By the standards of adulthood in some countries, the age of 21, Latvia has reached adulthood in its second period of independence. 21 years ago, in late August, 1991, Latvia’s independence was recognized by the brave little nation of Iceland. Others quickly followed, although it took a while for both the United States and what was left of the Soviet Union/Russia to get on the bandwagon. With that, the issue of formal independence was settled, followed by Latvia’s admission to the United Nations, to other international organizations, and, in 2004, to both NATO and the European Union (EU). Latvia has fully joined “the community of nations” and all that.
The reason Latvian engaged in a struggle to regain their independence was, in large part, because they were not free, not able to discuss the status of their nation without fear of arrest or persecution, they were unable to make key decisions of economic policy, they were not free to leave the USSR or even to travel internally with full freedom. With independence, many of these freedoms were renewed, at least at the national level. The nation state was free within the rules of the international communities it had joined.
Under the expanded freedoms of assembly and expression of the perestroika period of the late 1980s, Latvian society was able to vent 40 years of frustration and anger at the injustices, oppression and absurdity of the Soviet occupation. This meant that most “liberated” (unleashed, rather than free) expression was, in a sense, one dimensional. The system was bad, Communists were bad, the Soviet economy was unable to meet consumer needs, etc., etc.. By Soviet standards, to be able to criticize, even to rant against the existing order was an unprecedented form of “free expression” of opinions almost universally shared. This was something quite different from what was understood as free expression in the West, that is, at times a cacophony of diverse voices and viewpoints.
To be sure, there were debates during the “awakening” movement of the late 1980s, among them, on whether Latvia should seek autonomy inside a reformed USSR (whatever that meant), or whether there should be complete independence (which happened, essentially, in the middle of this incomplete debate). Independence was suddenly a reality, rather than a goal to which progress could be controlled or paced. There could be little more debate on this issue.
After 1991, so-called political parties were formed across the entire political spectrum, from ultranationalists to revanchists, who wanted a return to the Soviet Union, perhaps with some modifications. To some extent, there was free political debate among these parties, but it was largely based on superficial preconceived ideas of what conservatism, social democracy, even nationalism meant. After 40 years of occupation, preceded by six years of authoritarian rule, there was little or no practical democratic tradition in Latvia. The country had only been a rather shambolic parliamentary republic up to the bloodless coup in May, 1934, just 16 years after declaring independence from Czarist Russia, hardly a model of freedom and openness.
Latvia regained its independence never really having had any tradition of democratic societal debate (OK, historians may contradict me), at least not in modern times (post WWII) and therefore in the living memory of anyone except 90-somethings. Latvians, during the freedom struggles of the late 80s , experienced freedom as the license to vent their own, largely similar rage and pain, without having to listen to other, noticeably different voices. One was, after all, standing in a largely harmonic choir. Instead of respecting diverse different opinions, there was just “us” and a “them” whose power and authority was waning. “Them” were only capable of responding with “Soviet” arguments and warnings of the dire consequences of separatism that largely fell on deaf ears or were laughed at. Such “debates” with darkly comical, pernicious buffoons (hard line Communists) hardly prepared anyone for serious and respectful political debate.
Later, debates in the Saeima also reflected this lack of democratic tradition, as well as the limited political and economic education (in a modern Western sense) of may parliamentarians. Certainly, the parliament was not a glowing example for society at large. Looking at present day attitudes toward free expression, non-conformity, opposing opinions – never mind such “hot” issues as gay rights – it is clear that 21 years ago Latvia regained its national independence, but in 21 years it has failed to become a truly free, democratic society. The independence came, perhaps, too fast and easy, the freedom is still struggling at the everyday, practical, interpersonal and intergroup level. Latvians are still “free” to rant at others, to vent their own rage, but reach for the tools of repression when others do the same, but from different positions. So thanks for the independence, but please, bring on some real freedom, the kind where people aren’t threatened by diversity, open debate and tolerance.