"Europe, but not quite": Fault lines in the way Latvians see themselves

LSM brings you a piece over Latvian identity, which appeared first on the Punctum online magazine. Authored by Lelde Arnicāne, a political scientist and PhD researcher at the University of Tartu, the essay examines the conflicting emotions Latvians - and not only Latvians - feel when they think of themselves as part of Europe. 

In a book about the relations between the East and the West, international politics researcher Ayşe Zarakol describes [1] an attitude she has observed within Turkish society, and also herself.

It consists of characterizing peculiarities of local life as "only possible in Turkey", meaning they're something shameful, uncivilized, or, to put it plainly, non-Western.

At the same time, Zarakol points out that the notion of Turkey's uniqueness is as prevalent as the aforementioned attitude, namely the Turkey has a historical, social, and political experience that outsiders can't understand and that singles Turkey out and grants it a unique mission. This is essentially a conflict of belonging and reflects a need to deal with what could be characterized as stigmatization: the awareness and concealment of the difference between their desired (or 'normal') and actual identity.

In this context, normal means belonging to the Western world. Zarakol advances an interesting idea, which is, in my opinion, also relevant to Latvia. That is, societies which have adopted the "Western model" on their own accord, nevertheless feel a strong sense of inferiority. It doesn't arise from direct cultural exclusion, like it did in colonized countries, but rather springs from within a society as it becomes aware of and defines its identity. The perhaps most important expression of this is found in culture. Zarakol identifies the reason for this inferiority complex in the fact that different societies and states adopted a model of life which they didn't create themselves and which arose in a different historical and social environment. 

That's why, even if Western ideals are adopted as universal values, they are nevertheless the result of what certain Western societies think of as "the good life" or "good institutions". A lack of skills, and the incompleteness in adopting this model has created self-stigmatization within many societies that have striven to join the flourishing Western world. 

Such a view is nice as it's sympathetic towards societies conflicted over their Western identity. They could be characterized as victims of their own historical circumstances.

But, as we know from events within and outside the EU, such identity conflicts can evolve in different directions, including a rapid rise in nationalism; self-victimization; and blaming others. All of this contributes to international conflicts, big and small.

There remains the question of whether you can compare Latvia with Turkey or Japan, or Russia, all of which are former empires with close but complex and conflicted historical ties with the West.

But the goal of our foreign - and, some would say, domestic - policy has long been "to return to Europe". Latvia's being part of Europe and the West has been a fact that we've felt forced to explain to the rest of the world. Even though, politically speaking, our efforts have come to fruition, there are moments which illuminate the fault lines in our unshakable self-perception as Western people. 

This brings up two related questions from the darkest nooks and crannies of our minds: are we sure that Europe and the West consider that we "really" belong with them? Do we, ourselves, feel completely at home in the West?

I would venture to say that these matters are related to the same conflicts of identity and memory underlined in Turkish society by Ayşe Zarakol. On the one hand, it's an awareness of one's own shortcomings in the face of what's "normal" and "civilized". On the other, it's a sense of not being able to translate one's own experience, as characterized by the simple but still urgent message: "Europe will not understand us." (Latvian: Eiropa mūs nesapratīs

These questions can be looked at as part of a discussion over constructing an European identity -- that is, the divide between Western and Eastern Europe. Historian Larry Wolff thinks that the the idea of a "Eastern Europe" was birthed during the Enlightenment by Western thinkers, while Eastern Europe remains its non-anointed part that's "neither here, nor there". This idea of Eastern Europe as "Europe, but not quite Europe" has taken deep roots and caused different reactions among the people living here.

On the one hand, the West is seen as an ideal that would enable us to accept ourselves as real Europe. On the other hand, some consider that Eastern Europe, as opposed to Western Europe, has remained faithful to the true European spirit.

