The small intellectual history of Latvian politics

03. January, 2002


Gints Grube

Foto: G.Diezins

Latvia’s political structure has been constructed artificially. It does not include any recognizable sentiments from the populace, there is no basic leftist instinct that is rooted in the idea of social justice. The import of liberal democracy occurred during a moment of obsession, there were simply no skills in managing politics.

Journalist Gints Grube speaks with sociologist Talis Tisenkopfs

A study of European values recently showed that Latvians hold family values to be dear. Is this a holdover from the Socialist period, when the family represented the only refuge from the regime?

From the futuristic aspect we may be talking about neo-classical values here, but I don’t know what a neo-classical or classical society is. Jundzis recently proposed this as a vision of the future in 10 or 15 years. I think that Latvia’s society will return to nationalism, the idea of a strong state, the family – perhaps also religion as a value. People will go back to ancient and stable social structures. The value of the family may increase in the future.

This may have to do with globalization, openness and insecurity. The family represents a search for security in this context, a return to things that have been tested in the past. It’s possible that this is not happening right now – right now many people are poor, and so the family is their only real place of residence, there are no living opportunities outside of the family. Poverty in the family, in turn, can lead to scandals, a lack of harmony and depression. At the same time, the family is a nest which provides an elementary sense of security, a set of social links which provide one’s first services. Perhaps family values are something which Latvians have inherited from their culture. Latvians have always respected the family, haven’t they?

Why do you think that the demand for a strong authority will increase?

I don’t think so, it’s something that I feel. Or, perhaps, I don’t even feel it, I just get the sense that this might happen. What is everyone saying with respect to the future, what are we seeing? Borders are opening, goods are pouring into our country, people are traveling more, there is greater migration. Integration into Europe means more distant political decisions. Latvians will start to think about who we are and how we can defend ourselves. I think that Latvians have a very powerful national instinct. Perhaps people will start to think that the state is of importance for the Latvian nation.

Why do you think it is still possible for new political parties to emerge?

The average person has few opportunities to influence things in Latvia, and he sees politics as something that produces hope, disappointment and will. There is also personal experience in this area. People are disappointed when they expect something that is not delivered. Many people wait for things because they cannot reach certain achievements in their own lives. Surveys show that there is a high level of demands toward the state. People are expecting things, and this leads to hope and disappointment. If they don’t receive something, they are disappointed. Human will distinguishes a human being as a subject, as an agent for activity. The higher the level of will in a person, the greater his autonomy, his personality and, by extrapolation, his social position. Eventually this person becomes someone who has a higher level of education, a better job, a higher rung on the career ladder. This is a person with greater autonomy and control over his life, this is a person who has reached his goals in life. That’s someone who may expect and demand less from politics. Someone who has a weaker will, however, ends up in the stage of hope and disappointment, and that person can easily be reached through political communications. Politicians can tell people that they are disappointed, that they are tired of political candidates, that they are sick of corruption and bureaucracy, that they want various benefits, and that they have certain hopes. Then the political forces present themselves as the new ideal – they are going to do what the people want them to do.

People have now spent 10 years in this cycle of hope and disappointment, but they keep getting suckered by the same old things. Aren’t people developing experience?

Political experience and political memory are very short. I speak with smarter people sometimes and am very amazed that they remember everything, that they know about the history of a party or a politician and can name all of the good or bad things that a politician has done. Few people, however, have such a long-term political memory. Many people are political animals for the moment, they are subjects who are addressed by political agitation and media campaigns. Perhaps people trust in honesty, perhaps they don’t assume that politics can be a fundamentally low process, but think that the nucleus for politics is, generally speaking, a positive thing.

Why do people believe? Why is this whole matter based on the category of belief?

Beliefs are the foundation here. In philosophical terms – people take action and are dependent. If you don’t believe in the person who is taking action, you cannot forecast or manage your own actions, you cannot aim them at a goal or toward national goals. Trust and belief are inborn instincts, nearly social instincts.

What can you say about public policies in Latvia?

I think that politics have a nucleus that is something like an egg yolk, a nucleus which is very much similar to morals. Politics involve policy spheres in which something is happening, where interests are being harmonized. There is also a policy zone which is influenced by politics. Look at the tankers which the Latvian Shipping Company bought. They cost 40 million, but the company paid 50 million. Eventually someone stuffed some money into his own pocket. This is not the “yolk” of politics – the moral mission in the area of public policy is to provide services to everyone or to harmonize interests so that things are fine for everyone. Neither is this the “white” area of politics, it is not a sphere in which interests are balanced. It is an area of policy that is influenced by politics. There are probably zones in society which are not influenced by politics, but in the very center of politics, there should be high moral considerations – what is the point to politics in society? Politics should promote the development of society and the welfare of individuals and the nation, politics should seek a balance of interests, etc. This is largely happening in Latvia, because there are political idealists and enthusiasts, each party has such people. Some come up with completely honest ideas. Latvian public policy does have this “yolk”, here we’re talking about technical politics. I recently talked to Laimdota Straujuma from the Ministry of Agriculture. They have a council for cooperation among agricultural organizations, and its members include 50 structures of all kinds – grain producers, biological farmers, young people from the countryside, young farmers and so on. They come together fairly regularly, they yell at one another, but at least they talk through their interests. That is an example of the emergence of public policy at the technical level, in the political sphere.

