Return to Riga


Can people who have been taught only submission for generations, who are strangers to democracy, be trusted to govern themselves?

That’s the question facing us in Iraq today. We will be asking the same question come the revolution in Iran or, even sooner and closer, after the chaos in Haiti.

Look for an answer in Riga, the beautiful capital of Latvia, a northern European nation conquered by Hitler before we entered World War II. He traded it to Stalin, and Latvians lived under oppression and Russian colonization for two generations.

Fifteen years ago, a Latvian in the U.S., Ojars Kalnins, put me in touch with dissidents there. He showed me on a map of Riga where to position myself and said that an intense, dark-haired young woman would take me to leaders of the Popular Front agitating for freedom from Moscow’s rule.

The route was through Leningrad in the U.S.S.R. because the Communists permitted no air service directly between Riga and the West. At the designated meeting place, the courier signaled me to follow her to the writers of a declaration of independence.

The streets of Riga were dismal; the gray buildings were crumbling; the faces of Latvians, whenever they looked up, were expressionless. There was no place to buy a cup of coffee, lest people congregate. No telephone books were printed, lest people communicate. Americans who never visited the Soviet Union or its captive nations cannot imagine the palpable weight of oppression everywhere.

I datelined my column “Riga, Soviet-occupied Latvia” and followed up with “Free the Baltics” agitation, reminding readers that the U.S. had never recognized the cynical pact transferring that nation’s captivity. This irritated Moscow’s apologists and embarrassed the elder Bush’s administration, which supported Mikhail Gorbachev’s call for “stability.”

But the Baltics, whose annexation by the Soviet Union had no legitimacy in law, were the key to the Soviet empire’s dissolution. When Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia broke free, Ukraine followed (despite Bush’s “chicken Kiev” speech) and the house of Communist cards collapsed.

In the years since, Latvians suffered the anguish of raw democracy. The hundreds of thousands of Russians sent to colonize and dominate were no longer the elite; they now made up a disliked minority that would not go “home.” Grudgingly, Latvia offered citizenship to Russians willing to learn the local language and residency to the rest.

Meanwhile, squabbles proliferated among former political allies. Personalities clash; coalitions are hard. Ten rightist cabinets failed to last a full term and only last week, the Parliament had to turn to an amiable Green Party leader to preside as the nation achieves its dream of membership in NATO and the European Union.

The Kremlin hates that proximity of political freedom and is trying to intimidate its “near abroad.” I recently went back to Riga, site of a conference that rallied support for reformers in Belarus and Ukraine, urging resistance to local despots as well as to Putin’s revanchism.

I took a stroll around the center of Riga with my friend Ojars, now a spokesman for his nation. We were joined by Sarmite Elerte, editor of the newspaper Diena and one of the best journalists in Europe.

Sarmite is the dissident who was my resistance contact in the Soviet days. “Do you feel the difference in the atmosphere here now? The streets are active, and doors are not shut. Cafes are open with delicious cakes, we have bookstores, antiques, new arts, and” ‹ she pointed to an old-new purple structure ‹ “buildings have their colors back. The people talk to each other, and look right at you and not at their feet all the time.”

Latvians, new to democracy, are trying to embrace Europe without forgetting that America is their most reliable friend. In the same way, my other favorite pushed-around people ‹ the Kurds of Iraq ‹ have emerged from a U.S.-protected decade of tribal rivalries to show other Iraqi Muslims how their regional parliamentary progress can be a national example.

Democracy is heady wine and causes initial hangovers. But given a chance to become a habit, the exhilarating experience of freedom enriches and ennobles people. That’s hard to believe until you’ve seen it with your own eyes.


Inga Freivalds
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Washington, DC’s Latvian community