Unrest in Ukraine Makes Me Wonder About Latvia’s Future
For the last few years, I’ve gone to the Positivus Music Festival every summer in Salacgrīva Latvia. That festival is like a version of the Austin City Limits Music Festival (or maybe the Coachella Music Festival), but for the Baltic States. It draws people from across the region for a three-day festival in the nicest part of summer.
The main reason I go to Positivus is that I have a group of Latvian friends –some of whom I met at South By Southwest— that I consider as dear as family. It sounds strange, but I feel more at home visiting the capital city of Riga, Latvia than I do visiting Dallas.
Once a part of the Soviet Union, Latvia is now a member of the European Union and is part of NATO. Over the last few years, I’ve watched Riga embrace more and more tourism, with the arrival of cruise ships docking daily and flocks of pedicabs emerging to serve the hordes of summer tourists. I’ve even seen the emergence of Riga hipsters, many of whom now have sleek bicycles that they race down the flat cobblestone streets, easily passing pokey Soviet-era streetcars on the long twilight nights of the northern summer.
Unlike most years, I’m not sure if I’m going back to Latvia this summer. Sure, there are friends to see and brand-new Latvian babies to play “This Little Piggy” with (since such games are unknown to Latvian babies.) I really want to see what the enormous new Latvian National Library looks like now that it’s completed and open to the public. (When I had my behind-the-scenes tour, the National Library was just a construction site where you needed a hard hat and a set of blueprints!)
Unlike previous summers when I’ve been in Latvia, there is now unrest in Eastern Europe following the Russian taking of the Crimea and Russia sending forces into the Ukraine. Depending on which reports you believe, unmarked Soviet-era Russian tanks may now be operating in Ukraine, and there are reports that at least Ukrainian military plane has been shot down inside Ukraine.
This continuing unrest in Ukraine is very worrying for me. One of the reasons given by Russia for the taking of the Crimea was because of the rights of the Russians (and Russian-speakers) living in the Ukraine.
Percentages for Russian speakers in the Crimea have been estimated at near 77 precent, while in Ukraine overall, only about 17 precent of the population is Russian, though percentages are higher in the Eastern part of Ukraine.
Partly due to the policy of sending many Russians to non-Russian speaking countries during Soviet Times, the population of Latvia is about 30 precent Russian while that of neighboring NATO member Estonia is about 25 precent Russian.
If Russian forces can come into Ukraine on the pretext of protecting the Russian speakers in the Ukraine, how much hope do my Latvian friends have of having lives free of unmarked Russian tanks?
This simmering regional unrest is highlighted by the fact in June the 42nd annual NATO Baltic exercises (Baltops) kicked off in Riga, Latvia. Baltops involves thousands of troops and aircraft and ships from multiple NATO countries. It’s not an unusual thing to have these exercises in the area, it just may be a case of poking the tiger.
Given that Putin is very against NATO moving any further east—and there is now much talk of NATO situating forces long-term along the eastern border of the alliance (in order to respond quickly if there is an attack) there is much potential for increased unrest in the area.
I’m glad that while President Obama was visiting Eastern Europe in June, he announced the “European Reassurance Initiative” pledging one billion dollars to help with the security of the region. The money still has to be approved by Congress.
Since the end of the Soviet Union, many things have changed in the lives of my Lativan friends. They can listen to whatever rock music they like, without fear of going to prison for it.They can speak to foreigners without fear and they can organize rock music festivals with acts from around the globe.
While life was somewhat difficult for my Latvian friends during the global recession —and many people from Latvia emigrated to other European Union countries– it would break my heart if I couldn’t choose to go to Latvia in the summertime. I’d miss taking off my shoes whenever stepping into someone’s house, eating homemade pink Latvian soup that’s made with beets, swimming in the Old Daguva river with the Latvian swans and wiggling the toes of the new baby Lativans whom I hope will have have lovely European Union passports when they grow up.
NATO, I’m counting on you to keep my friends safe.