Unlike the Poles, Jews and Russians, Klaipeda’s Latvians are forgotten

  • 2013-05-15
  • Interview by Linas Jegelevicius

Sixty-seven-year-old Gotfridas Tapinas, the agile and spry chairman of the Latvian association Atputa in the Klaipeda region, today is a whole lot more than simply vexed. “I got this impression that the local Latvians are not of interest to Lithuania, nor to Klaipeda or Latvian authorities,” he claimed, handing me a bunch of papers, some handwritten. “It perplexes me that the local bus drivers driving from Klaipeda to Latvia are forbidden, due to some EU regulation, to pick up non-Lithuanian passengers. Certainly, the Latvians are mostly ill-effected by the ban. Although we’ve addressed the Lithuanian and Latvian governments, local authorities, nothing has changed, leaving the community in doubt whether this is not an effort of a broader campaign against the Latvians,” Tapinas fumed. Insisting that The Baltic Times interview may help get the attention of those with the authority to overturn the ruling, we sat down for a conversation on a larger range of Latvian issues.

Does Atputa mean anything in Latvian?
The word means relax in Latvian. Our association unites 75 members. Collecting the membership fee is a big issue, of course.

What was the start of the organization?
Well, the association got off to an official start on May 21, 2001, after it was registered by the Lithuanian Legal Entity Register. Through the nearly 60 years of life in Lithuania - originally, I’m from the resort settlement of Sventoji, but for the past many years I’ve been living in Klaipeda - I’ve always been a big time fidget unable to lead a quiet lifestyle. Frankly, during the Soviet times, I’d drawn the KGB’s attention because of that. To answer your question, still before the association’s birth in 2001, I kept a keen eye on what was going on in the Latvian community here in Klaipeda. To be honest, what I saw I really disliked as the activities could be described in two words: money-making. Since I don’t see ethnic things to be exclusively about money-making, by establishing Atputa I sought to put an end to the approach and focus on retaining and promoting ethnicity instead.

Can you explain what you mean by “money-making”?
Having restored the independence of Lithuania, all ethnic minorities sprung up at the emerging new opportunities, and the Latvian community was not an exception. But all those former chairmen of the local Latvian community cared only about how to hustle some money from someone, as their chairmanship was often marked with ups-and-downs. Atputa for me, from the beginning, was a cultural tool, not a money-making machine.

Your tone suggests matters don’t go well for Atputa lately…
You’ve got the right inkling. Although there’s an Ethnic Minority Center in Klaipeda that encompasses over a dozen of various ethnic communities, the Latvian organizations have been left over the board.

What do you mean by that?
The bottom line is: we get nothing from it, as well as from all other institutions. The local authorities can help the ethnic communities only symbolically as they mostly rely on the help of their own states and local embassies and consulates. I am really positively envious of the Russians, Poles and Jews, who are lavished with attention and, sure, respective resources. In that sense, the Latvians are left to float in the ocean on their own. Therefore, we’re languishing.

Don’t you write projects for the grants as before?
As I said, I used to do that a lot, both for the local municipality and the Ethnic Minority Department at the Lithuanian Ministry of Culture as well as the Latvian authorities. But I stopped [writing them], seeing the mockery, which I call the miserable petty money given to us. Most of the time, Atputa would get some 1,000 or 1,500 litas at best. Meanwhile, other local ethnic communities would pocket a whole lot more than that. I remember the authorities coughed up a mere 500 litas for the 10th anniversary of the Latvian society, another Latvian organization in the Klaipeda region. Isn’t it sheer humiliation? Just because of this I stopped applying for help.

What about the Latvian government’s help?
I applied for help through different Latvian institutions as well, like the Latvian Ministry of Culture and some departments as well as through some Latvian culture organizations and NGOs. But my efforts have not yielded a worn-out cent. When I see, for example, local Poles raking up money given by the Polish government and other Polish organizations I feel very bad for the Latvians. When a while ago, invited by the Poles to a celebration in Vilnius, I was brought into their community house, a spacious, resplendent and well-furnished and technically equipped building, rather more resembling a royal’s residence than an ethnic community’s house, I caught myself thinking: “Gee, I’m scampering like an eager squirrel in a barrel unable to garner a few cents…” When Atputa had an office on Liepaja Street, I was ashamed [when] walking anybody into the mildew-smelling cage-like premises… Look, speaking of the Klaipeda Poles, they’re already enjoying having the Polish Catholic Church in Klaipeda. As much the Poles, as much the local Russian, Belarusian and Jewish communities are doing well. Not the Latvians. I can perhaps be grateful only to the Latvian cultural organizations that send over Latvian ethnographic art bands to Klaipeda from time to time. They really cheer us up here.
If somebody approaches you in Klaipeda today asking about help in learning Latvian in Klaipeda, what would you tell the person?
That I cannot help him. Again, due to a lack of financing.

