Becoming Liberal in Latvia

School of Europeanness: Tolerance and Other Lessons in Political Liberalism in Latvia, by Dace Dzenovska (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2018)

reviewed by Sultan Doughan, Boston University

In School of Europeanness, Dace Dzenovska provides a critical ethnographic account of political and economic liberalization in Latvia. The book’s main argument is that Latvians are “learning to live inclusion and exclusion the European way” (p. 3), which means being caught in a paradox of excluding in the name of inclusion. At the heart of the book is the question of how to make Latvians into national citizens in an emerging nation-state while also participating in the transnational project of liberal-democratic Europe. Dzenovska demonstrates that there are multiple modes of organizing inclusion and exclusion, but depending on the historical moment some are seen as more European than others. Both openness to difference and its refusal “share an underlying understanding of Europeanness as a civilizational space” (p. 3) and constitute a moral-political landscape. This landscape provides the ground for two positions in constant tension with one another. Consider how the major powers of Europe have invested in detention centers and refugee camps in the Middle East and North Africa, while professing the value of human rights. The refugee crisis figures prominently in the book and exemplifies the internal complexities, contradictions and paradoxes of claiming Europeanness by virtue of exclusion, especially by the exclusion of non-Europeans.

The book is based on nearly two decades of research with government officials, NGO workers, and community representatives. The research was started at the height of EU-implemented liberal reforms in 2005, and Dzenovska set out “to deconstitute political liberalism as an actually existing post-Cold War formation in Latvia” (p. x). She focused on the “contested projects” and social initiatives that were enabled by European democratization policies and underwritten by funds given out during the postsocialist transition, in order to remake Latvia in the name of political liberalism. This remaking involved the legal implementation of transnationally recognizable norms such as human rights, minority rights, tolerance, civil liberties, and the rule of law, but it also built from locally specific elements that emerged through encounters and arguments, as these norms were put into practice in specific cases.

To show the emergence of such local projects, she focuses on the efforts of “tolerance workers”: people who as professional activists, NGO workers, and community organizers were engaged in promoting tolerance for religious, racial, and sexual differences as a political virtue.  The notion of tolerance becomes an organizing device for talking about inclusion without questioning the foundations of the state (p. 9). Tolerance then is the major form that organizes and inscribes a liberal European Latvian self: one who displays the right attitudes, sensibilities and dispositions towards Latvia’s own colonial past; one who can name and relate to migrants and minorities; one who wants to overcome the Soviet past; and ultimately one who, as a citizen, favors guarding the borders from intruders, but in a humane way (pp. 174-186).

Dzenovska states that the effort of Europeanizing is undergirded by an idealized imaginary Western Europe, simply referred to as Europe. Demands to Europeanize are folded with accusations of illiberalism and of having a “Soviet mentality,” which is a shorthand for all kinds of social ills, “such as corruption, emigration, intolerance, lack of activity, insufficient entrepreneurial skills, people’s expectations in relation to the state” (p. 89). Further, Latvian activists, publicists, politicians, and government officials blame this putative Soviet mentality for making Latvians unable to discern problems of intolerance or think critically, that is in a self-reflexive manner and in recognition of multiple viewpoints (pp. 113-117).

This imaginary Europeanness and liberalism, projected as a point of future arrival, remain deferred throughout the political mobilizations and processes she studies (p.120). Dzenovska argues, however, that “accusations of illiberalism […] reveal the contours of political liberalism as an ideological and civilizing project located in historically specific fields of power” (p. x). As such, she does not claim to add another critique of liberalism, but rather renders visible the paradoxical work that becoming European demands from Latvian nationals and public institutions (p. 18). For example, when news about historical Latvian colonialism provided the opportunity to think about Latvia as a nation with a colonial past, Latvians scholars in particular were torn between colonial pride and shame (pp. 18-24). The rediscovered colonial past at once made Latvia more like Western European states, while also exposing attitudes that did not resemble morally acceptable postcolonial attitudes within Western academic circles.

Ultimately, however, socialism as a specter haunts Latvians as the main reason they have not arrived in the European present.  Here, too, there is a problem of inclusion and exclusion. Latvian officials attach Soviet mentality to “Russian speakers” (p. 46), a designation that applies to a multiethnic group of citizens of the former Soviet Union, who are not necessarily always Latvian citizens. She explains in great detail how the newly liberalizing Latvian state is also a nationalizing one, placing greater value on Latvian as the national language and marker of belonging. The problem of “Russian-speakers” within the Latvian nation creates a convergence between liberals and nationalists, who argue that these subjects’ conduct needs scrutiny and disciplining (pp. 44-50).  The fact that certain ethnic groups speak Russian publicly or dare to make political claims on behalf of their group-identity is identified as “bad minority behavior” by Latvian officials (p. 49). Dzenovska approaches this phenomenon through an analytics of “regimes of value”:

That is, the ways in which particular values get deployed in granting residence or citizenship and the ways in which such values overlap with markers of ethnicity, race, or religion in governing difference through the liberal frameworks of citizenship and majority-minority relations (p. 48). 

Dzenovska takes her cues in this analysis from other Europeanists, who also account for Western Europe as a “community of value” (p. 47) where multi-ethnic Muslims become a problem for liberal society because of their putatively different and unassimilable insistence on religious conduct in public. Dzenovska’s ethnographically rich discussions show how nationalism and a liberal form of statism are also intertwined in identifying and disciplining subjects who are not-yet European enough, in the context of a Europeanizing Latvia. The conceptually driven analyses provide larger insights beyond Latvia for anyone working on liberal values, nationalism and the minority question in Europe.