There are several facets to this topic, such as the belief in a single European spirit and Russia and Hungary, and Poland depicting themselves as the protectors of traditional European values as opposed to the decadent West. According to political scientist Maria Mälksoo, these conflicting views stem from the still-unceasing wish on the part of Eastern Europeans to be considered "true" Europeans. For example, she sees Baltic and Polish attempts to consolidate the crimes of Soviet totalitarianism into the EU's political memory as an expression of the undying insecurity of Eastern Europe over its status as Europe. 

These doubts over being accepted into the "real" Europe are, from time to time, seen in Latvia as well. Early last year, the Latvian information space was sent aflutter after the UN supposedly recognized Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia as Northern, not Eastern European countries. It's a matter of categorization, which, it turned out, had existed since the early 2000s and is mostly used for statistics.

It nevertheless sparked fervent reactions in the public, more suitable for the few years after Latvia reinstated its independence. "It's where we belong," tweeted politician Artis Pabriks. Of course, the sensitivity of this issue is not particularly surprising. Politics expert Andis Sedlenieks saw the reasons for this reaction in the contrast between the image of stunted, criminal Eastern Europe as opposed to prosperous and developed Western Europe. 

I think, however, that just like the worries about the differences in food quality between the Western and the Eastern markets -- due to which the Food and Veterinary Service carried out inspections at Latvian retail chains -- this expresses a deeper lack of belief in our European identity. It's disbelief in ourselves as "Europe", which continues to serve as a goal, as an ideal backdrop for defining our own identity, still standing on the threshold. 

Nevertheless, there are opinions in the Latvian public space that turn down Europe as an ideal -- this is understood as Western dominance over the other countries. There are people who don't consider the West as the true "Europe", while others see Europe as an insurmountable threat to our national identity.

Many of these ideas are reflected in the discussion over the Istanbul Convention. Several telling motifs can be discerned: first of all, turning down Western Europe as a model. As Catholic Archbishop Zbigņevs Stankevičs said: "Earlier the "big brother" from the East told us how to live. But now it turns out the West will teach us how to live, impressing upon us their own ideological "values"."

Secondly, other people think Latvia represents civilized and, in principle, European values, whereas Western Europe has forsaken them or is unable to defend them. And thirdly, the Latvian identity (usually using folklore references) is contrasted with the Western one. Quoting the preacher Ingmars Zemzaris: "If any Latvians still have doubt whether the gender ideology is useful to us, they should try singing their children a song about how a little orphan stands by the apple tree as if it were its parent #1, and how parent #2 is making traditional shoes, while #3 is busy sewing a skirt." 

As one can surmise, none of these processes are unique to Latvia.

The news over being included in Northern Europe caused the same reaction in Estonia and Lithuania. While the differences between products in Eastern, Central and Western Europe were first pointed out by Slovakia and Lithuania. The "gender ideology" has been cited as a reason for not adopting the Istanbul Convention in Bulgaria, Slovakia and Croatia. This reflects a trend of joint opposition in post-Soviet states.

Latvia's standing can be viewed in a wider perspective, where the Eastern Europeans' role of outcasts in the eyes of Western Europe creates identity conflicts that find expression both in the genuflection in front of everything European, as well as rejecting it and even hating it. As Mälksoo has shown, the position we take as "Europe, but not quite Europe" affects our political memory, which consequentially tries to insert our historical experience within the canon of the joint European identity.

Latvian culture – film, literature, and art – often quotes introducing Western audiences to the particularly Latvian historical experience of deportations, the Soviet times, and restoration of independence as one of its chief goals. Our memory politics in culture reflect, to a large degree, our wish to receive an affirmation of our status as "true" Europeans. 

It's probably nothing bad. Maybe it's almost inevitable. But sometimes the only way to disrupt a relationship dynamic is by subverting it – in a way that doesn't pivot on blaming or excluding others, but which gives itself permission to toy around with supposedly accepted truths.  


[1] Zarakol, A. (2011) After Defeat: How the East Learned to Live with the West. Cambridge University Press

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