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Baltics: A Tale of Two Welcomes -- Lithuanian, Latvian Emigrants Return Home

  • Valentinas Mite

Iraqis are keeping a wary eye on emigrants returning home from abroad. They are not the only ones. In another part of the world -- the Baltic states -- people are also returning home after long years as emigres. The return has not always been easy. In Latvia, where more than a third of the population does not hold citizenship, returning emigres found opportunities to reacclimatize. But in Lithuania, where Lithuanians make up the vast majority of residents, the attitude toward returning emigres is decidedly colder, RFE/RL reports.

Prague, 7 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- In Iraq, the current return of emigres who fled the country decades ago is viewed with suspicion by many of those who stayed. Are people like Ahmad Chalabi, the head of the Iraqi National Congress, a loyal Iraqi driven away by a ruthless regime or an opportunist looking to stake his claim in a new government in Baghdad?

To some degree, this attitude can be seen in the Baltic states, which have also witnessed an influx of returning emigres since gaining independence in the early 1990s.

Some 75,000 Lithuanians fled to the West after World War II to escape the atrocities of the Soviet occupation. Now, Vilnius is encouraging them to come home, and has set up a special public office for the purpose.

Despite such efforts, Lithuanian authorities say only some 4,000 people -- the majority of them retirees -- have returned to the country in its decade of independence.

Vytautas Radzvilas, an analyst at the Lithuanian Institute of International Relations, tells RFE/RL that, at first, emigres were welcomed back to the country with open arms -- many to join the government and other state institutions. The most notable example is Valdas Adamkus, a former U.S. citizen who returned to Lithuania and was elected president in 1998.

With time, however, Lithuania's political elite -- many of whom were holdovers from the Soviet era -- came to resent the newcomers and portrayed them as "outsiders" incapable of understanding their homeland.

Radzvilas says, "The Lithuanian ruling elite changed much less than in Latvia and Estonia, for the simple reason that it [already] consisted mainly of Lithuanians [during the Soviet occupation]. That is one of the reasons why much less space was left [open] for [returning] emigrants. It's not surprising that the warm welcome they received in the beginning, the encouragement to work for the sake of the nation, ran parallel to the silent propaganda against them."

Even Adamkus, who once enjoyed significant popularity in Lithuania, came to be seen as an American unfamiliar with "real life" in the Baltics, Radzvilas says. Despite a successful presidency that saw the country receive invitations to join both NATO and the European Union, Adamkus lost his reelection bid this January to former Prime Minister Rolandas Paksas, who ran an aggressively populist campaign.

Radzvilas says there is a lingering assumption that returning emigres can do little of value in Lithuania because they have grown out of touch with its culture and traditions. But this, the analyst suggests, should be seen as a benefit and not a setback.

"I think the main problem is that [former emigrants] understand perfectly well what is going on in Lithuania. They simply don't qualify [to live here] because they lived in different conditions, they adhere to completely different moral and working standards. Putting it very directly, they are not corrupt, and they have become obstacles for many [officials here] working in state institutions and conducting shady deals," Radzvilas says.

In Latvia, the story is different. There, returning emigres have an important role to play in political life.

Aigars Freimanis, the director of Latvia's Fakti polling agency, told RFE/RL that Latvian returnees won 19 of 100 parliament seats in elections in 1993. "That was a very large number, because there were very few of them, and they had little opportunity to present themselves to the public," he says. "But the trust in them was extremely high. They immediately took several very important positions in Latvia's state structure."

Freimanis says Latvians returning from the United States, Germany, or Canada in the early 1990s were accepted as "half-divine creatures" -- people who remembered pre-Soviet Latvia, had Western expertise, and appeared capable of pushing the country swiftly along the path to reform. In part, Freimanis says, this assumption has proved correct.

"Experience, contacts, knowledge of Western conditions, ability and complete comfort in entering the offices of Western politicians and their contacts in the West. This, on the whole, was their biggest advantage, which people living here did not have -- I mean those people who were in the first ranks in the fight for independence [in Latvia]," Freimanis says.

Since then, however, Freimanis says there has been a gradual decline in trust in Latvia's returning emigres. He says several emigre politicians and ministers may have gone too far in proposing what he called "radical, risky" ideas. The number of emigres serving in the Latvian parliament has slipped to nine. On the other hand, Freimanis says, the country's current president, Vaira Vike-Freiberga, a retired psychology professor who lived most of her life in Canada, is the pride of the country.

"I think that our current president -- who is also a representative of emigration, though she was born in Latvia -- has all the qualities [emigrants are valued for]: knowledge of the Western way of life, understanding of Western values, and another very elementary but very important thing -- she speaks foreign languages. It helped her to take a prominent position not only in Latvia, but maybe also, in some sense, in all of Eastern Europe," Freimanis says.

Freimanis adds that to a certain degree, the continued influence of returning emigres in Latvian politics is due to the fact that most of the country's Russian-speaking population -- who make up some 30 percent of all residents -- do not hold citizenship.

The situation would be different if Russian-speakers could vote, Freimanis says. For them, Latvian emigres hold "no emotional appeal."

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