Latvia is a country, right?
Imagine if I had to pitch an advertising campaign congratulating Latvia on the successful conclusion of its maiden Presidency of the European Union (EU) in June this year, since it joined the union in 2004. If someone randomly came up to me and asked what my concept would be: it would be exactly what you just saw: The title and picture saying: Latvia, your flag is on my lips, Congratulations!
But to do that I would have to assume that you know what Latvias’ national flag looks like and why it would be significant for me to wear it on my lips. Since I myself was simply clueless about Latvia less than ten months ago, I thought it might be cool to let you in on the thinking behind this fictitious advertising campaign of mine which no one has asked me to do by the way. I do it just because its fun to learn new things and to travel, even virtually. So my pitch is all about current history as you may have guessed so here goes:
First a disclaimer: I have never set foot in this country
So those of you who watch the news beyond your borders might be wondering why I would even bother congratulating Latvia on its EU presidency when the EU itself is faced with arguably more pressing matters to resolve. First among them being the question of sanctions against Russia and Ukraine, should they be lifted or not? The second is the issue of EU reforms brought forward by the United Kingdom, which wants a package of changes including tougher rules on migrant benefits and fair trade with the Eurozone. Britain has a planned referendum in 2017 to decide on whether to stay in or out of the Union. So in light of this and many other issues concerning the EU such as Greece’s increasing financial delinquency, including an increasing wave of migrants from Africa into Europe, Riga – Latvia’s capital city’s role in the EU’s drivers’ seat for the past five months may seem well… inconsequential at best.
Think about our younger years
I was actually quite shocked to discover that I share more in common (politically) with the small republic in North-Eastern Europe than with the rest of the 27 European Union member states combined. It was a strange feeling indeed. How was that possible right? I mean my knowledge of Latvian history and politics was until recently, non-existent. And if on the very rare (unidentified flying object) occasion that it came up in conversation I would have automatically lumped it in the larger pool of Russia’s (USSR) former conquests and basically left it at that.
But I couldn’t have been more wrong
Over the last couple of months, through intermittent and sporadic research prompted by a desire for something new, I found out that I do in actual fact share much more in common with Latvia than with many of the countries in Europe I have visited or wished so fervently to see – I gave it my best shot Paris! Latvia’s history is complicated even for me, I couldn’t keep track of the many, many conquest that took place there. But just to simplify a long story. Because of its strategic geographical location, Latvia has fought many wars with four main enemies at different times and simultaneously in its very tumultuous history: Germany, Sweden, Russia and the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth. They’ve all pushed, pulled, killed and, manipulated in order to gain control of this 94 square kilometer of land. For one Latvians are a brave and persisted lot who fought valiantly and tirelessly, with, for and against their occupiers, Russia and Germany who alternated possession of Latvia as if it were a ball in a tennis match. In fact I think at some point in history Latvian soldiers were fighting from all sides both with and against the Germans and Russians who were in turn fighting other Latvians to gain control of the Baltic nation. I never in a million years thought I could encounter a country whose history is more complicated than my own and as far as Latvia goes – it’s complicated and that’s not even an understatement. Though Latvia gained independence in 1918, it took another 72 years of fighting off the various factions before it regained its independence again in 1990 on the fourth of May, despite having lost its independence formally to Russia in 1940.
Puts independence into perspective right?
In 72 years (and perhaps even to date) Germany and Russia could not leave Latvia alone which meant that Latvians not only had to learn to hold on to who they were and their identity they also had to learn how the Sweet and honest Swedes, Precise and Competent Germans, Passionate and Strategic Russians and the Cynically pragmatic Poles were like and then use that knowledge to attain what they desired most of all: a right to self-determination and sovereignty. They had to ultimately win not only just a physical, logistical or geographical war against the Germans and the Russians et al, they had to win the most important war of all: The psychological war. Learning and understanding how the opposition thinks.
After joining the European Union in 2004 it took 11 years before the chair of the EU chairmanship could rotate to their corner, which for them is a huge milestone. Even though the EU presidency rotates every six months to each of the member states, it shines a spotlight on the host country which is probably equivalent in my case to South Africa being included in the UN Security Council for the first time in 2007 (it was also the first time an African country was included in the SC in the UN’s history!) So it’s a huge deal and milestone for Latvia. This is a time for them to flex their muscle and see how far their influence(if any) goes with the big boys. The country has made many gains and losses since its independence 25 years ago, but is today a largely stable country with a rapid economic growth of about 10 percent a year before an economic crisis and recession in 2009 reversed these gains. The country quickly recovered though and attained an annual growth of 5.5 percent by 2012 making it the fastest growing EU country to date. Even so the rate of unemployment is very high (9.1%) in a country of about 2 million people. Virtually all the previously state-owned small and medium enterprises have now been privatized with the exception of three. ( energy, oil and telecoms) two of which the country is planning to sell. With the second fastest internet speeds in all of Europe after Romania, it’s service sector provides about 24% of jobs in the country.
I see you, Thank you for the compliment
So my campaign which is basically this picture of a black woman is exactly what Latvia is not – on the outside. But I think if you were to look deep into the heart of Latvia ( conflicted and controversial as they may be) you will find that they look just like the pictured black woman. They have a level depth which is as frightening as it is exciting. They have penetrating black diamond like eyes: mysterious, curious, playful, visionary and sad all at the same time. They are wildly free and are connected to nature ( half of Latvia is made up of forest)and most things natural. They are intuitive, compassionate and sensitive. A people of legends, myths and numbers. Practical and wildly creative. They are not only strong and can whether tough storms but they are also resilient and still maintain a youthful maturity, exuberance and just a little touch of innocence or maybe some naivety. And finally they are passionate people: their flag is the colour of dark red on either side representing an ocean of blood spilled for independence (the exact colour of the lipstick, a mix of browns and purples) with a strip of white in the middle (represented here by the biting pearls or teeth). And since Latvians are not known for their wide beaming smiles – the only way to wear their flag on your lips is to do exactly the opposite and yes you guessed it: smile. ( this effect also works with red-wine stained lips). So for what it’s worth, congratulations Latvia, Paldies, for the inspiration.