Honourable President of Latvia,
Honourable Prime Minister,
Honourable Members of the Saeima,
Ministers,Excellencies,Ladies and gentlemen,
This year we are celebrating the 95th anniversary of the proclamation of the Republic of Latvia. Not long ago we assembled to mark 25 years since the establishment of the Popular Front of Latvia.
These two anniversaries serve as signs which literally make us stop and reflect on our state, its foundation and the values enshrined in them. The two anniversaries can be compared to stop signs that make us look back at our deeds in the course of almost a century and notice the continuity and the fortitude of our people.
Some believe that in times of celebration one must address general issues, significant principles and universal values; nevertheless, today I will focus on specific matters.
From time to time we get lost in general principles, advice and instructions; these are the moments when love and duty, past and future, hopes and experience clash within us.
But eventually we still return to specifics, namely, specific responsibilities, specific people, specific problems and their solutions.
Each of us was born to parents; however, these parents are not just any parents – they are our parents, our families and loved ones who shape us into who we are.
Each of us is a human being; nonetheless, we are not abstract human beings, but unique individuals, each with our own special background and an individual worldview. Although we often say: “If I were you, I would have acted differently”, we are still aware that we live our own lives, not someone else’s.
We sometimes forget about this inevitable concreteness of human existence when we refer to Latvia, our country. Then we say “this country”, usually with a negative tone – “this country is incapable…” or “this country cannot…” On such occasions, we dispassionately compare Latvia to other countries and point out its weaknesses.
Sometimes we are right. According to Thomas Friedman, publicist and winner of the Pulitzer Prize, in a modern flat world such comparisons are inevitable. Unfortunately, by comparing Latvia to other countries, we forget the real Latvia and the many ties that connect us to it.
Latvia is not an abstract concept to us; Latvia is not just this country. It is the place where we have experienced joy and sorrow; it is the place where we raise our children, where nature helps us to regain our strength after a long and hard week. Above all, this is the place where the roots of our patriotism can be found.
In recent years there have been a lot of discussions about patriotism. Patriotism is not algebra, since it cannot be taught as a set of universal principles. Patriotism is a sense of belonging. It is love for our fellow countrymen and our fatherland as something unique, our one and only.
It is not love on the grounds of the highest GDP or average salary but because it is our one and only country. We are proud of our flag flying alongside the flags of other European Union member states. Our hearts are filled with joy every time we see the flag of Latvia being raised at a concert or sports competition held abroad or when we see a Latvian flag on the uniform of a soldier serving in a NATO operation.
Therefore, true patriotism is not hidden in general phrases, formulas and principles. Rather, it reveals itself as the ability to keep track of what is happening around us – the well-being of the people of Latvia, prospects for Latvia’s young people and living conditions of the underprivileged.
This Summer, when meeting the owners of gardens tended with love and creativity in Nīca County, or lily breeders who are true patriots of Vecumnieki County, as well as 90-year-young Jānis Vasarietis, plant breeder, horticulturist and the founder of lily breeding in Latvia. I saw that all of these people are selfless in their work. They share the beauty they create by landscaping our country and making it more attractive.
The winner in the Family of a Farmstead category in the farmers’ competition was the Vaičuļi family, who embodies the work ethic in which we pride ourselves as a nation. The family runs the Zundi farmstead in Dagda County, and their work is a contribution to our shared future.
I recently met with my fellow Latvians from the Philadelphia Society of Free Letts, and was treated with bacon buns which were just as delicious as those lovingly prepared by our mothers and grandmothers here in Latvia.
All of us together – Latvians living here and far away – are the Latvian people. The Latvian flag does not fly from wind alone; it flies because Latvian people hold it high, proud and free.
Ladies and gentlemen,
The needs of society as a whole cannot be addressed without taking care of individuals and families.
This responsibility lies with politicians. The bar has been set high, and it is a matter of responsibility and honour for each of us to attain this goal.
There are no things in Latvia about which a politician could say “it does not concern me”. Every day we have to diligently explore previously unfamiliar issues; we have to walk in the shoes of Latvian people who are different from us – people of different age groups, educational backgrounds or ethnicities.
