05 June 2011

What is Latvia?

National identities can be thorny issues.  In "new" countries like the US and Canada,  national boundaries are well defined, and ethnicity is typically not a question of defining nationality.  In post-colonial countries, like some of those in the Arab World, national boundaries exist, but they are generally meaningless.  This is because national borders were drawn by foreign powers in places where group allegiance is defined by tribal or religious bonds [the creation of these artificial countries partially explains this region's perennial instability].

Hint:  Straight Lines Point to Fake Borers

In Europe, national boundaries are mostly well-defined, suggesting years of precedent and history that have cemented frontiers for generations.  Europe also has an additional layer of identify that does not exist in any appreciable force in the US:  Ethnicity is also a "nationality" identifier.  As such, it is common to hear about ethnic Germans living in Poland; while these ethnic Germans are officially Polish citizens, they have the possibility of claiming German citizenship if they can prove that their ancestors, generally at most two generations back, were also German citizens.

Lots of National Precedent, Few Straight Boundary Lines

I had the occasion of spending a long weekend in and around Riga, Latvia.  Latvia, a nation of 2.4 million, is now a member of the European Union and NATO.  Latvia was introduced to Americans in the early 1990s as a liberated, sovereign Baltic state that was overrun by the Soviet Army in the 1940s in Stallin's efforts to expand the Iron Curtain into Eastern Europe.

Visiting Latvia and doing a quick study of this country's history made me wonder what, precisely, Latvia was.  Present-day Latvia seems to define itself as anti-Russia while heavily depending on Russian teat to feed it.  There are several interesting factors that jump out after this short visit to this Baltic nation:

Identifying Sign:  The Museum of Occupation of Latvia 1940 - 1991

  • Everyone speaks Russian.
  • The Latvian man on the street says that 50% of the population is Russian; official census numbers put the Russian population at 25-30% of the total Latvia population.  As Latvians put it, there are only 1.2 million of them; according to more official records, there are up to 1.8 million Latvians.
  • Latvia is a tourist destination for Russians; Russian dialects on the street have regional Russian flavors, like those of Moscow and St. Petersburg.
  • Despite having (and still going) through a massive financial crisis, Latvian real estate prices are Moscow-high.  One finds Moscow real estate prices in a relatively provincial part of the world.  This suggest that many buyers of Latvian real estates are from major Russian cities and pay prices with which they are familiar.
  • Latvia has a deal for you:  Buy real estate, and Latvia will extend EU residency to you.  If you are a Russian that needs to launder money while getting access to a Western-leaning safe haven in case things go south on you at home, there is no place better than Latvia.
  • According to the Latvian president, about 80% of Latvia's tourism and commerce is generated from Russian sources.  Despite this, Latvia does not make life easy for visiting Russians that bring precious liquid currency to the country:
    • No one accepts Russian rubles
    • There are no state-installed (traffic, tourism, etc.) signs that are in Russian 

So, what precisely is Latvia, a country that defines itself as fighting against years of Russian occupation while so heavily depending on Russia for its economy?  A quick look back at Latvian history shows a region that was occupied by Polish, German, and Russian forces successively with brief periods of independence only in the Twentieth Century, the longer of which started in 1991.  So, there is actually surprisingly little national precedence for Latvia, although there has been a long precedence of the Latvian ethnicity (that were once Polish, then German, then Soviet, and now seemingly Russian).

As it happens, if you are the United State and the arch enemy of the Soviet Union, it is to your interest to fan the flames of independence in a land that has very little history of it, but whose independence (and eventual accession into EU and NATO) serves to weaken your erstwhile mortal enemy, a former enemy that may once again find its old ways for various reasons.

So, what is Latvia, if it is not a crossroad for the confluence powerful foreign forces?  Perhaps, it is just a people who find independence nice in concept, but difficult in implementation because they are just too small.


  1. Excellent post, Amir! Glad that you start blogging again.

    And for the Latvia... Latvians did alot for the success of the bolsheviks and creation of the soviet state. Thanks them for infamous "latvian riflemen" and comrade Lācis.

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