Won’t that lead to the Latvians’ assimilation and vanishing of the culture and language?
I bet you know the answer already. Sure, it will. I don’t have any grudge against the state of Latvia, but I cannot stand the Latvian bureaucrats who ignore our needs. There’s a lot more other discrimination the Latvians are dealing with besides the lack of financing and dubious criteria of our projects’ evaluation. What makes the Klaipeda region’s Latvians berserk and helpless is the issue of local buses going to Latvia… I am sure you’ve heard of this.

I’ve seen some coverage on TV. Can you say, please, what it was all about?
Well, first of all, I cannot believe that, through the years of EU money pouring in, the road from Klaipeda to Liepaja is still pothole-ridden, as if it were a road in the rural countryside. When are they going to fix it? Besides the road, local Latvians demand reinstating the bus route Klaipeda-Palanga-Rucava-Liepaja-Skrunda-Saldus-Riga and allowing Klaipeda drivers on this route, as well as the international itinerary Klaipeda-Riga pick up Latvians in Klaipeda. Until now the drivers, following some silly EU regulation, are not supposed to sell tickets to non-Lithuanian citizens on the international routes. The EU, in fact, doesn’t forbid the so-called cabotage transportation, but, unexplainably and inexcusably, Lithuania and Latvia have not yet stricken an agreement on it until now. The former Lithuanian Transport and Communication minister [E. Masiulis] told us he had got in touch with his Latvian counterpart regarding the issue, but as far as we know he has never heard back from him. How long can the authorities sneer and humiliate the Latvians on this side of the border? Unlike many other states, Latvia doesn’t have an honorary consul in Klaipeda. In fact, there was one, but he was more preoccupied with self-advertising than with the Latvian community.
Sadly, being rich and well-known, he couldn’t help the association find a more appropriate and cleaner office than that one, hole-like, on Liepaja Street.

Where is your office now?
At my home. We had to move out due the mounting electric bills which, with no money in the pockets, we could not settle. The city would also require us to pay a considerable garbage collection fee when we would not produce any [litter].

Where do the Latvians gather now?
In summer, we gather somewhere in the dunes and the beach. In winter, at public events.

Is there any weekend Latvian primary school or kindergarten in Klaipeda?
Are you kidding me? This should be out of the question by now for you. Facing the difficulties and the humiliating treatment, most local Latvians prefer being identified as Lithuanians, not who they really are.
And those out of diapers, the youth and adults, leave Lithuania in search for a better life abroad.

What language do you speak at home?
When my mom was alive, we’d always speak Latvian at home. I always speak Latvian to my brother, but I tend to speak Lithuanian to my wife, who is Lithuanian. To tell the truth, she had advanced in the Latvian language at one point of our marital life, but perhaps I was too soft, not insisting on her continuing mastering Latvian (grins).

Are the Lithuanian and Latvian languages indeed so much alike as is claimed?
Indeed, both languages are very similar. There’s an abundance of similarly sounding words meaning the same things. Particularly the Samogitian dialect is akin to the Latvian language. Both nations have to be proud of the commonalities.

Could you name some Lithuanians off top of your head who have most contributed to the cause of the Lithuanian and Latvian cultural relationships?
Certainly, the first name that pops up in my mind is Arvydas Juozaitis, who has done tremendous work in scrutinizing our histories and cultures, laying out his research in a book. There’re some other people as well that could be mentioned.

How often do you visit Latvia?
As often as my miserable pension allows me. The last time I was there was in February. My Latvia-bound trips become more frequent in summer. However, the issue of unsettled cabotage transportation restricts my trips from being more often.

Don’t you ever think of quitting the association and enjoying your calm life? Perhaps getting back into photography?
I don’t. I don’t see myself sitting on the furnace yet (grins). I am an Aquarius, according to the zodiac; maybe from this comes my agility and spryness. I really cannot yet strangle that little worm itching all over my body. I want to sustain and promote the Latvian identity in the region and Lithuania as long as I am on Earth.