This is what a diligent service in the public interest is all about: instead of arrogantly neglecting specific problems in the name of an abstract society, we have to perceive and accept each and every Latvian resident as equally valuable and equally important for our common statehood.
We cannot hide behind general principles and slogans when it comes to assuming responsibility for what has or has not been done. Rhetoric about the crisis, globalisation and competitiveness tend to serve as a distraction from our own irresponsibility and failure to act.
Global developments seem to provide convenient excuses to neglect Latvia’s present reality. We are tempted to claim that we are too small, too exposed to global processes to do anything about them; we are tempted to isolate ourselves within our private comfort zones and to pretend not to care about things around us.
But let us not fool ourselves – it is we who are primarily responsible for the well-being of the Latvian people, not the European Union, the United States of America, global financial markets or any other external entity. Therefore, we should not merely preach patriotism; instead, we should practice it with specific actions and responsibilities.
As a sovereign country, Latvia has to actively strengthen relations with its international allies. Also in this regard we are tempted to assume that our membership in the European Union and NATO solves all problems and that Latvia can afford to ignore pressing issues in the international arena.
Meanwhile Europe and the whole world are changing rapidly. In such times it is essential to maintain a continuous dialogue with our allies. Latvia has proved itself as a trustworthy member of the international organisations it has joined.
Today we can no longer afford to rely on set routines. Latvia has to continuously protect its interests within the European Union.
The increased support for our farmers in the next European multi-annual financial framework is a good example of how an active approach leads to successful functioning in the European Union. Likewise, increase in investments in our national defence, including cyber security, is no longer an issue of tomorrow or the near future – it is an issue of today.
I am delighted to see the Young Guards in the Saeima on this festive day. For them Latvia’s security is a vital concern. The very fact that they are here among us shows that nowadays patriotism cannot be simply delegated to the state and politicians, who will outsource Latvia’s security. On the contrary, Latvia’s security will never be complete without civic commitment and readiness to protect our land.
Next year we will celebrate the tenth anniversary of our membership in NATO and the European Union. These ten years have passed quickly. However, cooperation with our trans-Atlantic and European allies should not become a routine matter.
The Saeima, alongside its everyday work, has also been doing its best in diversifying and perfecting parliamentary cooperation. Just recently our European Affairs Committee, in preparing for the annual foreign policy and European affairs debate to be hosted by the Saeima, held a discussion between MPs and experts dedicated to the Eastern Partnership. It is an extremely important geopolitical matter in which Latvia should not remain on the sidelines.
The Foreign Affairs Committee of the Saeima has proved with its activities that it sees Latvia’s foreign policy as stretching beyond the European Union. Cooperation with the parliaments of major developed and emerging economies has encouraged economic relations and political dialogue.
This month the Saeima hosted David Usupashvili, Speaker of the Parliament of Georgia. As a member state of the European Union and NATO, Latvia has always supported Georgia in its reforms. Georgia and other Eastern Partnership countries can rely on Latvia’s support in the future as well.
These are very specific examples that highlight the multifaceted and broad nature of our cooperation with international partners. We must always seek new ways of strengthening Latvia’s position in Europe and the World.
Latvia’s Presidency of the Council of the European Union in 2015 with our specific message, priorities and proposals to Europe should also be considered from this perspective. This is the time for Latvian politicians to try and put aside their usually conflicting views for a moment and make Latvia’s name and our values proudly resonate across Europe and the World.
Latvia is a small state; the last census showed that there are only slightly more than two million of us, and the number is constantly decreasing. Therefore, every citizen is valuable.
Latvia’s situation is unique.
Before and during World War II, a huge number of citizens – intelligentsia, political élite, industrialists and many others – were forced to leave their fatherland. Neither they nor their descendants could return to Latvia for 50 years.
Our nation has been scarred by several waves of deportations when adults, children, the elderly, the healthy and the sick were sent to Siberia. It was genocide against the entire nation, and its sole aim was to force people to accept the communist regime as almighty and the end of lawfulness, the rule of law, independent opinions and human values.
