The Latvian Diaspora

The government to be formed after the snap elections will have to define more specifically a sensitive area in the Latvian current problem zone - the diaspora policy. During months before election we witnessed higher than usual activity in the sector: the Ministry of Culture produced a policy document claiming to achieve a double aim – outline society integration policy and create the policy of national identity, embracing the diaspora issue as well. The Foreign Affairs ministry signed a Memorandum of Cooperation with the World Federation of Free Latvians, and three ministers signed another memorandum – that of coordinating the diaspora policy efforts. Why is it so important to define attitudes and plan action in this field?

Oxford Dictionary of English explains the term diaspora as dispersion of any people outside their original homeland. In the vernacular, the phenomenon of emigree Latvians has acquired this name relatively recently, only after the regaining of independence in mid 90ies.

Before, we spoke of “emigrants” or “exile”, and that was mainly the rhetorics of the soviet period, which looked at people who had escaped the communist system as traitors of the cause. Sometimes, they were referred to as world Latvians or “foreign Latvians”, using a euphemism. Before that, just after the war, we spoke of refugees, calling a spade a spade.

However, the very fact that at different times Latvians living outside Latvia have been called differently, tells that there are several generations of diaspora Latvians. And the historical background and reasons for leaving Latvia have been different.

Latvians have left this territory even before the state of Latvia was established, we can find descendants of old settlers (end of 19th century) in Russia, people who were looking for opportunities to farm. The early 20th century has seen many leave for Latin America and Australia in a hope of finding luck. The next biggest wave of exodus was the World War I, with its huge flow of refugees, whole factories were evacuated, mainly eastwards.  Many of the refugees returned when free Latvia was established, but many descendants are still there, in Russia, the Ukraine, the Caucasus.

The World War II brought a fatal loss to the Latvian nation, around 200 000 people, whole families, fled to the West at the end of the war, in fear of the atrocities of the Soviet power. After Displaced Persons’ camps in Germany they dispersed all over the globe, settling mainly in the USA, Canada, Sweden, Germany, Great Britain and Australia. There Latvians not only adapted in an admirable way, but also organized themselves in order to practice the Latvian culture, education and civic-political activities.

In soviet times people did not leave the country extensively. But it was not because they liked it so much. It was because the borders were closed. Mainly Jews and dissidents, though, found a way to emigrate.

Newly gained freedom and opened borders have caused a third wave of exodus for a myriad of reasons.  Many young school leavers have found scholarships in Western universities and good jobs after graduation, the free labour market lures people to countries with higher living standard, and what is most important, even after 20 years of independence people in Latvia are destined to a lower pay, especially in the country-side, because among other things, the area payments the Latvian farmers receive are three if not four times lower than the average in Europe. Moreover, the economic recession following the 26% drop in the GDP in 2009 left huge gaps in the employment sector of Latvia.  This has forced about 200 000 people of all ages and nationalities seek better living abroad.

Week interplay of the old and the new diaspora in the host countries is only part of the problem. The huge number of ex-patriots threatens Latvia with a demographic crisis, as well as creates shortage of work-hands and that of intellect.

During years of growth the Latvian state was quite generous to its diaspora needs. Schools, teachers, courses, books, home pages for communication and summer camps were financed lavishly, the political will was manifested in a special assignments minister. Now when the diaspora has grown uncontrollably, the austerity steps of the government have annulled these initiatives. At present, noticeable political will has been shown to restart policy instruments.   However, the rate of the economic recovery will decide the feasibility of the good intentions offered in the above documents.

In the discourse around the subject, more substantiality has emerged. For instance, Rolands Lappuķe, the newly appointed Special Assignments Ambassador for cooperation with diaspora, has an opinion, that it would be unrealistic to aim at full repatriation. He holds that being part-time Latvian is a more realistic solution for the time being. We should solicit all possible contribution from our people outside Latvia. One brilliant example of how to manage this is the 3rd World Congress of Latvian Scientists to be held in 24-27 October, in Rīga, which will measure the scientific potential of Latvians globally. As president of the Academy of Sciences, Juris Ekmanis said “Science has no homeland, but a scientist has one.”

In the political plane, solution has to be offered in the matter of liberalizing the issue of double citizenship, which has practically been closed after 1995. It is regarded as a powerful factor in retaining a link with one’s patria, moreover, it endows one with the right to vote. However, it means opening the citizenship Law, which has always been a hot issue in Latvia. That is why, granting it to children born of Latvian subjects abroad, would be a relatively easy task. Granting it to spouses of subjects is another matter. And geographic prioritisation may occur with descendants of citizens: those in the West being regarded as “safer” Latvians than those in the East by certain political parties in Latvia.

The need to help diaspora Latvians maintain Latvian identity will always be there, its fulfilment will depend two factors – on the resourcefulness and the prosperity of the public sector in Latvia and on the attitude of the family and the person itself.

Karina Pētersone, Director, Latvian Institute