Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Foreign policy continues the domestic one

Exactly ninety years ago Entente powers recognized Estonia and Latvia de jure. Due to such an important commemoration there were special events organized both in Latvia and Estonia. Personally attended the occasion in Riga, which was jointly organized by the Latvian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ambassade de France a Riga, and well attended. Presentations were extremely rich with historic data that was arbitrarily "forgotten" or not known in the Latvia during the interwar period and the following Soviet occupation. To commemorate this date also foreign policy debates are back in the Latvian parliament. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs produced a document and yesterday the Foreign Affairs Committee held its preliminary session with the most prominent Latvian foreign policy experts present.

Today there will be a possibility to observe public speech endowments of the Latvian MP's and ministers. The reason why I said that foreign policy debates are back in the parliament is the fact that from 2005 - 2010 rational and productive debates about any policy issues were actually absent from the Latvian talking shop (parliamentary debates in old democracies are mostly used to discuss policy issues and not only to push YEA and NAY buttons). Since the 2010 parliamentary elections the culture of political debates is back in the Latvian parliament, and I have witnessed it for the last 2 months. Foreign policy debatee in today's parliament could institute a tradition to have annual foreign policy debates in the parliament not only to commemorate foundations of the republic, but also to give the law giving branch of power to exercise its powers at its fullest. Also it is symbolic that due to this special occasion the speaker of the Latvian parliament was in Tallinn to discuss the upgrading of the work of the Baltic Assembly in order to give a new dimension for the good neighborly relations between the Baltic States.

All the previously mentioned events signify reappearance of fresh ideas among Latvian policy makers. However, they also signify that there are still ample to do in Latvia in order not only to have wholesome foreign policy debates in the parliament, but also to provide the Latvian public with means to discuss foreign policy on daily basis and to enable them to understand the fast changing global environment. This fact actually makes Estonia thus different from Latvia even though my Estonian colleagues would remind me that the Estonian situation is far from perfect. Indeed, Estonian situation cannot compete with Scandinavian countries or world's traditional powers yet when we want to analyze possibilities and mechanisms for wholesome foreign policy making, nurturing foreign policy experts, and enlightening the general public. Also the last argument is contestable because there is no country in the world where governments should take a duty in enlighting its general public about foreign policy issues, because those are mostly travails of free media.

And free media is the fact that distinguishes Latvia from Estonia among many other things. There are objective reasons for Latvia falling in a Freedom House rankings during past years. But my personal observations during last twenty years allow me to conclude that structurally media environments in two countries differ. It is not even the issue about the social science journals which have gradually evaporated into thin air in Latvia. The best example is if one compares contents of the Latvian and Estonian public media - in the Latvian TV there is one and half (!) program about foreign affairs if one considers the weekly De Facto as a program that from time to time covers also foreign policy issues. Also there is no such thing as the Estonian KUKU radio with its culture of political debate in Latvia. Finally the creation of the Estonian Public Broadcasting have started synergy on news making and allows to capitalize on being the best global source of the Estonian language news & culture. At the same time Latvian Public TV and Radio must compete with other commercial TV and radio stations in already lost battle for better ratings.

Also after the Latvian TV went digital there are still households who cannot adjust their old TV sets and thus afford viewing TV, and there are still areas particularly in Eastern Latvia where Russian and Bielorussian TV and radio reign supreme. Whenever you cross Latvian border to Estonia or Lithuanian the Latvian radio literally disappears from car radio after some ten kilometers of drive. Quite the contrary is with the Estonian and Lithuanian radio, because I use to listen Lithuanian news in my car in Riga and Estonian radio all the way until Bērzukrogs. So much about the technological capacity of the Latvian public broadcasters and I better wrap up in order to participate in today's debates in Saeima.

Traditionally the foreign policy starts at home with continuous increase of the governing capacity. Local public broadcasting is a particular area that has been neglected in Latvia for quite some time. Institution with a funny name - the National Electronic Media Council - is independent entity by law, but still being politically influenced without much transparency in their deliberations. In order to see new electronic media law being passed, the previously mentioned institution upgraded, and possibly new Latvian Pubic Broadcaster formed an agreement must first be formed in the present governing coalition. Until there is no such agreement it is futile to expect positive and Europeanized transformations in this field. After hopefully fruitful debates in the Saeima today it could eventually turn out as a next priority for the Unity political union in order to transform the Latvian public broadcasters into news source which could ensure continuation of broadcasting of an informed political debates and gradual transformation of the culture of political discussions.

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