Sarmīte Ēlerte, ex-Minister of Culture of Latvia, talks about the successes and challenges in integrating the Russian-speaking community in Latvian society
Latvian politician and ex-Minister of Culture, Sarmīte Ēlerte asserts that the big capital of oligarchs cannot have legal origins, while handouts to whitewash themselves cannot justify robbing society. “Business is something completely different,” the 56-year old politician feels. Stolen money will always be used for discord and resistance to democratic changes in the country. Ēlerte’s personal achievement lies in the fact that the very notion of oligarch has forever lost any positive or even neutral connotation in Latvian media space. The country’s mass media no longer calls these people successful businessmen.
UW: Latvia quickly walked the way on which Ukraine has not even taken the first step. EU membership helps it to build new political relations with Moscow. What challenges did your country face during the European integration process?
– Latvia’s greatest achievements during its years of EU membership have been the development of institutions and systems that help us overcome corruption successfully. I’m not saying that we don’t have problems. The greatest difficulty is to teach each individual Latvian to have a sense of responsibility. The state must create a viable system, but it is each citizen that has to be responsible for his or her own education, development, financial status and way of life. Free press, an independent judicial system, competitive business and quality standards – all these evolve out of the conscious and responsible choice of participants in the process. The structural funds of the European Union were instrumental in conducting reform in Latvia. However, it is dangerous to get used to the thinking that this will always be the case. European funding is a short-term incentive; it should be understood meanwhile that no one is obligated to help or pay for you. This is your country. As far as Ukraine is concerned, I think you have to choose whether you want to live under democratic standards, which provide for the huge personal responsibility of every member of society, or in a post-Byzantine, or more accurately, a post-Soviet, country. These things do not mix. Ukraine’s problem lies in the lack of social agreement regarding what the state should look like. Russia or the EU – this is not simply about formal relations, it’s a civilisation choice. Europe is based on the tradition of respect of law and individuality developed and in operation over many centuries. Laws do not work in post-Soviet conditions.
We have a common policy with the EU. Latvia is a small country and cannot be neutral next to such a giant as Russia. In 1990, the latter declared that it will no longer buy our sprats. This was a significant component of our export, and it’s a good thing that we immediately turned to the European market. Quality requirements there were completely different, and this also played an important role in our competitiveness.
UW: It seems that the Russians that live in Latvia are very different from those living in Russia. Have you managed to fully integrate them in society? What were your successes and miscalculations?
First of all, what went on in our country for 50 years is impossible to change in 20. Secondly, Latvia is a democratic country. No one was sent away in the 1990s, everyone living here who has learned the Latvian language and a little of the national history can get citizenship. In this sense, Latvia and Estonia are similar and differ from Lithuania, where a relatively mild resolution of the problem, inherited from Soviet times, was proposed. Anyone who wants to become a member of society can do that. Of those people who feel alienated, but continue to live here, no one wants to emigrate to Russia or Belarus. Just as in France or the UK, those who live in Latvia must respect its culture, language and identity of the country. Of course, Latvian was and will be the only state language. The illusions supported by some politicians and parties that Latvia will have two state languages and society will be made up of two communities are delusive, because this will never happen. This would lead to endless conflicts and would have a negative impact on society as a whole. Each person has the right to his or her own individuality and the opportunity to choose the extent of integration. A colleague in my party, who is currently an MP, Andrejs Judins says of himself: “I’m a Latvian of Russian origin.” This is his choice, and he wants to be part of the Latvian nation. Another will say: “I am a Russian and live in Latvia.” People should not simply know, but also use the state language. In this lies respect and integration in society. As far as mistakes are concerned, politics was not always consistent; to this day we have a very Soviet system of language segregation, starting with kindergartens: there are Russian and Latvian ones; the same applies to schools. In the early 2000s, we conducted educational reform, which provided that 60% of subjects in secondary schools must be taught in the national language. This has worked very well: Most young people now know Latvian, which was not the case during the Soviet era. But to say that we are segregating our children – these are old stereotypes. They should all learn together in compliance with the rights of ethnic minorities regarding their cultural autonomy, but without any division in the education process. A movement in this direction should have been begun earlier, delicately, but consistently.
