Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Latvia and the legacy of Communism

Just back from Riga, one of my favourite European cities, where I have been working for the last six months with the Latvian Institute and a coalition of ministers, private sector and civil society leaders on an identity strategy for Latvia. Latvia faces a problem which is common throughout its neighbourhood: the urgent need to try and rebuild a national identity and reputation which the Soviet Union almost entirely deleted. Without a positive profile, everything that countries like Latvia want to do on the international stage is doubly difficult, whether it's trade, international relations, tourism, investment promotion or simply participating freely and productively in the global world.

This is one of the less recognised impacts of Communism: by cutting off all movement of trade, culture, people and communications between its satellite states and the rest of the world, the Soviet system effectively destroyed the public identities of these countries. Now, they have to painstakingly rebuild those identities, brick by brick.

The lucky countries are the ones which were left with beautiful cities - like Riga, Prague, Ljubljana and Budapest - as they have been able to attract plenty of tourists to their capitals and thus re-open a dialogue with the West, and beyond: for the Ryanair generation, the appeal of such places has little to do with their past, and everything to do with their nightlife, their affordability and their fashionability. The countries and cities without obvious tourist appeal and without budget airline links have a far harder task ahead of them.

Spain, too, had an easier job 're-introducing' itself to Europe after the death of Francisco Franco, because his rule was short enough for Europeans still to share a common memory of Spain as a dynamic, modern European democracy. People only needed to be reminded of this, and to be reassured that Spain was once again open to the world and open for business, and Spain could pick up the pieces of its shattered reputation again. But few people outside Eastern and Central Europe have any conception of countries like Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary or the Baltic States as free countries with their own proud histories, cultures, personalities, products, landscapes, traditions, languages and people.

There are few bigger crimes than what was done in the name of Communism during the last century: entirely obliterating a country's good name and its history and identity, along with the centuries of its progress and cultural growth, and like some global game of snakes and ladders, sending it back to square one to fight for recognition in a busy, highly competitive, and largely indifferent world.