Thursday, February 26

Safire's Apples And Oranges

First, highlights of the article.

Return to Riga

Can people who have been taught only submission for generations, who are strangers to democracy, be trusted to govern themselves?

That's the question facing us in Iraq today. We will be asking the same question come the revolution in Iran or, even sooner and closer, after the chaos in Haiti.

Look for an answer in Riga, the beautiful capital of Latvia, a northern European nation conquered by Hitler before we entered World War II. He traded it to Stalin, and Latvians lived under oppression and Russian colonization for two generations.

When Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia broke free, Ukraine followed (despite Bush's "chicken Kiev" speech) and the house of Communist cards collapsed.

In the years since, Latvians suffered the anguish of raw democracy. The hundreds of thousands of Russians sent to colonize and dominate were no longer the elite; they now made up a disliked minority that would not go "home." Grudgingly, Latvia offered citizenship to Russians willing to learn the local language and residency to the rest.

Meanwhile, squabbles proliferated among former political allies. Personalities clash; coalitions are hard. Ten rightist cabinets failed to last a full term and only last week, the Parliament had to turn to an amiable Green Party leader to preside as the nation achieves its dream of membership in NATO and the European Union.

Latvians, new to democracy, are trying to embrace Europe without forgetting that America is their most reliable friend. In the same way, my other favorite pushed-around people — the Kurds of Iraq — have emerged from a U.S.-protected decade of tribal rivalries to show other Iraqi Muslims how their regional parliamentary progress can be a national example.

Democracy is heady wine and causes initial hangovers. But given a chance to become a habit, the exhilarating experience of freedom enriches and ennobles people. That's hard to believe until you've seen it with your own eyes.
It's a nice sentiment, but the comparisons to Iraq are totally without merit.

While Safire has been to Riga twice in 15 years, I have a good friend from Long Island who moved back there a dozen years ago - first as media director of the new government and now as a general manager of a few of Riga's media outlets.

We discussed this article and he agrees that it's a pretty huge stretch to make the Iraq-Latvia connection:

1) Democratic Latvia didn't come about by an invasion by another country.
2) Democratic Latvia was a choice made from within by its own people.
3) Latvia wanted to be part of the European community.
4) Democratic Latvia was ultimately the end product of a failed Communist rule.

In other words, Latvia's democracy is probably the purest form of democracy you'll find anywhere. It was decided by the people once they made their own break from a failed superpower. It wasn't foisted upon them by pressure or by outside military force. And they'll ultimately be welcomed by Europe with open arms, not shoved down their throats - nor were countries barred from the rebuilding process by outside edicts.

My friend adds that even though the USSR was considered an oppressive government, they did have a technological and cultural infrastructure which made the transition a lot easier.

Yes, there were big time growing pains, but democracy was done on their schedule under their conditions.

As you can see, Iraq's story has absolutely nothing in common with Latvia's. I like to think that Safire's smart enough to realize that.