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Viewpoint: Singular Solidarity

Hysteria really doesn't suit Latvians. Physically and intellectually, it seems at odds with their basic makeup. For a start that pale skin looks doubly blotchy when the blood vessels in a Baltic neck are straining to the limit in a cry of overdone outrage.

That first paragraph may have been a teensy bit racist. There's no reason why a Latvian should be pale-faced is there? Think of Aminata, who represented Latvia so creditably at this year's Eurovision song contest.

Yet even she, Latvia born and bred, has found herself under fire from more extreme parts of the anti-immigrant crowd, guilty it seems of the crime of not conforming to the idealised stereotype of Milda, the maiden on Latvian euro coins who is a symbol, a cipher, not a real person at all.

Another pop singer, Lauris Reiniks doesn't look much like mythical hero Lacplesis, but that doesn't mean he's mocked, so the only conclusion to be drawn is that Aminata was chosen because her skin is brown.

The qualities I admire most in Latvians: phlegmatism, endurance, cool-headedness, understatement, the amazing ability to make the best of a bad situation – just don't sit easily with hysteria. So when you do encounter scarlet-faced, pop-eyed figures draped in the flag and screeching about how they are the real Latvians, it has the curious effect of making them seem completely un-Latvian.

Unless they are watching hockey.

As usual the first casualty of hysteria is language, with the terms “economic migrant”, “refugee”, “asylum seeker” and “illegal immigrant” all shoved into the easy-to-sloganise word “immigrant”. Even the usually excellent LTV news fell foul of the confusion, captioning a story: “Migrants to be evicted from houses in England” when in fact the story referred only to illegal immigrants. Had it applied to all migrants, tens of thousands of Latvians would be booking flights on Ryanair right now.

The confusion seems to be intentional. A graphic produced and circulated by the right-wing National Alliance (NA) political grouping identified Latvians fleeing Soviet terror at the end of the Second World War as “refugees”. In contrast the 250 fleeing warzones in Africa and the Middle East are labelled “immigrants.”

What's undeniable is that NA is currently completely dominating political debate in the country despite their relatively modest numbers in parliament. In a way that is creditable, it's just a shame they chose to stir up an immigrant panic as the means of doing so.

Like a fat man walking past a cake shop with a half-price sale, it was just too hard to resist, even if the long-term effect will be to identify them as hard-right populists rather than the image of careful conservatives they were trying to cultivate recently.

Type “begli or “imigranti” into the search box on a Latvian social media site and you'll quickly learn that the “immigrants” are essentially workshy, criminal, disease-ridden, devious, murderous, sex-crazed Islamic fundamentalists (Arabs) or savages (the ones who come from that well-known country 'Africa').

Both types desire nothing but to live high on the hog courtesy of Latvia's tiny social security payments before attempting to convert the entire country to radical Islam. Even the Christians. Not a single one of them can pronounce the word “smiltsērkšķis” (sea buckthorn) and will make no effort to learn it.

This is already known as fact, whichever sinister dark-skinned people are eventually selected. Wishing to put as much distance between themselves and the insane, genocidal Islamic State is just an excuse they cooked up to head north to the land of piens and medus which they have never heard of.

In perhaps the most remarkable outburst of all, journalist Elite Veidemane claimed these 250 men women and children pose a greater threat to the Latvian state than did the Soviet Union and successive waves of Russification. The KGB, T-40 tanks and the Gulag had nothing on these emaciated figures begging water from passing ferries because their “mentality” is so different, Veidemane says.

It's reminiscent of the famous belief of Harmony ('social democratic') member of parliament Janis Adamsons that “members of the white race” such as Latvians and Russians naturally get along better. Like Ukrainians and Russians.

Latvia has every right to decide its immigration policy. A country from which 10% of the population has voluntarily emigrated in a decade probably should consider such matters carefully.

It's quite legitimate to point out that Latvian families receive small benefits, and to want to increase those benefits. It's just a matter of deciding where the money comes from – raising taxes or cutting elsewhere. But if you don't want to admit that to your public, it's much easier to blame the asylum seekers who haven't even arrived for Latvian poverty that is already a reality.

'Solidarity' is the buzzword of the moment. The European Union and NATO are increasingly reliant on this concept, as a result of which, it is coming under increasing strain. On support for Ukraine and Russian sanctions, the call is for solidarity. Latvia is 100% behind this. On Greece and its financial woes, the call is for solidarity. Latvia is... well, less than 100% behind this but is prepared to toe the line. On taking in refugees, Latvia (along with some other countries) is digging in its heels. It has the right to do this, and at least it hasn't announced plans to follow Hungary and just build a wall.

The question is whether heel-digging is in the national interest. Completely obvious though it is to say so, solidarity cuts both ways. If you have a border with Russia, sanctions and Ukraine are clearly top of the list. Mediterranean refugees are a long way away.

If you're in Naples, the boatloads of refugees and the dead bodies washing up on the shore are likely to be at the front of your mind. Under such circumstances you might wonder why your government spends money sending jets to patrol Baltic skies – likely at considerably greater cost than providing temporary accommodation and long-term integration to a few score of asylum seekers.

So, while Latvians might not feel that the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean has much to do with them, that says more about a half-hearted belief in the solidarity of allies than it does about anything else. If we throw our hands up in the air and say: “Your problem, not mine” we should not be surprised if other countries do precisely the same thing on other issues and we should not expect the concept of European solidarity to live very long.

Historically all witch hunts were an excuse for the people with the pitchforks and flaming torches to give full reign to their prejudices in a way that made them feel important. They showed only that they believed in the powers of darkness and magic more than the witches they accused, who generally turned out to be old women making herbal teas – and what could be more Latvian than that?

(Views expressed are the author's own)

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