A courageous Latvian's lifetime march to NATO

  • 2002-03-14
  • Philip Birzulis
A lifetime's experience has made one Latvian understand why her country must join the Western defense alliance, and she is working to make it happen, as Philip Birzulis reports.

NATO enlargement conjures up images of medal-chested generals and hard-nosed politicians haggling over treaties and maneuvering toy tanks on maps. Well-dressed ladies in their early sixties do not usually enter the picture.

But this is an apt description of Maija Sinka. Not only does this female civilian have an important role to play in Latvia's ambitions to join the alliance - for her, it's what everything else has led up to.

"My whole life has been in politics - from the age of two," Sinka said during a recent interview in Riga.

That was how old she was on June 14, 1941, when her name, along with those of her parents and younger sister, was on the Soviet list of Latvians to be deported to Siberia. Unlike thousands of others, this family had a lucky escape on that night, and fled to Germany in 1944.

But the experience colored Sinka's whole life. Now working as an adviser on German affairs to the Latvian minister of defense, she wants to contribute to the security of the country she was forced to flee over half a century ago.

"If I had survived (deportation), at best I would have ended up in an orphanage and wouldn't know who I am. I am a Latvian," she said.

Family politics

Even before the NKVD made the infant Sinka a participant in the most brutal type of politics, her family was embroiled in it.

Her maternal grandfather was a member of the council that drafted the constitution of the first Latvian republic, and served three terms as a member of the Parliament. Her father Adolfs Silde was a law student in Riga in the 1930s, but he fell afoul of the authoritarian regime established by Karlis Ulmanis in 1934, and was jailed for a time.

Most of the 200,000-odd Latvians who lived in German refugee camps after 1945 eventually started new lives in Canada, America or Australia. But Silde stayed on in Germany, where he found a new vocation as a historian.

In addition to numerous works on 20th century Latvian history, he also wrote about Latvians in the Gulag. His main primary sources for these publications were interviews with German prisoners of war the Soviets sent home after Stalin's death in 1953.

In the meantime, Sinka reached maturity, studied architecture, and married and gave birth to four children. But she was widowed early and had to raise them by herself for 10 years.

Then a new marriage pulled her back into political circles. Her second husband, Juris Sinka, worked as a monitor and editor for the BBC for 37 years and was also very active in the Latvian emigre community in the West.

The couple shared a passionate stubbornness about resisting the Soviet occupation of their homeland. Despite spending virtually her whole adult life in exile, Sinka never took up the citizenship of a Western country, traveling on a passport issued by a Latvian diplomatic mission in London that kept operating throughout the Cold War.

Neither of them visited Latvia during the Soviet occupation.

"All my life I wanted to be in Latvia, it was the dream of my life," said Sinka. "But I couldn't do this as a tourist while my country was being oppressed. I couldn't give support to the oppressor."

However, they returned as soon as the opportunity arose. Latvia declared its independence from the U.S.S.R. in August 1991, and in September of that year the Sinkas were lining up at Riga Airport with their foreign-issued Latvian passports.

Maija Sinka remembers with some bitterness how the Russian-speaking border guards - in the chaos of that time, still representing the Soviet Union - didn't want to let them in.

It seems strange, to say the least, that a person who spent her whole adult life in Germany and could scarcely have remembered anything about Latvia could feel such an attachment to it. But Sinka said she had emotional memories of Latvia and had never felt that her identity was anything but Latvian.

She admits to a good deal of disillusionment afterwards with people in Latvia, saying that "people who have been raped for 50 years are deformed." But she has also come to terms with post-Soviet realities.

"In exile we idealized the people in Latvia, and they idealized us. It was an abnormal situation," she said. "But now we see that they are just ordinary people like everybody else. Apart from one or two evil-doers, most of the mistakes of the past 10 years have been the result of ordinary human frailty and weakness."

Juris Sinka joined the right-of-center For Fatherland and Freedom/LNNK party and was elected to the Parliament in 1993, with his wife acting as his main adviser.

Sinka said her husband felt that nationalities, oppressed as the Latvians once had been, deserved the support of the free world. Last year he led a Latvian parliamentary delegation to one of the places at the top of his list, Tibet. The visit only went ahead after lengthy wrangling with Chinese officials because Juris Sinka was reluctant to lend support to their Communist government.

She said it was apt that, after three days of meetings, her husband was found dead at his desk with his pen in his hand, after completing his work. He died during what his widow considers was a continuation of his life's struggle.

The fight continues

After this, Maija Sinka said she felt the need to do something on her own, and took up her position at the Ministry of Defense last October. This has involved her in direct contacts with Germany, known to be one of the more reluctant countries in NATO about letting in the Baltics.

Sinka says she can help the Latvian government because she speaks German fluently and knows the German national mentality. She thinks Germany's foreign policy is driven by a desire to make amends for the war - a positive attitude, but one that risks subjugating Baltic interests to those of one victim of German aggression, Russia.

"I know them completely. I know how they do politics with Israel, with Poland and with Russia. But I don't want them to forget about the Baltics," she said.

She said the U.K., France and other NATO countries feel a similar coolness about the Baltics, even though their surrender of Eastern Europe to the Soviets after World War II makes them just as obliged to make amends as the Germans.

However, other circumstances have increased the chances for Baltic membership. Firstly, according to Sinka, the clear support of the United States is bringing the Europeans around. And secondly, the more pro-Western stance taken by Russian President Vladimir Putin of late has made the West less nervous about expansion.

However, Sinka warned the Russians could still try to sabotage things before NATO's Prague summit in November, when the Baltics are expected to be invited to join.

As a staunch defender of the Latvian language, she also said she feels "saddened" by NATO's demand that Latvia strike out a clause in its electoral law banning candidates who don't speak the state language from running for office.

In her opinion, Latvian politicians will adopt other measures to protect the language, then make the changes NATO wants. But she pointed out that acceptance in Prague would only be the start of a trial period leading to full membership, during which other demands on Latvia could be made.

Sinka believes that in relations between democratic countries, small nations deserve to be regarded as partners by the bigger ones.

"The law (on electoral candidates) is not undemocratic and it does not breach human rights, but is necessary for Latvia because of its background of occupation and colonization," she said. "We must not risk NATO, but this is an ultimatum, and it is not right that they are supposedly speaking up for democracy using an ultimatum."