Succeeding in making fish from fish soup

  • 2000-11-23
  • Ilze Arklina
The 82nd anniversary of Latvia's independence on Nov. 18 was marked by rain and fog. However, that didn't stop thousands of people from coming to Riga's Dome Square to hear President Vaira Vike-Freiberga's speech and watch the fireworks.

"We are not the world's second or third-rate citizens. We are neither stepchildren of mankind nor outcasts of civilization. We are not call-boys or whipping boys for others. We are free citizens of a free country," the president said in her address to the crowd.

"We want to live a better life. We deserve it. And we are ready to work and fight with all our efforts to have it," the president said. "We have only a few years left to ensure that we are not added to the list of countries which are hopelessly lagging behind, and that we will catch up with and maybe even overtake other developed states."

Next year, it will be 10 years since Latvia regained its independence. In this time, many people, who fled to the West more than 50 years ago fearing the Soviets, have returned to live and work in Latvia. The Baltic Times asked some of them, how Latvia's restored independence has changed their lives.

Before returning to live in an independent Latvia, the country's President Vaira Vike-Freiberga spent decades in Canada as a Latvian exile. "For us, there was no other choice," she told The Baltic Times. "By the time Latvia regained its independence, I had established a new life abroad, like all other Latvians who'd fled the country during the war."

"For me, the re-establishment of Latvia's independence meant the realization of a dream I had held since my childhood. I am grateful to my fate, which has dictated that I return to the land of my birth and play an active role in the reconstruction and development of a country born anew. It means the triumph of justice, for I believe that the Latvian struggle for independence resulted in the re-instatement of universal human rights and legal justice," the president stressed.

"We are entering a new century with a new geopolitical configuration. Independent Latvia has returned to the European fold, to a place where it has belonged both historically and through a common cultural heritage," she said.

Ojars Kalnins, former Latvian ambassador to the U.S.A. and now head of the Latvian Institute in Riga, says that Latvia's independence changed his life entirely. "It was what I committed my life to in the mid-80s, when I started to work for the American-Latvian Association, and for many years we did see it as a dream. But changes started in Latvia and in the former Soviet Union, so it became more and more a reality. Around 1990 it became clear to me that Latvia's independence was imminent." When offered a job as a diplomat in 1991, Kalnins immediately gave up his American citizenship, a brave move at that time. "I made a commitment in 1991 that wherever Latvia would go I would be a part of it. And ultimately it brought me here."

Kalnins is eager to use his diplomatic and PR skills to help promote Latvia around the world. "There is a shortage of information about Latvia in other languages - what we are, our history, our culture, our goals and dreams."

"Most people from the outside world do not realize that we have a very rich, European culture that has survived through 800 years of foreign occupation and various invasions," Kalnins stressed. "We have been ruled by everyone in the area except by ourselves. And yet the Latvian language has survived and developed," he said.

Many people who come to Riga realize that it has been established as a culturally very rich European city. "If it hadn't been for the Soviet occupation, Riga would be as well known as Stockholm or Copenhagen," Kalnins said. "If Estonia is closer to Finland and Lithuania is closer to Poland, then Latvia has to be closer to the rest of the world."

"There are many Latvians who were born outside Latvia and are now returning to their roots to be part of the country. It is a unique experience for us." Kalnins feels he's returned on behalf of his parents who left Latvia during the war and were never able to come back. "We are no better and no worse than Latvians who stayed here. But we have a slightly different perspective to offer and it's important that we combine our efforts to build a new Latvia."

During these 10 years there has been certain resentment and bitterness between local Latvians and Latvians returning from the West. They each blame the other for leaving Latvia or becoming Sovietized. "I've never felt any resentment toward people who stayed the course here," Kalnins says. "I never left Latvia, so no-one can blame me for that. The people who might have some resentment are those Western Latvians who came thinking they had all the answers and were better than the local folk because they were coming from the West, they were wealthier and more successful. But you can't come here and pretend that you're better than everyone else," he stressed.

Alda Staprans-Mednis, managing director of Rapp Collins Latvia's marketing agency, came to Latvia from San Francisco, U.S.A. in 1991. She still remembers the ration coupons for sugar and butter and the long queues. When the Soviet coup d'etat took place on Aug. 19, she was working for the Popular Front's newspaper Atmoda (The Awakening). "The success of the coup would have meant the renewal of a repressive regime reminiscent of the Andropov or Brezhnev eras with none of the relative freedoms of the glasnost era, so I would probably (in the best of cases) have been expelled from the country immediately," Alda remembers. "I would have returned to California and most likely pursued an academic career," she says.

As a direct result of the re-establishment of independence, Alda and her colleagues founded a Pan-Baltic English-language newspaper, The Baltic Observer, precursor to The Baltic Times. "While one of the main goals of this project was to help promote communication and the exchange of information between the Baltic countries and the West, the company had to be profitable. In such a way I began my professional life in the business field, which I probably wouldn't have sought if I had been living in the United States."

These first years proved to her that private business at a time when the economy had to be built from scratch offered the greatest challenges and opportunities. "While my primary concern is of course personal success, this is the best way I can at the same time help promote the overall welfare of Latvia: by creating jobs, paying taxes and following fair business ethics," she says now.

Lech Walesa repeatedly expressed his skepticism about the possibility of rebuilding the economies of Eastern Europe following independence from the Soviet Union: "You can make fish soup out of a fish, but you cannot make a fish out of fish soup." This has proved not to be the case as Latvia now is on the waiting list to enter the European Union.