Editorial: The Human Factor

Take note – story published 8 years ago

On May 15, 1934 a couple of interesting things happened in Latvia.

The first was the brief visit of a young British writer by the name of Graham Greene. Returning from a holiday in Estonia, Greene left Tallinn in the afternoon but had to change trains at Riga. He had a couple of hours to kill and took a stroll around the area near the Central Station. He seemed to like what he saw and, according to the brochures you might still occasionally find listing what famous people think of the city, he even said it was the Paris of the north.

However, the full story was rather different. Greene had a particular love of the seedy and fatalistic. He did indeed find Riga alluring and even compared it to Paris, but in his own peculiar way, saying in Journey Without Maps: “There was something decayed, 'Parisian', rather shocking in an old-fashioned way, about the place... One had the sensation of a whole town on the tiles. It was fascinating, it appealed immensely to the historical imagination, but it certainly wasn't something new, lovely and happy.”

Greene climbed aboard his onward train at midnight and woke up the next morning in Berlin where he was greeted by his brother who asked “What about Riga and the revolution?”


“There was a coup d'etat at midnight,” his brother informed him. “There are machine guns at every corner!”

That was the second thing that happened on May 15, 1934. Karlis Ulmanis, one of the key figures of the struggle for independence and a long-serving Prime Minister, decided he'd had enough of Latvia's increasingly fractious democracy and dissolved parliament, declared himself 'Vadonis' ('Leader') and became de facto dictator for the next six years until the Soviet Union ousted him in its own Molotov-Ribbentrop enabled coup.

Ulmanis did many good things for Latvia but one would hope that from today's perspective turning the country from democracy to dictatorship would not be listed as one of them.

However, some people see the coup as precisely his finest hour, which is why today, May 15, 2015 a parade of cars will drive between Jelgava and Riga with Latvian flags fluttering out of their windows, in contravention of the road traffic laws and in celebration of this glorious day in the nation's history.

There are extremists in all countries. Only usually they are not in power. These ones are members of a party that is currently in government: Visu Latvijai! (All for Latvia!) which makes up the right wing of the right wing National Alliance grouping, one of the three parties in the ruling coalition.

Is it acceptable to celebrate – and it is a celebration – the day democracy died in Latvia? I would argue not. It would be good if more responsible members of the National Alliance would say so. 

In their fervor, Visu Latvijai's Wacky Racers have missed a couple of important ironies. First, that they are the sternest critics in Saeima of Russian President Vladimir Putin – while beatifying their own hero for throwing democracy out of the window, clamping down on the press and 'rescuing' the economy to increase the standard of living of ordinary citizens. Until a war brought it all crashing down. Ring any bells?

The second irony is even more important. Next week Riga plays host to the six Eastern Partnership countries at the Riga Summit. This will be the climax of Latvia's six-month EU presidency with presidents, prime ministers and ministers from all over Europe and the Caucasus jetting in to work out how the EU and Ukraine, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Moldova and Georgia can cooperate in future.

National Alliance ministers will put in an appearance too, no doubt talking about the importance of freedom, democracy, rule of law, civil rights, all the commonplace EU values we often take too much for granted.

It's lucky the Summit isn't happening a week earlier. Otherwise Aliyev, Sargsyan and Lukashenka – who have also been described using the absurd phrase 'benign dictators' - could simply point out the window and laugh: “Look at those cars driving past with the flags! We're just doing what Ulmanis did. We're the saviors of our countries. Power is more important than democracy. We know you have to go along with all this EU stuff but we also know that, like us, you don't really mean it. Otherwise, why would you celebrate, eh?”

Today I'll be hoping only one event of May 15, 1934 is repeated in future: not the coup d'etat but Greene's trip. One May 15 soon, when the planned Rail Baltica link is a reality, maybe I'll be able to take a train in Tallinn one afternoon and wake up the next morning in Berlin - having enjoyed the 'Paris of the north' along the way.

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