Coming from New York, I usually give The New York Times a pass. Compared to the wildly popular (and yellow) tabloids like The New York Post or the New York Daily News, or even the The Wall Street Journal‘s preachy editorial page, it retains a semblance of clarity.
Unfortunately, the Times’ recent coverage of the Baltic region continues to disappoint. At first I excused it as the fault of having a correspondent cover the Baltics from Moscow. But excuses have turned to disappointment, which has led to disgust and finally anger. Particularly worrisome is a article that appeared this week on Latvian parliamentary elections.
It’s not that the writer, Michael Schwirtz, has his angle wrong: Latvia’s economic woes have made Harmony Center, a party with ties to Putin’s United Russia, more popular. I won’t argue with that. But the language in which he coaches his account of Latvian politics since 1991 is suspect.
First, Latvia is tiny. “Unable to physically uproot the country from its tiny plot next to Russia, they sought to integrate as deeply as possible with the West.” The dimunutive size of the Baltic countries, particularly when compared to Russia, the largest country in the world, is an attribute that is constantly recited by American journalists. Why? I think it is because by explaining away Latvia’s smallness, American readers don’t have to feel responsible for knowing where it is. But would The New York Times call Denmark tiny? How about the Netherlands? They are both smaller than Latvia. And Latvia is three times larger than Israel, something to think about when you consider that miniscule country’s, um, tiny territorial conflicts.
Second, the article presents the foil of the West as something to which Latvia does not exactly belong. “The crisis, which hit harder here than anywhere else in Europe, shattered Latvians’ illusions of the West as a bastion of easy wealth and eternal prosperity.” The West suffers a significant economic crash and Latvia suffers a tremendous economic meltdown, but they are not one and the same? Swedish banks bail out Iceland and Latvia in the same year under similar conditions, but somehow the crisis that is most similar to Latvia’s doesn’t even merit mention in the article. And, wouldn’t you know it, but Iceland’s crisis brought a left-leaning constellation of parties to power. It’s not even fodder for an article: that’s a whole goddamn PhD dissertation right there. But The New York Times doesn’t connect the dots.
Third, the localization of history. “Despite Soviet and many modern Russian claims to the contrary, it is a period that the local populations consider an occupation.” On June 18, 1940, Mr. Schwirtz’s own paper’s headline read: “Red Forces Speed into Baltic States; Push Occupation of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.” The lead was, “Soviet Russia, which won important military concessions from Finland by war, was rushing troops and tanks tonight to new Baltic bases seized from Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania by ultimatum.” Ooh, occupation, troops, tanks, seized by ultimatum? There are no weasel words in there, are there?
How is it possible that The New York Times can ignore its own reporting from the time in question? It took me three minutes to pull that from the online archive. And it’s not like the United States government doesn’t take a stance on the matter. This July, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton celebrated the 70th anniversary of the Welles declaration. “This milestone document supported the Baltic States as independent republics at a critical moment to ensure their international recognition and facilitate the continued operation of their diplomatic missions during 50 years of occupation,” Clinton stated.
Then there’s the rehashing of Latvia’s citizenship laws. “When they gained independence, the new Baltic governments enacted policies that alienated and oppressed the Russian-speaking population.” This is just terrible. It’s like he lifted it from a Russia Today or ITAR-TASS article, or maybe just a Russian foreign ministry press release. First of all, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania all have different policies regarding citizenship, not to mention minority rights. But look at the highly subjective language Schwirtz uses: “alienated”, “oppressed.” If he wanted to be taken seriously at all, he would have qualified it: “some say that Latvia enacted policies that have left them feeling alienated and oppressed.” Then he would merely be reporting, which is his job, instead of editorializing.
Finally, a return to the script: “Latvia’s president, Valdis Zatlers, who has the power to appoint the prime minister, has vowed to ignore the candidacy of any politician who does not plan to continue Latvia’s Western course” paired with these final words of wisdom, contained in a quote: “We need to work with [Russia] in economy and culture. They have everything; they have gas and they have oil.”
To me, it appears that The New York Times has taken the Ukrainian story and tried to apply it to Latvia. It’s the dreaded “post-Soviet” line, where all off the former Soviet republics eventually fall under the control of Moscow. I think this is actually comforting to some Western journalists, because it allows them to excuse their laziness with grand ideas that they don’t actually understand. The decoy of the Soviet Union or Russia as an anchor of regional stability is from a historical perspective quite laughable, but Western journalists keep falling for it, because it allows them to extricate themselves from tricky debates over Crimea or South Ossetia or Latvian citizenship laws, “quarrels in far-away countries between people of whom we know nothing,” to borrow a line from one British prime minister. Better to leave it to the Russians. I mean, they have everything: both gas and oil.
Interestingly, Latvia managed to deviate from the script this week. Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis’s center-right coalition was reelected. As Schwirtz wrote about Harmony Center yesterday, “the party appeared to make some gains on Saturday, but its hopes of a big win and a reversal of Latvia’s Westward tilt were dashed.”
“In Search of Jackboots” by Scott Diel (ERR)
“Foggy at the Bottom” by Edward Lucas (The Economist)
“Watching Clifford Levy” by Vello Vikerkaar
“Tiny Post-Soviet Journalism” by Kris Rikken (Blue, Black, and White Alert)