Montreal Olympic medalist mulls over Latvian and Lithuanian confederation

  • 2011-08-10
  • Interview by Linas Jegelevicius

He conjures up the image of an ever soft-spoken, thoughtful and elegant person. However, when it comes to estimations of politics, one should watch out for his bold eruptions, which sometimes catch off-guard even his best comrades. The 55-year-old prominent Lithuanian philosopher, writer, publicist, sportsman, Sajudis activist, political and social activist, came to the limelight back in the mid-1970s, when he sputtered to a bronze medal in swimming in the 1976 Montreal Olympics and reaped multiple awards in the Soviet-era swimming pools. Those who followed his career say he has always been known for a distinguished charisma and determination, as his form in the pool carried him on to acknowledgements in and out of water. Arvydas Juozaitis, who currently resides in the Latvian capital, recently published the book “Riga is No One’s Civilization,” which brings up several outlandish estimations depicting Lithuania and Latvia as “similar countries that, however, do not know how to dance as a pair.”  In hopes to get some dancing lessons, The Baltic Times sat down with Juozaitis for this interview.

You have been living in Riga, Latvia, for three years. What activities are you involved with there? Was your moving triggered by the feeling of being unnecessary in Lithuania?
I will respond to the question indirectly: I feel as if living in both countries simultaneously. I feel being a citizen of the future Latvian and Lithuanian confederation.
You have published the book “Riga is No One’s Civilization” recently. Is there something Lithuanians do not know yet of their brothers, the Latvians?
It seems to me that the popularity of the book (the circulation is about to be sold out) speaks for itself. There are so many comments about it on the Web.

What are the differences of the political and cultural life in Lithuania and Latvia? Are there more similarities or disparities?
A stretch of roughly 700 years differ both countries, 600 years if to be “stricter” on the history. I count it from the battle of Grunwald in 1410, when Latvian tribes’ warriors proceeded to the battle field under Livonian flags. It means like foes. Remember: we were alongside Poland then, which is the divide between our two countries. Last year, when we commemorated the 600th anniversary of the battle of Grunwald in Lithuania, the great day of the Baltics was unheeded by Latvia. There was no news on it in the Latvian media. However, interestingly, on July 15th, Latvians commemorated the 300th anniversary of the entrance of the Russian emperor Peter I into Latvia, exactly 300 years ago. What else can you add to it in drawing the historical parallels?
If we were to speak about the differences between our countries, it is obvious that even the Soviet empire was not able to burn out Latvia’s rational, “cold” German heritage. The latter is obvious even in managing state companies, when the Latvian parties divide the top positions in councils of the state-owned companies. However, there is another example: the theater culture purports Latvians and Lithuanians to be much closer, being intertwined by the baroque feelings and sort of Catholicism.

Why did you come up with this particular name for the book?
The book title was born at the last minute, when there had to be some title. I was writing the book in the same way, which produced my book on Konigsberg [Kaliningrad] five years ago. I call it “embedding” into the cultural and political environment. Of course, I had to learn the Latvian language, which I started learning, yet residing in Kaliningrad, listening to Latvian radio [Juozaitis worked as culture attache of Lithuania’s General Consulate throughout 2004-2009]. Honestly, I was intending to give the book a romantic, historic and literature-related name. However, when I was done with the book, I realized there was no other way to “christen” the born “baby” than naming it straight forwardly by the name it had brought to the world, which means to me nobody’s civilization. The city, which does not belong to anyone, which has not created one cultural space, territory or one code – that is Riga.

When speaking about the grimaces of the Latvian political face, you note that the criteria of Italian and Russian politics impact them. Can you explain? How do you briefly describe Latvian politics?
I said so because Aivars Lembergs is Latvia’s little Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian premier. As for the Russian criteria, they stem from Russia’s powerful influence over Parex bank. Both traditions, ultimately, merge into the large scale of corruption.

What kinds of criteria influence Lithuanian politics? Which country - Lithuania or Latvia - has more “political grimaces?”
Unfortunately, you cannot turn without grimaces in politics. They are a certain kind of theater with money and performers of a show business. Lithuanians have shaken off the myth of the “nation commander,” at least, being entitled to choose their president directly and for all. Not like in Latvia, where people are stripped of the right and forced to face the auction of the presidential “elections.” When Lithuanians choose their president, there is no need to look for “the commander,” which has become a chronic disease in Latvia. If to continue comparing the two countries in that parallel, I cannot imagine in Lithuania the “democratic circus” which they have had in Latvia, when assigning heads of Latvia’s Corruption Prevention and Combating Bureau (KNAB) and then axing them. I see it as an absurdness of Normunds Vilnitis, the head of Latvia’s scandal-ridden KNAB, who was accused of ordering numerous unjustified phone taps of prominent politicians by one of his senior staff members. It, obviously, reveals the weak side of the Latvian Constitution.