Do the mass media make it clear that these interests are being discussed? Interests related to political parties, for instance?

I don’t know where parties talk about their interests and how that happens. This should be a matter of public policy, because parties are one of the most important agents for public policy. The newspapers create an impression that the level of openness among parties is quite low. Political parties do not engage in communications.

I have heard some people say that they simply don’t know how to communicate – it’s not a question of them trying to hide something that they’re doing.

When there was a discussion of gray cardinals at the policy forum, one politician said that the function of gray cardinals is to help politicians who do not discuss things among themselves or who do not know how to have such discussions to communicate. A communicator, a mediator – that is a good function, a good job.

What will be the subjects in the next election campaign? What would attract support?

Lots of things would. They’ll certainly be offering a flat poster which will be used by the media, by television. Politicians are convinced that political advertising is the same thing as the marketing of products – you have to show the quality, you have to distinguish products from one another and so forth. They have a chronic lack of understanding that the point to political advertising is to emphasize the sense of politics. Even the smartest people who pretend that they are super-smart use technologies for the shaping of political campaigns. The content of this technological product is completely separate from political common sense. What might be the alternative? One example would be not to show Politician X, but rather to show a party which has gone to the simple people and has given a local community or a local initiative group 100 lats in an election year, then taking a look at how that money has been spent for collective purposes. How can 100 lats generate the activities of a collective in a micro-environment? Have people become mobilized, have they decided how best to help themselves with those 100 lats? Have they learned to communicate, have they located even a tiny solution, and have they learned to obtain results that cost 100 lats? Then they have more self-respect, and they have improved their psychological, social and economic situation a little bit, by one half of one percent. If one party were to run an advertising campaign that focuses on that, this would be true politics, the true way in which politics are developed. We can put our entire national policy into one precedent of this kind, in a general way – our development vision, the common EU programming documents, our 35 national priorities. We show that there is one specific example of how we use our priorities to distribute national financing to agents who act on their own, who achieve results which are of benefit to the public.

Would voters be able to perceive this?

I don’t know whether they could from the perspective of the media, but I think that this example illustrates the entire sense of politics. Why do people who shape advertisements and political campaigns say so little about the purpose of public politics, instead talking so much about the facade of public politics, which is identified with elementary marketing of products? The technology, of course, is perfect, but the product is not the right one.

It works, though.

It works and it doesn’t work. The local government election showed that the posters of individuals that were stuck up all over town didn’t really work, and voters probably worked on the basis of other criteria in their selection – not on the basis of how often an image was displayed and what story was told. Investing more money does not necessarily lead to winning more seats. The Green Party, for example, didn’t advertise at all.

I read that in a recent interview Godmanis said that we have to work with political technologies, because one is tossed aside if one doesn’t know the mechanism that is involved. Classical techniques no longer allow one to function at all.

That’s the thing – the elite of a political party that is elected again and again are constructed with the help of media technologies. They have to compete amongst themselves – who will have the highest rating, who will be further up on the candidate list, who will be seen on the posters and in the advertising. The things that Godmanis said, as far as they are concerned, might mean that technology involves internal competition, but then the competition once again does not focus on the point of politics.

Do you agree that if someone in Latvia wants to learn about things and have at least some sense of what’s going on, then he can accomplish this?

He should be able to. I basically think that he can. The thing is that many people don’t do it, investigative journalists among them. The issue of the tankers is an example. Investigative journalists could have gone to the company that sold the ships, to the buyer, to the Privatization Agency. They could have monitored the history of the event, analyzed government policy, looked at what specific agents were doing. I think that they could have done that. Even if people didn’t want to talk, they would explain a lot. The accessibility of information is improving in all situations.

So it’s just an issue of laziness?

I don’t think so, I think it’s just a lack of understanding. Or else – for whom would that be important? Not to an aunt in Pampāļi or a cousin in Jelgava. It requires knowledge. How many researchers do we have? I think that when a specific matter is investigated, lots can be learned in a short period of time.

Another thing that I cannot understand is something that appeared in the context of 11 September – people don’t talk about things at the level of public politics. I don’t see any anti-American or pro-American discussions. After all, even the EU has never been discussed at the intellectual level. Why are there no such discussions? Are there no participants?

There are no participants, there are few people who would be interested. Discussions have to be provoked.

There are sufficiently serious provocations.

A provocation involves an unexpected or contrasting viewpoint about something that has happened. I looked at what was written in the “Sleja” column of Diena after the events of 11 September. I was intrigued by the fact that the columns demonstrated confusion, a lack of clarity, foggy and multi-faceted statements of the kind that make you think that the foggier, the better – things might be this or that. The authors were afraid of being provocative, but that’s what’s needed for a debate.

Why are people afraid of provocations?

