Oktober 25, 2017
By Park Yoon-bae

Since I traveled to Latvia in late September I have become curious about howthe small Baltic country with a population of just 1.9 million has kept itsnational identity despite a long period of foreign rule and occupation.

Latvia declared independence and formed statehood in 1918. Before that, theBaltic state underwent a German Crusade in medieval times and then foreignrule by Sweden, Poland and Russia.

The country was forcibly annexed by the Soviet Union during World War II. It regainedsovereignty in 1991 following the collapse of the USSR. Then it joined the European Union and theNorth Atlantic Treaty Organization in 2004.

Latvia has been through a tumultuous history due to its geopolitical location. It stands at thecrossroads of Western and Eastern Europe.

The country has long served as a trade and logistics hub by taking advantage of its strategicposition in the Baltic region. At the same time it had seen the conflict of interests of some Europeanpowers taking place on its soil.

Against this backdrop, Latvia has had to meet challenges arising from the rapidly changinginternational situation and security threats. Its accession to the EU and NATO is part of itssurvival strategies.

I believe Latvia’s unique culture and its own language have made it possible for the country toestablish and maintain its national identity. Had it not been for them, the country might havedisappeared from the world map.

There is no doubt that culture is a driving force behind what Latvia is today.

For Latvians, culture has always been at the beginning and the core of the nation ― it was at thecore when the idea of an independent Latvian nation was just taking root, according to “LatviaToday,” a booklet published by the Latvian Institute.

The booklet also stated, “Having a language that has ancient roots but is nowadays spoken by onlytwo million people is another source of inspiration.”

Latvians have preserved their own language that belongs to the Baltic group of the Indo-Europeanfamily of languages well.

The country has developed and preserved its unique culture for thousands of years although it hasa relatively short history of statehood.

Latvians are proud of the country’s cultural diversity. The picturesque Old Town in the capital cityof Riga is a UNESECO World Heritage Site. The town is full of cultural diversity.

Latvian history is another factor in shaping the Baltic nation.

Latvia, which became an independent state in November 1918, was occupied by the Soviet Unionin 1940 and then by Nazi Germany in 1941. The Soviet Union occupied the Baltic state again from1944 to 1991.

During the occupations, Latvia and its people suffered atrocities, including the Holocaust and thedeportation of more than 40,000 Latvians to Siberia.

They also went through “Russification” which was aimed at spreading Russian culture andlanguage and obliterating those of Latvia and other occupied regions.

A historical landmark changing the course of Latvia is the so-called Baltic Way that showed howstrong Latvians’ aspiration for regaining sovereignty was.

The Baltic Way refers to the 600-kilometer human chain formed by almost two million peopleacross the three Baltic states ― Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia ― on Aug. 23, 1989.

The participants stood hand in hand to call for their independence from the USSR. They succeededin their struggle and restored statehood in 1991 in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Latvia is preparing for the centennial celebration of its independence declaration next year. It plansto hold a variety of events at home and abroad.

Now Latvia has to tackle some challenges. It needs to promote social cohesion and harmony in amulti-ethnic society which comprises of Latvians (61.4 percent), Russians (26.2 percent) andothers including Ukrainians, Poles and Lithuanians.

The country also has to upgrade its economic structure to realize a transition from agriculture andforestry-based industries to IT, ICT, pharmaceuticals, life science, industrial design and othervalue-added industries.

In addition, it is required to boost a low birthrate of 1.2 percent as this demographic factor has asignificant socioeconomic effect on the country.

The nation also should solve the problem of “non-citizens,” or citizens of the now-defunct SovietUnion who live in Latvia with no citizenship. There are about 290,000 non-citizens in the country,which account for 14 percent of the population.

I hope Latvians will see a successful result in their efforts to redefine their national identity and seta new course for their future.