Even today, especially under the impact of the recent economic and financial crisis, many fellow citizens have gone abroad in search of better lives and jobs.
Our fellow citizens worldwide – not only victims of deportations, refugees of World War II, their children and grandchildren but also job seekers of the 21st century – all belong to Latvia.
Although they are far away, they have strong bonds with their Latvia.
Amendments to the Citizenship Law that came into force on 1 October of this year enable Latvian expatriates to maintain a link to their country. It is a settlement of our debt to those who lived with Latvia in their hearts during the years of exile. It is legal security we provide to those Latvian children born abroad who will be willing to return to the fatherland of their parents. Latvia is still a good place to live and to shape one’s future.
Ladies and gentlemen,
During recent months, a discussion has begun on the basic principles of the Latvian state; it was set in motion by the draft preamble of the Constitution, and the keen interest taken in this matter is no accident.
Apparently, during recent years while we have been concentrating on fulfilling day-to-day tasks, a lot has been left undiscussed and unexplained. It appears that the values contained in the Constitution, which have been taken for granted, need to be expressed and reaffirmed more explicitly.
The Latvian people have exercised their right of self-determination and established their own state; therefore, the state of Latvia is unthinkable apart from the Latvian language and Latvian culture.
However, that does not accord special privileges to Latvians in this country. Quite the contrary – it confers great responsibility, including responsibility for minorities that have historically lived in Latvia and are part of the people of Latvia alongside ethnic Latvians.
Only when people of all ethnicities feel secure and cared for will the mission of the state nation be accomplished.
The discussion about the preamble of the Constitution has already created a clash of opinions. However, I hope that in the deafening background noise filled with admonitions about the way that the preamble is being elaborated and even allegations of shifts in the objectives of the state, the legislature will be sufficiently farsighted and wise to not lose its grip on the main idea and essence, which is to clearly express the goal and meaning of the Latvian state, as well as to reinforce the values upon which our state is founded.
We can live each day with mutual respect and work together to promote national development. We can ensure that our children are able to perpetuate with confidence the fundamental values of the state of Latvia founded in 1918.
Latvia is a concrete state, and its patriots must act accordingly. We cannot love an abstract former or future Latvia. We have to love the Latvia of today for what it is and what it can be.
In this regard I would like to recall the film Keep the Heavens Open…, which was screened in the Saeima in honour of the 25th anniversary of the Popular Front of Latvia. It is a deeply moving film based on the personal and emotional accounts of the Awakening as told by MPs of the time and their contemporaries who supported the idea of an independent state.
In the film Jānis Dinevičs, former member of the Supreme Council, says: “In my opinion, today many people feel more or less disillusioned. They think that the dream for which they stood at the barricades has disappointed them. I am here to say: it is not so! There is no greater treasure than an independent state that lets this nation grow and develop.… I am sure that we will manage to climb out of this pit in which we find ourselves today, because there is no place more beautiful than Latvia. It is a place loved and guarded by God.”
Let us be realistic, but let us not overindulge in criticism and scepticism. In a recent issue, the respected publication The Economist said that in terms of GDP per capita Latvia has just overtaken Poland and Hungary, although merely two years ago we were at a stable third place from the bottom among European Union member states.
The Economist goes on to forecast that in 2014, as was the case this year, Latvia will have the fastest growing economy in the EU. These facts and forecasts confirm yet again that we have a wonderful country and the power to shape its future.
Some of those present here today probably remember what Latvia looked like in 1976 – at the depths of the hopelessness and bleakness of Soviet stagnation. We were living in an occupied state where we could only secretly commemorate the founding fathers of Latvia and those who have sacrificed their lives in defending our country.
But these years of gloomy oppression and captivity did not keep poet Ojārs Vācietis, a true patriot of his country whose 80th birthday we mark this year, from writing these profound and wise words, so true to the point:
Behind us there was but one.Around us there is but one.And ahead of us there shall be but one.Latvia.
Springfrom the stack of bones.Be a seedlingand grow.Be one,and you shall be manyin Latvia.
God bless Latvia!