LATVIA: A small but loyal US ally
Latvia, one of three small Baltic states, had a moment in the sun recently, when President George W. Bush chose its capital, Riga, as a stopover point on his May trip to Moscow to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II. He addressed a large and enthusiastic crowd in a country that is deeply grateful for American support over the years and is proud to stand alongside the United States in its war on terror and efforts to spread democracy around the world.
Latvia was a good choice for a couple of reasons. By stopping there, Bush drew attention to the Baltic states and their long battle for freedom. He also leant support for their efforts to get their former rulers, the Russians, to recognize the mistakes made by Soviet leaders who won control of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia in exchange for Nazi concessions in the Ribbentrop-Molotov Accord signed in 1939. The Soviets proceeded to occupy the Baltic countries and oppress their citizens, sending hundreds of thousands into exile in Siberia. The United States never recognized the Soviet occupation and annexation, and was a champion of Baltic independence.
However, Riga was also a good choice because unlike the leaders of Estonia and Lithuania, Latvia’s president, Vaira Vike-Freiberga, had agreed to attend the Moscow celebrations, indirectly endorsing Bush’s own attendance.
But whatever fading shadows are cast by the Baltic states’ unhappy history with Russia, Latvia, like its immediate neighbors to the north and south, has made enormous strides to catch up with the West since independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, and last year the country became a member of the European Union and NATO. And, as so often in the history of modern Europe, in Latvia political and military differences from the past are being relegated to minor importance as regional integration and economic wellbeing drive national priorities and consume the interest of most citizens.
Latvia’s young ambassador to Washington, Maris Riekstins, notes that in its first decade or so of modern independence, Latvia was focused on securing membership in the EU and NATO, thereby establishing lasting political, economic and military relationships that anchor it firmly in the Western camp.
The new priorities, now that membership is secure, “will be to use the EU opportunities to develop our economy.” The EU not only offers a common market for its 25 members, but also provides funds to help less-developed regions catch up with wealthier members.
For example, “The Cohesion Fund is a great benefit for us,” the ambassador says. The fund finances up to 85 percent of the cost of projects involving the environment and transportation.
Latvia’s rapid progression Westward has put it in a position to share its experiences in rapid modernization and development with countries to the East which are following a similar path. The ambassador says that his government is assisting countries like Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova. One of its most significant projects has been helping Ukraine establish a modern land registry.
Like its Baltic neighbors, Latvia has been a staunch supporter of the Bush administration in its war on terror and promotion of democracy around the world. Latvian troops are on missions in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Balkans. Ambassador Riekstins says that every time a vote on troop deployment has come up in parliament, an absolute majority has supported Latvia’s security partnership with the United States.
Faced with building a modern military from scratch after independence, but lacking resources, Latvia focused on developing niche capabilities, such as deep sea diving and de-mining, the expertise its soldiers are now using in Iraq and the Balkans. However, joining NATO has meant that Latvia now enjoys the umbrella of protection afforded by 24/7 NATO air force patrols over its territory.
But Latvia is not 100 percent happy with American policies. Like many of the Central and East European countries newly in the EU and NATO, it would like to see a change in US visa policies for its citizens. The difficulty in getting visas to visit America is a constant source of frustration, and the government believes these restrictions should be waived to help bind the countries more closely together.
Latvians pride themselves on their integrity and ability to comply with a regulatory framework. The ambassador notes that in the mid-90s many thought it would be impossible for his country to meet the criteria for EU membership in a matter of a few years. But, “Once the criteria are set, you have to meet them,” he says, explaining his government’s willingness to make necessary changes.
And, to satisfy new US conditions for travel documents, Latvia will issue new passports that meet those requirements.
He notes, too, that Latvians are not likely to seek work in the United States. More likely they would look for jobs closer to home, in Germany or Scandinavia, for example. “It would be interesting to conduct a test: just open the US borders and see what happens,” the ambassador says. “I think the number of Latvians who would stay in the US would be small.” (Is anyone listening over at Homeland Security?)
