Independence days

The Economist
February 28, 2008

What can émigrés do this time?

DURING the four dismal decades of the last cold war, in places like New Jersey, Toronto, west London and Melbourne, communities distinguished by strange-sounding surnames and distinctive cuisine took root.

In the early years, many hoped they would be going “home” soon. But memories of their captive homelands became faded and rosy. The cause seemed all but hopeless: folk-dancing dentists against the evil empire.

But that changed as communism weakened. Dusty embassies, forlorn governments-in-exile, and powerless pressure groups, which for years had survived only to squabble, suddenly had real jobs to do. Strange men with bad teeth and shaggy beards—freedom fighters from “home”—had to be polished up and used to win over western public opinion, still bemused by the strange news from the east. Thousands of volunteers went back to help. When victory was won, some stayed, as businessmen, journalists, charity workers, officials—and politicians. Recognition for the Baroness

Life may be duller now, but it can still be fun. A lively party at the Estonian House in New York last weekend toasted the 90th anniversary of the first Estonian republic. That is no historical footnote: it is a crucial political point for the Baltic states that they did not “gain” independence from the Kremlin in 1991, but “regained” what the Soviet occupation took from them.

Earlier, hundreds of Lithuanians celebrated their national birthday at a gala dinner in London, where speakers included Baroness Thatcher (frail of foot, but still in fine, fluent form on her favourite subject of freedom) and their own President Valdas Adamkus (who spent most of his adult life in America).

The former British prime minister received Lithuania’s highest honour, the Order of Vytautas (with a huge cream and crimson sash), and a thunderous ovation. Not her last hurrah, perhaps, but certainly a memorable one.

The third speaker was Lithuania’s hot-shot ambassador to Britain, Vygaudas Usackas. Some think he may be in the running for Mr Adamkus’s job next year. With more than 150,000 Lithuanians living in Britain, the new diaspora would be a useful pool of votes should he choose to seek them.

Some younger members of his audience have similar ideas. A few years’ hard work in the City of London sets an ambitious east European up for life. That could mean a badly needed new political class, of financially independent politicians and public figures with a clear idea of what still needs to change back home.

It would be nice to think that all ex-communist countries see the value of their diasporas. But all too often, they are shunned. If you are a corrupt and incompetent politician, it may suit you quite well if the most impatient people go abroad and don’t come back.

The big worry among the most seasoned émigrés is that the cold wind from the east has started before eastern Europe is ready. Politics is too close to business, and business too close to Russia. The public—at least the part of it that hasn’t emigrated—is disillusioned. Disgraced or dodgy politicians seem troublingly resilient, even when ties to organised crime and foreign secret services seem alarmingly clear.

“We needed another ten years”, says an old Baltic hand in Washington, DC. More time would foster a new generation of politicians and officials, stronger public institutions, and greater confidence among voters that the European and Atlantic option was really working.

Nobody is saying that the picture is hopeless. And it’s much worse if you are, say, Belarussian and are not sure your country is going to survive at all, let alone be free or well-governed. But among some hard-bitten veterans of the last cold war, the mood is surprisingly sombre.

Alide Forstmanis
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