Thursday, February 28, 2008

Europe.view column

Can anyone help me identify this which I think I saw in a book dedication a few years back

"To those who in their freedom have no homeland and in their homeland have no freedom"

Here's this week's column


Independence days

Feb 28th 2008

What can émigrés do this time?

Get article background

DURING the four dismal decades of the last cold war, in places like New Jersey, Toronto, west London and Melbourne, communities distinguished by strange-sounding surnames and distinctive cuisine took root.

In the early years, many hoped they would be going “home” soon. But memories of their captive homelands became faded and rosy. The cause seemed all but hopeless: folk-dancing dentists against the evil empire.

But that changed as communism weakened. Dusty embassies, forlorn governments-in-exile, and powerless pressure groups, which for years had survived only to squabble, suddenly had real jobs to do. Strange men with bad teeth and shaggy beards—freedom fighters from “home”—had to be polished up and used to win over western public opinion, still bemused by the strange news from the east. Thousands of volunteers went back to help. When victory was won, some stayed, as businessmen, journalists, charity workers, officials—and politicians.

Recognition for the Baroness

Life may be duller now, but it can still be fun. A lively party at the Estonian House in New York last weekend toasted the 90th anniversary of the first Estonian republic. That is no historical footnote: it is a crucial political point for the Baltic states that they did not “gain” independence from the Kremlin in 1991, but “regained” what the Soviet occupation took from them.

Earlier, hundreds of Lithuanians celebrated their national birthday at a gala dinner in London, where speakers included Baroness Thatcher (frail of foot, but still in fine, fluent form on her favourite subject of freedom) and their own President Valdas Adamkus (who spent most of his adult life in America).

The former British prime minister received Lithuania’s highest honour, the Order of Vytautas (with a huge cream and crimson sash), and a thunderous ovation. Not her last hurrah, perhaps, but certainly a memorable one.

The third speaker was Lithuania’s hot-shot ambassador to Britain, Vygaudas Usackas. Some think he may be in the running for Mr Adamkus’s job next year. With more than 150,000 Lithuanians living in Britain, the new diaspora would be a useful pool of votes should he choose to seek them.

Some younger members of his audience have similar ideas. A few years’ hard work in the City of London sets an ambitious east European up for life. That could mean a badly needed new political class, of financially independent politicians and public figures with a clear idea of what still needs to change back home.

It would be nice to think that all ex-communist countries see the value of their diasporas. But all too often, they are shunned. If you are a corrupt and incompetent politician, it may suit you quite well if the most impatient people go abroad and don’t come back.

The big worry among the most seasoned émigrés is that the cold wind from the east has started before eastern Europe is ready. Politics is too close to business, and business too close to Russia. The public—at least the part of it that hasn’t emigrated—is disillusioned. Disgraced or dodgy politicians seem troublingly resilient, even when ties to organised crime and foreign secret services seem alarmingly clear.

“We needed another ten years”, says an old Baltic hand in Washington, DC. More time would foster a new generation of politicians and officials, stronger public institutions, and greater confidence among voters that the European and Atlantic option was really working.

Nobody is saying that the picture is hopeless. And it’s much worse if you are, say, Belarussian and are not sure your country is going to survive at all, let alone be free or well-governed. But among some hard-bitten veterans of the last cold war, the mood is surprisingly sombre.


Marcus said...

A lively party at the Estonian House in New York last weekend toasted the 90th anniversary of the first Estonian republic. That is no historical footnote: it is a crucial political point for the Baltic states that they did not “gain” independence from the Kremlin in 1991, but “regained” what the Soviet occupation took from them.


A minor point, but given that we regained independence, there is no first and second Republic. We celebrated the 90th anniversary of the one-and-only Estonian Republic.

Giorgius said...

and if you are young Georgian you have even more reasons to get depressed: RUssia is going to snatch away your territory, legalise ethnic cleansing, bomb and blame it on you, and convince EUrope to close door of NATO in front of your nose, no matter how hard you try to reform. And then Steinmeier says "we need to be in the same boat with Russia"...

Blair Sheridan said...

I wonder if the lack of ease with which the emigres sometimes view the motherland isn't something of a two-way street.

I'm no emigre (unless you count Scotland among the formerly repressed nations - hey, some do) so I'm more than a little removed from the debate. However, living in Kyiv over the past 4 years, I've witnessed some tension. While native Ukrainians, the families of whom never left, were certainly grateful for the support they received from the diaspora communities in Canada, the U.S.A. and other countries, there were less enthusiastic about being seen as a somewhat benighted bunch, speaking what they were told was a bastardised Ukrainian and, overall, intangibly poisoned by the years of Soviet rule.

I have a feeling (note - no proof) that they are rather resistant to being lectured by the diaspora about how to build democracy, market economy, etc. Added to this is the fact that so much of the diaspora returnees were originally from Galician families - a rather different place than central Ukraine, as I'm sure you're aware.

I've seen something of the same tension at a distance among Latvians on the Latvians Online discussion board, so I wonder if it isn't widespread among emigre communities in the Baltic States, as well. Do you know?

Pēteris Cedriņš said...

Re the quotation, there's a popular song by the brothers Austris and Uldis Grasis that runs "land, land, what is land, if you are not free -- freedom, freedom, what is freedom if you have no land." The line itself reflects Rainis, I believe, from his post-1905 exile in Switzerland.

Richard said...

Here is another tension in emigre affairs.

I have seen in Lithuania the total disconnect between Jews, visiting to view where their grandparents lived and died, and non-Jewish Lithuanins. Indeed, is it true that across the former captive nations of CEE, Jewish emigres are viewed with suspicion and contempt.

Also, in New Jersey, Toronto etc, do, in Lithuania's case, Litvak Jews and Christian Lithuanian emigres think they have anything in common. Do they share memories about how their grandparents used to buy and sell to each other in shtetl marketplaces?

Or, as I suspect, Jewish emigres are also suspicious of their former Christian neighbours and their descendents.

I have never seen any dicussion of this issue in the media.

The problems is that both groups did not see the ¨other¨ as ¨their own¨ people.

martins said...

marcus I can think of nothing more pendantic that your comment on Edward Lucas' article. After he goes to all the trouble to point out the Baltic states' point of view you try to add a correction. I'm afraid this kind of reaction is all too common in some of the former Soviet Union. A debate about syntax rather than real ideas.

Marcus said...

I did say it was a minor point, didn't I.

Anton said...