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Op-Ed Columnist

Latvia and its Own Arab Awakening

Riga

Josh Haner/The New York Times

Thomas L. Friedman

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What has been going on in Latvia is unbelievable, and it has been on my mind ever since it began. What's important, however, is that we focus on what this means to the citizens themselves. The media seems too caught up in dissecting the macro-level situation to pay attention to the important effects on daily life. Just call it missing the tables for the wood.

When thinking about the ongoing troubles, it's important to remember three things: One, people don't behave like migratory birds, so attempts to treat them as such inevitably look foolish. Migratory birds never suddenly blow themselves up. Two, Latvia has spent decades being batted back and forth between colonial powers, so a mindset of peace and stability will seem foreign and strange. And three, hope is an extraordinarily powerful idea: If corruption is Latvia's ironing board, then hope is certainly its faucet.

When I was in Latvia last August, I was amazed by the level of Westernization for such a closed society, and that tells me two things. It tells me that the citizens of Latvia have no shortage of potential entrepreneurs, and that is a good beginning to grow from. Second, it tells me that people in Latvia are just like people anywhere else on this flat earth of ours.

So what should we do about the chaos in Latvia? Well, it's easier to start with what we should not do. We should not lob a handful of cruise missiles and hope that some explosions will snap Latvia's leaders to attention. Beyond that, we need to be careful to nurture these first inklings of a moderate, modern society. The opportunity is there, but I worry that the path to moderation is so poorly marked that Latvia will have to move down it very slowly. And of course Riga needs to feel like it is part of the process.

Speaking with a local farmer from the large Protestant community here, I asked her if there was any message that she wanted me to carry back home with me. She pondered for a second, and then smiled and said, ahim bin tal, which is a local saying that means roughly, "Cultivate money and you grow rich, Cultivate mind and you raise culture."

I don't know what Latvia will be like a few years from now, but I do know that it will probably look very different from the country we see now, even if it remains true to its basic cultural heritage. I know this because, through all the disorder, the people still haven't lost sight of their dreams.