protect themselves. Moscow solved the great population loss by resettling people from other parts of the Soviet Union into Latvia, mainly to supply labour to the newly build factories.
We have exceptionally large diaspora living across the world.
We are working closely with them. It is very important for us to maintain the bond with Latvia by introducing dual citizenship. We do not want to lose touch with those who were forced to leave their homeland for various reasons.
We are a nation of survivors.
Our story is a story of our remarkable people. We had to start from the scratch in the 90s.There was no such thing as private property. All the factories had to close as they were a Soviet project and were no longer compatible with the needs of the country. Not everyone spoke Latvian and there was little cohesion in the society. Under Soviet control, we had two school systems, a Russian one and a Latvian one. They had different curriculums, they taught history differently and the society was a mess. We introduced a special program to foster Latvian nationhood, at the heart of which was teaching the population the Latvian language. There were many challenges, but enthusiasm was great and we turned the country around.
Joining the EU and the NATO was a big boost for our country and our economy.
Becoming members of these institutions was based on national consensus. We achieved the goal in 2004 and we are performing well, combining agriculture, wood production, services and IT. The 2008 global fiscal crisis hit us painfully, but we recovered. Because of the troubled history, joining the NATO was critical to our national security and the protection of our national borders.
We suffered some painful consequences when international rules were breached.
If countries are allowed to go and invade other countries, to drawn lines on the map, sooner or later this leads to a disaster. It is dangerous if it becomes possible to steal a territory of another country under the disguise of a referendum and then invade with undercover soldiers. It is important for countries to observe international rules.
Miracles do not happen out of nothing.
It is crucial for us that Ukraine and other Eastern European partners are able to maintain their sovereignty and keep growing. Their stability is critical to stability in Europe. This does not ‘just’ happen. It is a gradual process and we are helping as much as we can.
We do not now what future after Brexit holds.
One thing is certain – the EU will have to function differently. It will be important for the Union and its member states to feel more responsible about what they decide. It will be equally as vital to be able to engage with our populations over EU issues. I do not think that the EU compromises sovereignty of individual states is in any way, but we need to communicate with our people more effectively. We need to explain what is going on to foster unity and understanding within the EU.
Education is the key.
Europe is transforming towards very different societies. This requires new skillsets and mindsets. I do not mean the traditional education in classrooms, but one that facilitates the creation of advanced skillsets and maintains international understanding by bringing people together. Once we see and experience others, we realise that we are more similar than we are different.
Our values and our culture is part of the West.
But we also understand that there are countries further East. These have not been easy in the past. Supporting Belarus, Ukraine and central Asian countries is a priority to us. They are striving to develop, they do not want to be stuck in the past. We can understand them and their challenges because we have been there too and we are extending our reach to these countries.
We understand that by helping them, we are helping ourselves.
Ms Baiba Braže was drawn to politics ever since her university era. It did not take long for her eduction and talent to propel her to a number of director position culminating with foreign affairs advisor to the Prime Minister of Latvia. Followed by her first diplomatic posting as an Ambassador to the Netherlands. Upon return to her homeland, Miss Braže put her experience to use in an array of prestigious roles before coming to London to embark on a yet another foreign mission.