In this dissertation, I explore how the post-Soviet Latvian state and people are pressured to become European through discourses and practices of tolerance promotion, which have emerged as an integral element of contemporary liberal political culture in Europe. I locate this intervention in the broader context of the “minority problem” through which Eastern European states and peoples have been and continue to be governed by supranational organizations, such as the League of Nations at the beginning of the 20 th century and the Council of Europe in the present. My work examines concrete practices of tolerance promotion through which local and international human rights and minority organizations, as well as international monitoring bodies, ask Latvians to reflect upon and remake their attitudes and conduct in relation to ethnic, racial, sexual or religious difference.
Due to the fact that tolerance promotion initiatives draw legitimacy from the various political treaties and human rights conventions that shape the European present in Latvia, many Latvians exhibit skepticism and resentment towards such initiatives and view them as political and legal injunctions that misrecognize the historical specificity of public and political life in Latvia, especially the way in which the Soviet past bears upon the present. In the view of human rights and minority activists and organizations, the prevalence of narratives of historical injury and emphasis on historical particularity in public and political life in Latvia derive from Latvians’ nationalist sensibilities, which hinder tolerance promotion initiatives and constitute an obstacle on the road to acquiring political and cultural membership in Europe.
In my research, therefore, I focus specifically on how the Latvian historical community is constituted through arguments about tolerance. Rather than explain Latvians’ reluctance to embrace the liberal politics of tolerance as a problem of backward nationalism, I offer a more complex analysis of the historical and political trajectories that produce such a reaction. For example, my research shows that the transnational discourses of tolerance tend to take for granted particular notions of sexual, racial, and ethnic identities, which, in turn, give rise to specific understandings of public and political life. Consequently, Latvians’ skepticism and resentment are largely reactions to the ways in which the discourses and practices of tolerance attempt to remake public and political life. In six chapters, which focus on the politics of injury, minority politics, injurious language, anti-racism, gay and lesbian activism, and the practice of critical reflection, I show that arguments about racism in Latvia are not only about whether there is racism in Latvia or not, but also about how public reflection on racism matters for the collective life of Latvians in the current historical moment; or how arguments about intolerant language are not only about which words are injurious and which are not, but also about the historical conditions that enable the question of injury to be posed at all; or how arguments about gay and lesbian politics are not only arguments about normative morality, but also about different conceptions of self and associated forms of political engagement. Most importantly, I show that arguments about the ways in which Latvians should relate to ethnic, racial, or sexual identities are profoundly shaped by concerns that the injunction to publicly reflect on the problem of intolerance misrecognizes the demands that the recent and injurious Soviet past places upon the present.
The dissertation is based on ethnographic fieldwork I conducted between 2005 and 2008 on the implementation of the European Union funded National Program for the Promotion of Tolerance, which was launched in 2004. My primary research object was the practices through which the problem of intolerance was introduced, addressed, and contested as a matter of public reflection and conduct. My field site was therefore constituted, on the one hand, by the activities of a network of government institutions and human rights and minority organizations that aimed to address problems such as racism, homophobia, and intolerant speech, and, on the other hand, by ordinary Latvians’ responses and reflections on these issues.
While my ethnographic research focused on the discourses and practices of tolerance that have emerged in the Latvian public sphere during the last seven years, my work is not primarily aimed at a critical examination of tolerance as a particular kind of political rationality. Rather, I am interested in arguments about tolerance that unfold in a specific historical conjuncture in Latvia at the intersection of the Soviet past and the European present. Moreover, I am interested in the kind of political subjects and relations between them that are constituted through arguments about tolerance and what they tell us not only about the post-Soviet Latvian present, but also about the European present more generally. To summarize, in analyzing the discourses and practices of tolerance, my aim is thus threefold: (1) to trace how the historical community of Latvians is constituted through arguments about tolerance; (2) to show that this historical community of Latvians cannot simply be characterized as animated by deeply rooted nationalism, but is rather an effect of political subjectivation that unfolds at the intersection of imperial, colonial, and communist trajectories; and (3) to show how the historical specificity of public and political life in Latvia illuminates the possibilities and limitations of particular analytical frameworks, such as that of nationalism, as well as of liberal political culture in Europe.