Thursday, June 18, 2009
Tallinn, Estonia - Day 70 : National Identity in the Baltic States
I have often clubbed Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia as the 'Baltic states' and could barely tell them apart on a map. As I discovered on this trip, these countries hold fiercely independent identities forged together only in recent history by having been part of the Soviet Union.
The population composition differs vastly - Lithuania has a large Polish population, Latvia has a large number of citizens of Russian descent and Estonia holds more cultural similarity with its Scandinavian cousins across the Baltic Sea than it does with either Lithuania or Latvia.
To a visitor such as myself, the Lithuania and Estonia capitals - Vilnius and Tallinn seemed hip, vibrant and even compensating for its lost years of European kinship. In contrast, Latvia's communist past still holds sway over its' capital - Riga, evident in its ubiquitous Stalin-era architecture and a looming sense of misplaced identity.
Unlike Lithuania or Estonia, little Latvia is struggling with its new found political independence. Whilst part of the USSR, Riga served as a strategic seaport for the USSR with the Soviets establishing a large number of factories. Understandably it was Latvia that felt the pains of jump-starting its economy after the Soviet Union fell, unable to employ the thousands that were once gainfully employed in state run industries and beaureaucratic offices. As a Latvian acquaintance said, "Today Latvia is showing all the symptoms of the 'new country disease' ... excessive government control, corruption and fiscal mismanagement". Another young Latvian said that her parents feel a sense of nostalgia for the Communist days, "Back then atleast everyone was employed and there were no criminals on the street."
After years of mandatory Russian, the Baltic states are using their respective languages to assert their ethnic identity. In Lithuania 'language police' are tasked with the job of ensuring that street signs, books, menus and official documents are written only in Lithuanian, despite its large Polish population that would have a preferred a dual language system. In Latvia, hiring is unofficially dependent on your fluency in Latvian, very odd considering that present 30 year olds in the workforce studied Russian as their first language in public schools till the fall of the Soviet Union in the late 80s. And then there is the 50-60 set who have spoken Russian all their lives being forced to conduct all their legal and official affairs in Latvian.
These measures may be seen as necessary to renew their national identity, but personally, I see it as totalitarian and contradictory to the very ideals of democracy that these countries are emulating.