Latvia would also like to see its business relations with America strengthened. At the moment, American companies are in sixth place among foreign investors, and bilateral trade stands at only $400 million a year. There are plans to open a Latvia trade office in New York to increase exports to America.
There have been some US concerns about money laundering in Latvia, as the banking sector there has grown rapidly, in part by providing good services to foreign clients, including Russians, Ukrainians and others from the CIS seeking a safe place nearby to deposit their funds. There are 23 private commercial banks in Latvia, and the US Treasury Department has warned it might sanction some of these it suspects of lacking stringent money laundering controls. But the ambassador says that cooperation between his government and the relevant US authorities on this has been “excellent,” and “fixing this problem is a priority of my government.”
Some 30 percent of Latvia’s population is ethnic Russians, and Moscow has expressed some concern for their status in the new Latvia. The ambassador says that Russians who emigrated to Latvia decades ago and are fully integrated into society there are not a concern, but those who settled there more recently are cause for concern, and Latvia’s government decided that it would only extend citizenship to those who have a sufficient level of Latvian. The ambassador acknowledges that “not everyone is happy with this policy,” but that he believes the situation will work itself out over the coming years.
Latvia’s economic reforms on the path to joining the EU have been paying off recently, with GDP growth 7.6 percent last year. The ambassador says his country is a good choice for investors because of its hard-working people, low taxes, efficient administration, easy company registration procedures and well-established rule of law. Each year the prime minister meets with foreign investors to hear what they suggest would improve the business climate, and changes often follow from this input.
And, as if to confirm all the positive developments for Latvia and its relationship with the United States in recent years, the ambassador and his staff are looking forward to moving into a new embassy later this year, leaving their historic 17th Street NW building for a larger home on Sheridan Circle.
Curriclum Vitae of Ambassador Maris Riekstins
Date of birth: April 8, 1963
Place of birth: Riga, Latvia
Marital status: Married, two children
1989-1993: University of Latvia, Faculty of Law, lawyer
1982-1985: Latvian Sports Institute, Faculty of Pedagogy, teacher
December 9, 2004: Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Republic of Latvia to the United States of America
August 1993-November 2004: State Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Latvia
November 1992-August 1993: Under-secretary of State of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Latvia
January 1992-November 1992: Director of the Western Europe Division; Director of the Europe Division; Desk Officer of the Political Department of the Europe Division at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Latvia
1987-1991: Deputy Chairman; Desk Officer of the Committee of Latvian Youth Organisations
Since November 2002: Head of the Latvian delegation for accession negotiations with the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO)
January 2002-July 2002: Chairman of Supervisory Committee on Organisation of the NATO Aspirant Countries Summit in Riga on 5 and 6 July 2002
Since March 1999: Chairman of the Advisory Council for the Membership of Latvia in the World Trade Organisation
1997-1998: Head of the Latvian delegation for the U.S.-Baltic Partnership Charter
Since September 1998: Head of the Latvian-Italian Economic Working Group
Since November 1996: Chairman of the Diplomatic Service Agency's Shareholders Council
July 1996-July 1999: Head of the Latvian delegation for negotiations on Latvian-Lithuanian sea border delimitation
October 1995-July 1996: Head of the Latvian delegation for negotiations on Latvian-Estonian sea border delimitation
Since 1995: Chairman of the Control Committee of Strategic Goods of Republic of Latvia
1998: Royal Norwegian Order of Merit, Commander
2000: Royal Norwegian Order of Merit, Grand Officer
2001: French National Order of Merit, Grand Officer
2001: Order of the Lithuanian Grand Duke Gediminas, 4th class
2003: The 3rd Class Order of the Cross of Terra Mariana of Estonia
2003: Ordem do Infante D. Henrique Grande Oficial, Portugal
2003: Three Star Order of Latvia, Commander
2004: Order of Merit of the Italian Republic "Grand Official"
Latvian (native), English, Russian, German