Back in high school, a friend who cheated on tests once told me that “a criminal is not someone who committed a crime, it’s someone who got caught.” It occurred to me that the same principle applies not just to individuals’ moral dilemmas of test-taking but to entire countries as well. As long as you are smart about it, you, as a leader of nation, can do anything you want: you can have your handful of human rights violations, you can glorify murderers from your historic past, and you can even have yourself a nice little apartheid state. All of those things could be achieved without much protest from the world community.
First of all, your country has to be small. Affairs of small countries often go unnoticed. You need to have an open and growing economy so that enough foreign business interests like you. If at all possible, you may benefit from reminding every nation around you about your past history of being oppressed by a colonizing tyrant. You also need to show your loyal support to a couple of major world powers and make yourself useful to them so that they are willing to overlook your “temporary excesses.”
Take for example a look at Latvia. Just in case you are not familiar with this country, and quite frankly there is no reason why you should be, here is a short summary. Latvia gained its independence in 1918 from Russia only to be annexed again, now by the Soviet Union, right before the start of the World War II. Its people spent years of Soviet oppression yearning for independence and gathered a lot of support in the West. When the freedom was finally achieved in the early ’90s, most expected these noble freedom fighters to establish a liberal democracy. Many people are under the impression that they did.
In many ways Latvia met these lofty expectations. They became models of successfully reformed, rapidly growing democracies with a small caveat — newly independent Latvia granted citizenship only to those whose ancestors lived in the country before the Soviet annexation. The problem with that approach is that in 40 years of the Soviet rule hundreds of thousands of ethnic Russians, Ukrainians, Byelorussians and other Soviet peoples moved to Latvia. Most of them came because of active encouragement by the Soviet government. While Latvians often perceive them as “Soviet colonizers,” most of them were simply victims of the regime. Totalitarian states like the Soviet Union do not allow their citizens for too many choices.
The new citizenship laws had dire consequences for these people. If your grandparents moved to Latvia in 1945 and your parents and yourself were born in the country, you would not be qualified for citizenship. In that case to get a citizenship, you will need to take several humiliating tests on Latvian language and history. According to Ukrainian newspaper Korrespondent, in all of 12 years of Latvian independence only sixty five thousand of so-called “foreigners” passed the test while almost half a million or a about a quarter of Latvia’s residents never did and are officially viewed as “noncitizens.”
To me these rules are awfully similar to such aspects of Jim Crow as literacy tests and grandfather clause. Radio Svoboda reports that besides the right to vote, noncitizens are also barred from certain professions like working for the government and being a lawyer or a judge. They also can not inherit land or bequeath it to their children. All in all in 2000, there used to be 54 differences in rights and freedoms, and the situation only got worse since then. According to NewsRu.com, a reputable Russian online news source, the common nomenclature for a “noncitizen” is a “nigger,” which happens to be the shorthand for the Russian word for noncitizen.
In the face of these less-then-reputable actions, the world community does not seem to be terribly concerned. Just a week ago Latvia was admitted to NATO and will accede to EU this summer. Both of these institutions see democracy as a cornerstone of their ideology. Why wouldn’t they force Latvia to get its act together? There are several reasons. First, while Latvia’s practices are abhorrent, it is, sadly, one of the most democratic post-Soviet states. In Latvia about three quarters of the population has real political influence. In the neighboring Russia, the number is limited to Putin and his immediate entourage. Second, Latvia has been a loyal follower of the United States in all of its projects including the war in Iraq. The biggest reason however is probably that most people in the West simply do not know anything about Latvia, and the media seems to consider it below its dignity to talk about a country that small.
None of these reasons, or any other reasons for that matter, is good enough. Not only does enrolling Latvia jeopardize the integrity of the two finest international institutions we have, it all also sends a powerful message: Democracy is nice but not important. As long as you do not incense anyone, you can do fine without it.
Boris Volodarsky is a junior in Trumbull College.