There was much talk about unity and close collaboration of all three Baltic countries, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. Why did the nice idea break down? Who is responsible for that?
We will not see those who are guilty for that, as they are anonymous. First of all, let us not forget that Estonia is “Baltic” only for its name. It would have called itself “Scandinavia” a long time ago if the Finnish bay was not there. We all three needed the Baltic Way, as the fight for freedom required a common name. It is good that we were united; however, already back in the 1980s, there were distinct disparities among the three countries. I remember, last year, I was in Tallinn, sent there by Lithuanian Sajudis [National Movement for Independence] to prepare a political declaration. It was then when I encountered the Estonian closeness. Matis Hintas, the Estonian linguist, could not grasp why the Lithuanians spoke about their state of their past. “Why is it necessary?” He was trying to understand my arguments. It seems that, for Estonians, their Kalevopoeg, which is the continuation of the Kalevala, a 19th century work of Finnish epic poetry regarded as the national epic of Finland and which is one of the most significant works of Finnish literature, will always matter more. Therefore, for Lithuanians, there remains only the other way – the Latvian and Lithuanian confederation with its economic and financial space, as that of Denmark, and its historical meaning. We could even communicate by the same language in the confederation. We ought to start teaching the Latvian language as a mandatory subject in Lithuanian schools. If this happens, we and Latvians will be able to create a language which is similar to the “Skandik” language used in the Scandinavian countries. On the other hand, it is necessary to think about a common Latvian and Lithuanian currency, let us say “balts-baltas,” which would serve as the means for the integration of both countries’ economies and the possible confederation. The euro is not that much necessary to us, because we do not have Finland, which Estonia has.

You called one of the chapters of your book: “The Russian minority is like a majority.” Are you afraid of the Russians? Should Latvia be afraid of the Russians?
I did not mention in a word that Latvians have to be afraid of the Russians. On the contrary, I believe that the biggest mistake was not to grant Latvian citizenship to the Russians back then, when it was granted to others. There would have been quite another kind of energy in the Latvian economy and the social life if the Russians had become proud citizens of the independent country. No doubt, if that had been done, Latvia would have been a leader in the economy by now.
Frankly, Latvia has to be afraid of itself and its short-sighted politicking in the “zoo.” That bureaucratic democracy of the country is nothing more than political entropy. What they call “political life” in Latvia is a mere political club, which is attended daily by several hundred of the same people who are sick of each other. Latvia has a perfectly autarchic system.
In the blurb of the book, you describe Lithuania and Latvia as the following: “Latvia and Lithuania are similar [countries], however, still not knowing how to dance the national dance as a pair.” Which of the two is a bad dancer?
Both countries are poor dancers of the collective dance. Latvian song festivals, certainly, are much more impressive than Lithuania’s, as Latvians, as a nation, is born from song festivals. If to take a look at the dancers’ legs-economics, Lithuanians seem to be stronger. If to evaluate the plasticity of the move, Latvians are better. I am speaking of the period throughout 2000-2008. Despite the incongruities, it is necessary to dance together, as anyone who wants to detach both dancers can try to meddle between them.

Which of the countries do you believe to have a better future? Maybe neither? Is Estonia unreachable for the Latvian and Lithuanian confederation to-be?
I met the last New Year on the Estonian border, in Valga, where I was observing the birth of the euro. I have one definite conclusion: Estonia has sailed over to Finland, which is something it had strived for for centuries. Estonia is not on the way with the rest of the two Baltic countries. The Estonian political calendar is adapted to the Finnish mentality and politics. Even speaking of the introduction of the euro, Estonians did it the same day as the Finns who, by the way, are the only ones to have the euro in Scandinavia. Due to the common Livonian past, Latvians still are trying to catch up with the Estonians. Lithuania, I have to admit, is also caught up by the Latvian anachronism. Obviously, it is more due to psychological inertia; however, it is the right time now to recover for both Latvians and Lithuanians, the last real nations of the Balts, and face each other. For Latvia, it is now the right historical moment, stemming from the economic hardships, to take advantage of Lithuania, while Lithuanians are more proactive. Finally, who, if not us, will ensure the sole linguistic space of the Sanskrit language in Europe? Only we, the two sisters, the last nations of the heritage in the world, can do that. It is high time to take each other’s hand.

Lithuania has become free and, with the EU and NATO memberships, is safe as never before. However, according to a Eurostat survey, Lithuanians consider themselves to be as one of the unhappiest citizenry in the entire Europe. How do you explain that? Can an unhappy nation form a successful confederation?
The so-called Lithuanians’ “unhappiness” is not the one that Americans see in contrast to their happiness. We are much deeper. The depth has been determined by our heritage – the one that has come from the layers of consciousness as Europe’s last pagans. In the 14th century, we had no understanding about Christianity which, back then, was on the brink of exhaustion, and was standing on the threshold of Protestantism. Lithuania has been, and remains, a country of “Christian paganism.” As for the “striving for happiness,” written in the U.S. Constitution, I call it an “outcry” of people who have lost their roots. Their several hundred year live tradition – “striving for happiness” - brings horrible disasters to the world. By offering their constitutional and psychological “happiness” to the world, Americans bring “the American democracy” by waging wars and spreading their business ties, which all is not necessary in deeper cultures.

Do you try to imagine Lithuania in 50 years? How will it look?
I reckon if all goes the way it has until now, Lithuania will not pull through the half of the century.

I have to admit your reasoning sounds quite outlandish to many. Is that the way to gouge out a spot in the modern history of Lithuania? What could it be?
I am sure that a sane person does not boast of his face on book covers, and is not obsessed with the idea of his “historical imprint.” Life reminds me of a child which should be taken care of every day - not speaking permanently about the future. What I call “the historical exorcisms” and bowing for the sake of “the history” which plague many Lithuanian politicians have done plenty of evil. My exertions could be measured only by one measurement, which is “being alive today” for your loved ones and the nation. Only it brings “the largest rate of benefit” to yourself and others. The measurement bore in 1987, when I had to make up my mind whether to stay in academic life or go public. The enticement for the first was big; however, I chose the latter.