In comparison with the original birthday of Latvia, on November 18, when the National Council proclaimed an independent state at the National Theatre in 1918, the spring celebration of May 4 comes at a more cheerful time of the year and brings back memories of events that the majority of the Latvian citizens have experienced themselves.
The day when the newly elected Supreme Council of the then Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic had to vote on the Declaration for the Restoration of the Independence of the Republic of Latvia was sunny, and the leaves of the linden trees in the yard of the Saeima building, where thousands of people had gathered since early morning, were already lush and green.
The people were there because they had voted for their trusted candidates from the list of the Popular Front, and expected specific action from them. The Popular Front had gained a slim majority at the parliament, which was elected, convened, and worked according to the Soviet rules and Charters. However, for the first time in more than 50 years, there had been 2 election lists – the Communist Party list and that of the Popular Front.
That was already a victory, but the nation had given the Popular Front a mandate – to renew the independent Latvian state. For that purpose, a two-thirds majority was needed, and technically there were a couple of votes missing. Therefore the crowds outside the building were counting the casted votes pro and chanting “Freedom! Freedom!” The stressful meeting took many hours, and at the end of the day, the members who had supported independence came out tired and victorious. They joined the crowd on the Daugava embankment, where the independence act was publicly celebrated.
However, visiting schools and universities and talking about the events that brought about the restoration of the sovereign Latvian state on May 4, 1991 – August 21, 1991, I have come to realize that for many young people this is an episode from their history textbook, and not an immediate experience. Moreover, many of the young people have grown up with a skeptical view of their own fatherland.
I usually tell them that Latvia as an EU member state is compared to its peers – the countries that joined the EU at the same time: the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary. Yes, we have had many things in common in our history – we have had revolutionary transformations from totalitarian socialist societies into full democracies, from a planned economy to a market one. But in comparison with our southern partners, the three Baltic states – and Latvia in particular – had to go through all the ordeals of breaking away from an empire, the Soviet union. This also meant that we did not have any prerequisites of a sovereign state.
We had to start from square one: there was not a single pair of boots for the Latvian army, the Soviet soldiers stayed in their barracks until 1994, and the militia was only partly loyal (the infamous OMON history is a sad proof of that). There were no borders, no customs, no money, no banks, no pension savings – no nothing.
The ethnic divide was 50/50, with almost 50% non-Latvians. The social tension was immense, with a huge drop in production and a loss of former markets. But still, the country was re-born almost from ashes, with no street violence and clashes, except for the OMON armed attack on January 20.
Since then Latvia has successfully created its own legislation, formed independent structures of public administration and justice, a state auditor, and a Constitutional Court. Latvia has its own army, police, social security system, and diplomatic service. It has built borders in the east and taken them down between northern and southern neighbors.
Latvia has created its currency, the lats (pegged to the euro), and has kept the lats stable against financial calamities and high inflation to qualify now for possibly joining the euro zone in 2014.
Latvia has gained a voice in international affairs, has been able to adapt its legislation to be admitted to the European Union and NATO, and is currently a solidary and responsible member state, taking its share in international missions as well.
After the deep financial and economic crisis, in 2008-2010, with the GDP dropping by 25% and unemployment rising from 4% to 18%, Latvia has been able to demonstrate resilience and a capacity to take unpopular decisions, as well as to introduce severe austerity measures.
In spite of many ill forecasts, Latvia has restructured its economy toward export production and has experienced stable growth for more than five quarters. Our credit ratings have risen, our production is growing by 9% annually, exports have risen by more than 30%, and incoming tourism has grown by 20% for the last two years.
Therefore the point of reference is not in the south or in the west. The point of reference is in the east, in the countries that shared the same rule and destiny before 1990. And if you look at Latvia’s progress from this perspective, it is much more surprising.
When I tell this to schoolchildren, they stay perplexed for some minutes and then say pensively, “Perhaps we should not plan on going abroad after leaving school…”