UW: In the heat of pre-election debates with your competitor for the position of Mayor of Riga, Nils Ušakovs, a representative of a pro-Russian party, on a Russian-speaking channel, you did not wish to switch to Russian. Was your decision motivated by the fact that the Russian-speaking population of Latvia would never master the state language if it doesn’t hear it? Subsequently, the Russian language information resources of your country added fuel to the problem. Ušakovs, who referred to himself as “the Mayor of all residents of Riga” played on this against you. Ultimately, he won the election and you lost. Why did that happen?
People in Latvia are tired of crises, and the need for stability is palpable at every step. Of course, the last phrase can have any content. From 2009 until last year, when you look at results of elections to local governments throughout Latvia, stability is more or less a key slogan of victorious politicians. As voters think, things may not be better than they were, as long as things don’t get worse. At the same time, people’s perception of what is a modern city, is somewhat simplified. A city is not just pipes and municipal issues; it’s also culture, investments, business, education, bureaucracy, corruption, and so on. People feel that it is necessary to mobilise for national elections, while local elections are less important. The pro-Russian Harmony Centre represented by Ušakovs did quite well in mobilising its electorate. His voters were more active than ours – the national-oriented ones. Of course, Riga’s ethnic structure and many other factors have contributed to this.
The task of any democratic political party is the consolidation of all electoral groups around its own national democratic development programme. In my view, the negative role of Harmony Centre lies in the fact that it continues to operate through a scheme of contradiction and opposition, supporting the identity of its electorate on the basis of “we oppose” or “we and they”. Harmony Centre and its predecessor, the more radical For Human Rights in United Latvia, focus on disintegration. While I say that society should have a single foundation (human rights, democracy, national state, language). Some politicians that supposedly “yearn for harmony” consider that keeping Latvians and Russians separate is the right thing to do. But I don’t see any future in this. This will only lead to tension between citizens, which people are gradually becoming tired of.
UW: Nils Ušakovs is no longer a Soviet person. He is a young politician, speaks very good Latvian and is a Latvian citizen, but is building public relations with supporters based on outdated communist symbols. Why is this Soviet nostalgia being artificially supported?
What I say about consolidation is completely logical. Look at the identity of emigrants. Soviet mentality is its integral part. Until 2002, when Putin came to power, there were no celebrations in Latvia on May 9. When he decided that the Soviet Union had fallen apart too soon and its former republics have to be returned to the empire, he set a task of reviving the Great Patriotic myth in some places, and establishing a new one in others. This included partial vindication of Stalin, and had some impact on us. Russia does not hide its intent to develop its influence on former Soviet territories. There are more Russians living in London than in Riga, but they don’t march along the streets there on May 9. You can live with your memories, but the revival of Victory Day celebrations are the core of the counteraction to social consolidation in independent states. Putin’s Russia is still counting on political revenge in the geographic boundaries of the former USSR.
Sarmīte Ēlerte is a politician, journalist and public figure in Latvia. In 1990–2008, she was Editor-in-Chief of the Diena (Day) newspaper. From 2010 until 2011, she was Minister of Culture in the second government of Valdis Dombrovskis. Ms. Ēlerte founded the Zigfrīds Meierovics Association for Progressive Change. In November 2007, together with Sandra Kalniete, she initiated the “umbrella revolution”, a large-scale protest in Riga, demanding separation of the government from oligarchs, dissolution of the Saeima (the Latvian Parliament) and dismissal of corrupt officials. Then Prime Minister of Latvia, Aigars Kalvītis, was forced to resign. In early June she was the candidate from Unity, a national-liberal party, in the Riga Mayoral election, but lost to Nils Ušakovs, a representative of the pro-Russian party Harmony Centre and the former mayor, who was elected to this position for the second time.