National Security & Defense

Baltic Journal, Part V

Latvia National Opera in Latvia (Dreamstime photo: Sergei Podymin)
Operas, Russians, presidents, parents, and more

Editor’s Note: Jay Nordlinger spent the week of September 12 in the Baltic states — or rather, in two of them, Latvia and Estonia. A piece of his will soon appear in National Review magazine: about the Baltics, Russia, NATO, and America, particularly in light of our presidential campaign. This journal supplements the piece, and concerns matters weighty and light. Here are links to previous parts: I, II, III, and IV.

The opera house in Riga is proud and handsome. A lot of singers and other musicians have come through here. So have dancers. The Latvian National Opera includes the Latvian National Ballet (which is slightly confusing, to me).

What’s on? Well, Giselle. And an operatic double-bill: Le villi and Gianni Schicchi. They are both short operas by Puccini. In fact, Le villi was his first. Gianni Schicchi is normally found in Il trittico, Puccini’s three-parter. It features the beloved little aria “O mio babbino caro.”

Anyway, on with the show …

‐I am talking with Ojars Kalnins, the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the Latvian parliament. He grew up in Chicago, as you recall. And he has devoted his life to Latvian independence and democracy.

We talk quite a bit about the Russians, or Russophones, or ethnic Russians, in Latvia. There are older people who are devoted to the Soviet Union and its memory. They have no desire to be Latvian. Then there are people who are utterly integrated. And there are people in between. Integration will increase, as the years roll on.

Kalnins says, “I’ve noticed that the younger generation of Russians is more Euro-Russian. They learn English, they’re interested in traveling around Europe. They may not feel strong loyalty to Latvia, but they like being in the West.”

He continues, “Many of them, if you asked them, would say, ‘Yes, I support Putin’s actions in Ukraine.’ They are cheering for Putin from afar. It’s like cheering for a favorite team. But if you ask them, ‘Would you like him to come here?’ they say, ‘No, no. We don’t need that.’”

‐The Kremlin, says Kalnins, is always pushing for Russian to be a second official language in Latvia. And “here is one reason: It would make Russian one of the official languages of the European Union. Russian is not an EU language. And the moment you made Russian a Latvian language, it would be an EU language.”

Kalnins makes a striking point about language policy in Latvia (and, indeed, throughout the Baltics): “It’s sacred. It goes to the question, Why even have a sovereign, independent country? For us, it’s to preserve the language, the culture. Not necessarily to have an ethnically pure country. We have always been multiethnic. We have had Germans, Swedes, and everyone else. That’s not the point. But the language and the culture, we want to preserve.”

He goes on, “We’re a singing nation. Sometimes Latvians complain, ‘We’re not very good at business because everybody wants to be a poet.’”

Consider this, too: “If you’re a country of 2 million people, next to a country of 150 million people, the language of the second country will overwhelm you,” if you let it.

‐As you remember, the Baltic states joined NATO in 2004. (They joined the EU the same year.) Kalnins says, “I give credit to Bill Clinton for opening the door and to George W. Bush for bringing us in.” Kalnins was ambassador to the U.S. during the Clinton years. And he tells me something surprising — surprising to me, that is.

“Clinton personally convinced Yeltsin to get Russian troops out of here faster than they wanted to leave. … Clinton knew Baltic history, and it was a matter of principle to him that there not be a repeat. He made it clear to the Russians that the Baltics were independent now, and that’s the way it would be.”

When Bush came in, he was, of course, very strong on the Baltics and their NATO membership.

‐After Ukraine — after Putin moved on that country — Balts were highly nervous, needless to say. Many wondered whether NATO would defend them, if the crunch came. Kalnins says that the alliance “has done a lot to provide reassurance. The fact that Italians, Hungarians, Czechs all send their planes here — that has reassured people.”

So have the battalions that are to arrive next year. (Germans in Lithuania, Canadians here in Latvia, Brits in Estonia.)

Like everyone else, Kalnins stresses deterrence. “The whole idea of deterrence is to prevent conflict. Yes, if the Russians invaded, we could get wiped out. Someone said that if Russia had a war with NATO, NATO would win, but we would be lost in the debris. We would be the casualties. So the whole idea is to prevent war — to make it too costly for the Russians even to consider.”

The costs to Russia, says Kalnins, would not be merely military. “Russia has to survive in the international community. It has to do business. It has to sell its oil.” If it started a war against a NATO country, the disruptions would be severe.

Plus, “there would be endless years of partisan and guerrilla warfare. Opposition.”

Kalnins talks about the events of 1940. Then he explains, “Even young people here say, Never again.” Never again submission to occupation, deportation, all the rest of it. “The attitude is, We’re going to fight, even if it’s to the last man.”

‐He and I talk about America’s connectedness to the rest of the world. “Globalization is here to stay,” he says. “Being anti-globalist is sort of like being anti-electricity. The question is not globalization but how we use it. What we do with it. We can’t get rid of the Internet,” etc.

‐“When I was a kid, growing up in Chicago, my parents talked about Latvian independence.” Remember, the Baltic states were independent between the world wars. “I had no concept of time. So it seemed like Latvia had been independent forever.”

Later on, Kalnins realized that Latvia had been independent very briefly — 22 years. The new Latvian independence — the post-Soviet independence — passed the 22-year mark three years ago. Kalnins made a point of celebrating that.

“I have been a part of this renewed independence for 25 years.” And “you have to fight for freedom every day.”

I say to him, “Your parents would be thrilled to know what you are doing” — to know that their son is a leading figure in Latvian independence and democracy. Kalnins corrects me: “My mother always said, ‘Don’t go into politics. Because they shoot the politicians first. Become a doctor or an engineer or something like that. Something that will allow you to transition.’”

She was smart. She and her relatives and her friends had experienced a lot.

Moreover, “if she had known that, when I was here in the ’80s, the KGB was following me around, she would have had a heart attack.”

Thanks for coming along with me on this journey, ladies and gentlemen, and I’ll see you Monday for Part VI.

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