For those Europeans who know what it is like to be Tibetan, an unwillingness to meet the Dalai Lama is worse than cowardice
The Dalai Lama is visiting Europe this August. The continent’s senior politicians are not exactly jostling to see him. His website shows only a few public talks (in Toulouse and Copenhagen, if you’re interested). That’s not new. The website also shows a depressingly sparse series of official engagements in 2010: one meeting with the Slovenian government minister dealing with the diaspora; another with the speaker of the Swiss parliament.
The reason is simple. China is important, and goes into ritual hysterics at any foreign behaviour that seems to promote ‘splittism’. Even American politicians prefer to meet the personally saintly, politically moderate Tibetan leader away from the cameras and with plenty of provisos.
For most European countries, the cowardice over Tibet is just regular pusillanimity: the same attitude that leaves Georgia in the lurch, Ukraine in the cold, Belarus in the dark and Russia ruled by murderous bandits.
In the case of the leaders of the Baltic states, a failure to meet the Dalai Lama when he travels there in August is especially shameful and outrageous. It is also self-destructive.
More than anyone else in Europe, Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians know what it is like to be Tibetan: to be occupied by a big foreign power; to become an ‘uncountry’ and your heroes ‘unpersons’; to have your cultural, social and political elites jailed, tortured and deported; to have your language pushed to the margins of public life; to be subject to huge forced migration that aims to dilute and eventually eradicate your national identity. They know what it is like to have their representatives shunned abroad; their case drowned out by hostile propaganda; their efforts met with patronising disdain; to be told that their cause is hopeless and that they have nothing to look forward to but slavery and extinction.
That was nearly the Baltic states’ fate under Soviet rule. It happened to other countries –who remembers Circassia, Ural-Ide, or the Kuban Cossacks now? So, since they regained statehood in 1991, the Baltic states have had a lot to celebrate. Even inside the EU and NATO, they continue to make a big deal about the continuity of their independence. They are not breakaway bits of the Soviet Union, but old countries that are back on the map.
Estonia has just celebrated, quite rightly, the 91st anniversary of the Tartu Peace Treaty, in which Soviet Russia promised solemnly and in perpetuity to respect Estonia’s frontiers and independence. The handful of émigré diplomats who kept faded flags flying in dusty embassies during the hopeless Soviet decades are, rightly, honoured heroes. Countries like Britain (which in 1967 gave back to the Soviet Union the Baltic states’ gold reserves, entrusted to the Bank of England for safe-keeping) and France (which handed over their Paris embassies) and Sweden (which sent Baltic refugees to their deaths in Stalin’s camps) are, rightly, criticised and have, rightly, apologised and made good their misdeeds.
But if you like to use a righteous moral compass to navigate the depths of history, you cannot abandon it when it comes to shoals of the present. Especially when you are dealing with a cause that so closely resembles your own. If the Baltic prime ministers and presidents will not meet the Dalai Lama, then their solemn talk about anniversaries, statehood and continuity is just self-indulgent, hypocritical windbaggery. Sometimes you have to take a stand, even if it is painful and seemingly pointless. The Baltic states expected that of others. If their leaders will not stand up for that principle now, it lessens the chance that others, in future, will stand up for them.