“Latvia is a cultural powerhouse…we are blessed talent,” says Latvian Ambassador to the United States and Mexico, Andrejs Pildegovics.
Latvia is a Baltic country with over 2 million people and is about the size of West Virginia. Located between the other Baltic countries of Estonia and Lithuania, it is bordered to the east by Russia and southeast by Belarus; its Northern border lies on the Baltic Sea, south of Sweden.
Late last week, Ambassador Pildegovics took the time to sit with the joltleft.com’s James Lewis over an hour plus interview discussing various issues of Latvian culture and history, American-Latvian strategic alliance, NATO, the European Union, global economic recovery and the Ambassador’s recent State Department sponsored trip to Alaska. The results of this interview will comprise a three-part joltleft.com exclusive series on Latvia. This part will focus primarily on a rough history of Latvia, especially its greatest domestic challenge: a highly diverse ethnic population.
When asked about his trip to Alaska, the ambassador called it “the time of his life” and spoke highly of the hospitality of the people. He noted that he was able to meet with some 20 Latvians living in Alaska to celebrate with songs, dances, and stories at the midsummer festival which is an important Latvian holiday given their northern geographic location. He stated that he was especially impressed by meeting and learning about the native Alaskan population that have been “living, enjoy life, and struggling” in the harsh Arctic environment. Much of the trip also focused on energy, energy security and energy transport issues, high priority for Latvia as it fully integrates into the European Union (Part 2.)
With a discussion of Latvia’s arts and culture, Ambassador Pildegovics began to explained joyfully that Latvia has five nationals performing at the New York Metropolitan Opera, four singers and a conductor.
The ambassador invited joltleft.com to attend his celebration of the Declaration of the Restoration of the Independence of the Republic of Latvia featuring the jazz quintet, Maris Briezkalns Quintet and it was a truly remarkable show.
Ambassador Pildegovics believes Latvia’s wealth of talent is due to the ethnic mixture of peoples that make up the Latvian State.
However, Latvia’s ethnic mixture was not always peaceful as Ambassador Pildegovics explains that: “the social mix was changed by force.” Latvia and the Baltic State have been a battleground for much of the 20th century. Nazi Germany occupied the region followed by the Soviet Union; Latvia remained the only Baltic State to retain a de jure embassy in the United States during the Soviet occupation. Latvia redeclared its independence in 1991; it joined NATO and the EU in 2004 with plans to adopt the Euro on January 1, 2014. The ambassador was kind enough to provide Latvia and the USA: From Captive Nation to Strategic Partner for this series.
The occupation of Latvia was a “traumatic experience” and the “social fabric was disrupted in a brutal way” according to Ambassador Pildegovics. During WWII, Latvia lost nearly all of its German population, who were recalled by Hitler as well as its Jewish population to the Holocaust. During the war, one-third of Latvians died. During the Soviet occupation, Latvia experienced a fierce Russification policy in the 1970s/80s. Over the Soviet occupation, many Latvians were deported to Siberia and nearly 10%, chose voluntary exile. Ambassador Pildegovics called it a “challenging experience” for Latvia.
When independence was redeclared, ethnic Latvians were nearly a minority and some 50,000 Soviet military, active or pensioners, lived in Latvia. At this time, most non-native Latvian did not speak Latvian, a non-Germanic/non-Romance/non-Slavic, Indo-European tongue.
Latvia introduced the policy of an “Integrated Society” to shift away from the 1990s culture of two individual societies: one Latvian and one of foreign nationals. Ambassador Pildegovics spoke of the program as attempting to include all interested people, saying: “We want them to be citizens but it has to be a choice.”
One key policy was the teaching of Latvian. Few non-native Latvians spoke Latvian at the Redeclaration and over past 20 years, Latvia has had “remarkable success” with 80% proficiency in the language within non-native populations, according to Ambassador Pildegovics. The number of non-native Latvians that are not citizens has fallen from 35% to 17% and inter-ethnic marriages are nearly 20%. Inter-ethnic marriages have a special significance to Ambassador Pildegovics; his wife is a native Russian. The ambassador also said that 30% of Parliament’s members are ethnic minorities and the mayor of Riga, the Latvian capital, is Russian.
Ambassador Pildegovics spoke of how Latvia and Latvians had “avoided riots and large scale demonstrations and social unrest” calling Latvia a “great example of tolerance.” He related a story of participating in a million person human chain reaching 400 miles. Ambassador Pildegovics did cite “heated debates…but no one crossed the red line into social unrest.” The ambassador said that Latvia “takes action not waiting until problems mount and build up and explode in a violent and disruptive way.”
Ambassador Pildegovics gave the example of Latvia’s primary education system. The State funds primary education in eight languages including Latvian, Polish, Ukrainian, Belarusian, and Hebrew. He said one of the best schools in Riga is a Jewish school taught in Hebrew. Classes are taught in ethnic languages until 7th grade and then transition into Latvian with a final breakdown of 60% Latvian/40% minority language. This has helped increase the number of non-native Latvians speaking Latvian and improved university attendance for non-Latvian minorities.
When given this question proposed by an joltleft.com reader, “If you could tell every American one thing about Latvia what would it be?” the ambassador responded with what could be a poem:
“Riga is a crossroads;
Riga is a meeting place in Europe;
We are the Istanbul of the North,
Meeting between East and West”
Ambassador Pildegovics explained Riga’s multicultural dynamic allows you to meet friends from different countries and offers a place to start your journey or your business in the region and cited that Riga serves 90 regional destinations and Americans do not need visas to visit.
“We don’t want to be the last frontier; we are not the final frontier. We used to be a battleground…for the 21st century…a crossroads, a meeting place.”