Because they’re afraid of sanctions, of being denounced, of conventions which say how we should think. This shows that our intellectual history is too short to allow for powerful provocations and a critical approach. It also shows that canonized ideologies are taking root in society, and the intellectuals of the future will have an increasingly difficult time in moving away from these. One of these canonized ideologies involves the question of being in favor of or opposed to Europe.

There haven’t been any discussions here about that matter. There is a certain level of pro and con, but there have been no discussions, or else they have been artificially staged. Nobody is talking about the real changes that will occur in society . I would like to see how many different viewpoints there are in our society, what people are thinking. I don’t see that. That doesn’t apply only to the newspapers either.

Maybe that’s true when it comes to Europe. What else?

What the relationship between Russia and America means to Latvia, for instance. I only see positions that have to be pushed forward.

That could be called a positive blockade, where a thought is blocked. Everything is clear to everyone. The goals are completely clear and are not doubted.

But what about the content that is part of these goals? Is this an inability to discuss things?

On the one hand, there is fear, natural fear. I also become afraid when I shoot off my mouth too much. There are environments and groups in which views have been canonized, the political direction cannot be bent. Do you want to make a spectacle of yourself if you’re part of that environment? There’s another thing – something that I learned in Latgale, where I’m running a project. I went to see people who are establishing a partnership. I’m an observer, I comment on what they’re doing. My purpose is to promote their own self-evaluation. After a year we summoned everyone together to decide how things went. The same thing should be done with these major political directions. We need an inventory, an evaluation. We need to talk about these issues again, whether the issue is integration, which we still want, or whether we are talking about areas in which we still are happy to work. There should at least be monitoring-type discussions.

Maybe we don’t need discussions at all, maybe things just proceed on their own? Maybe nothing is lacking?

The discussion could be at the conceptual level, or on the surface level. There are waves in society. The media reflect them. If the waves remain, nothing happens at that level. If you only read the newspapers, you don’t feel what’s happening, and you don’t know what it all means – the real processes, the ones down below. Nobody calls things by their real name, nobody declares goals clearly. People push their interests forward via circuitous routes. When we get to a solution, then the mechanisms are not always understandable, they’re not always sufficiently public. I don’t want to say that all of this happens at the political level. Agriculture provides an excellent example of this. We want to lobby on behalf of one idea – how to join the EU so that some of the regional funds are spent on a specific event, to support partnerships. The point of partnership involves not just the economically powerful structures, which will make do in any event, but with the society which needs to activate its social capital. We promoted this idea at a meeting of state secretaries. Now 50 of us are going to go to a round table, offer a description of positive examples, demonstrate the results and say – take us! It’s a very slow process, introducing political innovations. I think that there is a general level from which nothing can really be understood, but then there are actual activities, real processes of communications which lead to a result – a political, economic or social result. That’s probably the skill of calling things by their proper name and perceiving things properly.

What things here are not being called by their proper name?

They are things in grand politics. Look at the Lattelekom monopoly – is that a matter of grand politics? The Latvian Shipping Company and all that relates to it. Have I had even one competent and knowledgeable individual, one politician telling me in simple terms about what is happening and about what would be advantageous to the state? Now one person says that the monopoly is advantageous to the Latvian state, someone else says that it has to be ended, but nobody gets down to the nitty gritty. I am not stupid, I would understand if things were explained to me in simple terms . Why aren’t they telling me what’s what? Maybe they just don’t know how to do that.

Might leftist politics in Latvia become more varied, not just in the understanding of Bojārs’ Social Democrats?

Leftist politics would definitely be supported in Latvia. Latvians are a just people – equality for everyone, farming roots for everyone. That’s why leftist ideas have great power at the theoretical level. What do you mean by “more varied”?

Do we have a potential for a leftist society of the type that supports Social Democratic parties in the West? There are people in the West who believe that a normal intellectual must be a leftist, for example.

I think that the average basic social instinct is leftist, based on the idea of social justice. This is a matter of how the nation feels. All of my family members are leftists, they are egalitarian in their thinking. That’s true of businessmen, too. I’m a businessman, I have a company, but that does not reduce the extent to which I’m a leftist. Insofar as I think about my own pocket in a targeted and rational way, I have relatively little worry about my neighbor, but psychologically and ideologically I am a leftist. Many small and medium business owners in Latvia are, too. The political structure in Latvia has been constructed quite artificially, it includes no sentiments which the people can recognize. If I wanted to vote for the ones who represent me … well, the import of liberal democracy was a moment of obsession which upheld the political system. Liberal democracy and rightist politics, in terms of how they were constructed, simply displayed an inability to manage politics, as far as I’m concerned. They announced that the market would dictate everything, economic forces would make life better. They stepped back from their functions as politicians, they didn’t understand things, they couldn’t do anything. Externally they took on a pose of supporting the market, but they didn’t understand that rightist politics, too, are very dramatic and targeted – regulations, support for businesses, social policies. It is not a free market policy at all. I think that’s why rightist identities in Latvia are in such a deep crisis, such a catastrophe I don’t understand why they’re all worried about why Repše isn’t building Socialism or a Social Democratic party – what does he see in rightist politics? From his bank, he doesn’t understand what’s happening. raksts

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