Re-imagining Latvia

When Russian tanks rolled into Georgia in the summer of 2008, I happened to be in Latvia, the former Soviet republic that is now a member of the European Union and NATO. I was startled to see that about one third of the population of that quiet Northern European state sympathized with Russia in the conflict. This is the part of the Latvian population that everyone outside of Latvia tends to overlook: The Russians. In the past several years, much has been written and said about renewed tension between Russia and the West. Related tensions are also rising within East-West border states - such as Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Ukraine and Georgia - in the form of inter-ethnic rivalries. The United States, a highly successful multi-ethnic society, can and should provide leadership and counsel these societies.

Far from homogeneous, Latvia's society is made up of Latvians (58 percent) Russians (28 percent) and many other non-Latvians (14 percent). Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Latvia has struggled to integrate these ethnic groups into a peaceful, united polity. These efforts have failed miserably-15 percent of the population of Latvia is still classed officially as "non-citizens." These are primarily ethnic Russians who are unable or unwilling to gain citizenship. When I asked an acquaintance named Dmitry why he didn't apply for citizenship, he heatedly responded: "I'll take citizenship when they send it to me in a gold-embossed envelope." One of the major stumbling blocks in the integration process for people like Dmitry is the ideology of ethnic nationalism. In Latvia, nations are too often imagined as ethnically homogeneous groups-an idea which marginalizes Russians and other non-Latvians and polarizes political processes into a standoff between ethnic groups. Similar problems afflict Ukraine, Georgia, Estonia, Lithuania and other states across the region.

Latvia, like the others, must stop thinking in ethnic nationalist terms and instead turn to a multi-ethnic idea of the nation. Who says the Latvian nation has to be imagined as ethnically homogeneous? The history of the 20th century provides ample evidence that ethnic nationalism is not only divisive, but also dangerous. In order for societies like Latvia to arrive at a just and broadly inclusive post-Soviet settlement, Russians there (not to mention Armenians, Jews, Belorussians, etc.) need to know that they too can be Latvians in a broader, multi-ethnic sense. Room has to be made in the national imagination.

Ironically, Russia itself offers a multi-ethnic conception of national belonging: Anyone who speaks Russian and loves Russian literature can be Russian in this broader sense. In places like Latvia, this feature of "Russianness" works to dampen the social integration of all ethnic minorities-encouraging Armenians, for instance, to identify more fully with Russian society rather than Latvian. This was one of the reasons why South Ossetians, who have often been subjected to discrimination in Georgia, allied themselves so readily with Russia last summer.

The best example of a multi-ethnic idea is to be found in the United States. This is not to say that issues such as bilingual education and immigration are not complex here-but in general, anyone can be an American who recognizes our political ideals of democracy and economic self-reliance. America should be helping to foster a similar multi-ethnic conception in Latvia. Not only would this bolster integration, social justice and prosperity, it would reduce internal tensions within these societies. The border between East and West would be more fluid and less of a contest over "spheres of influence."

It will also help to resolve lingering anxiety in Russia over the fate of ethnic Russians in neighboring states. Often, this issue is exploited opportunistically by the media and politicians in order to score easy points. Yet there is legitimate cause for concern for ethnic Russians, who are often the targets of discriminatory attitudes and policies. The West should face up to this problem by helping states across the region lay to rest the ideology of ethnic nationalism-an idea whose time should come.

Kevin M. F. Platt is Associate Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures and Graduate Chair of the Comparative Literature Program at the University of Pennsylvania.

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