Sunday, November 13, 2005


Bringing back Eastern promise of brainy émigrés

By Edward Lucas

I first came across them in the 'Infobiuras' of the Lithuanian
pro-independence movement, Sajudis, in early 1990.

Young, bright-eyed Americans, Canadians and Australians, steeped by
fervently patriotic parents in the history of countries they hardly
knew, bent on fulfilling their historical destiny. They translated
documents into English, briefed journalists, advised politicians and
generally brought a blast of optimistic, confident radicalism to the
nervous, blurry world of collapsing Communism.
Sometimes the results were more spectacular than productive. During
one of the hairier moments of the Lithuanian independence struggle,
when it seemed as though the West, with the honourable but minor
exception of Iceland, was going to abandon Lithuania to the mercies of
Soviet stormtroopers, I remember hearing one beefy young Lithuanian
émigré bellowing down the phone "Don't be such a f***ing jerk!" I
asked him who he'd been talking to. "The American ambassador in
Moscow," he replied tersely.
There were grown-ups too. The most impressive, Stasys Lozoraitis, ran,
unsuccessfully, for president of Lithuania in 1993. He had spent his
whole life as ambassador to the Vatican and United States, in quixotic
service to a country that most of the world thought had disappeared in
1940. He was urbane, polyglot, amusing, and charismatic, with an
Italian wife who added a rare touch of glamour and sophistication to
the drab, stodgy world of Lithuania. Elsewhere, these high-powered
émigrés included a deeply impressive Canadian-Latvian professor of
linguistics, a forceful young man who ran the Estonian section of
Radio Free Europe and an ambitious Polish refugee-journalist, who
after studying at Oxford in the early 1980s spent time in
Soviet-occupied Afghanistan with the resistance.
The galaxy of talent had some black holes too. There was one adviser
to a Baltic foreign ministry whose sole qualification was a diploma in
bar management and a hard-drinking old bat in an economics ministry
whose previous job was as a junior public relations woman for a theme
park. One of the most energetic and engaging Lithuanian émigrés turned
out to have been working for both the KGB and the Americans (in what
order was never completely clear).
But the presumption then was that even the most modest émigré talent
was badly needed. Even the most superficial knowledge of the way the
West worked was a big advantage. Knowing how to use a computer, handle
phone messages, talk politely to strangers in English and organise
travel to faraway places were all rare skills.
That changed quickly. But the best émigré talent is still around. The
Canadian professor, Vaira Vike-Freiberga, is now president of Latvia
and one of the few East European politicians with a claim to world
status. The young man from Radio Free Europe, Tom Ilves, is now a
leading member of the European Parliament. The Anglo-Polish
journalist, Radek Sikorski, has just been sworn in as defence minister.
But the political balance has changed. Now the diaspora appears
provincial and out of touch. In Toronto, Ealing and the Chicago
suburbs, they are still baking the old recipes, learning folk songs,
sending children to Saturday school and keeping the church afloat. But
the diaspora is no longer the political lungs of nationhood: the
source of free ideas and discussion, a constant reminder that the
Communist version of the past, present and future was an evil fiction.
In politics, it's the homeland that's humming.
But not in economics. A million East Europeans or more have gone
abroad in search of jobs and education. That raises a big question for
the ex-captive nations: can they ever attract these bright, mobile
people back home?

No comments: