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A Baltic Star Catches Western Eyes: The Latvian Guide to "Making Friends and Influencing People"

David J. Galbreath

A Baltic Star Catches Western Eyes: The Latvian Guide to "Making Friends and Influencing People"

On 28-29 November, Latvia will host the 2006 North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Summit, which is the latest example of Latvia’s ability to court the West. Latvia has long been the most Baltic of the Baltic states. Estonia not only shares a socio-cultural space with Finland, but has even declared itself to be a ‘Nordic’ state rather than ‘Baltic’, as the late President Lennart Meri did in 1999. On the other hand, Lithuania shares a long history with Poland and has appeared the most ‘Central European’ of the Baltic states. Yet, largely to do with geographic location, Latvia does not have the opportunity to claim either of these labels. Latvia is a self-confessed ‘Baltic’ state. Thus, it is somewhat an irony that Latvia finds itself as the Baltic Star that has caught Western eyes. Latvia’s position may not be a surprise to those who follow the Latvian foreign policy agenda, which has been consistently aimed at ‘making friends and influencing people’ in the West. Considering the US President’s visit in May 2005, the Latvian President’s address to the US Houses of Congress in June 2006 and the more recent Riga NATO summit in November 2006, Latvia has become the shining star of the Baltic. This article looks at why, how, and to what end Latvia has become the Baltic region’s latest star.

Latvia has consciously made its national ‘image’ (in Latvian, Latvijas tēls) part of its foreign policy agenda since 2004. The policy was originally put forward following the October 2002 Saeima elections which broke the hold on the foreign ministry that Latvia’s Way (Latvijas Celš) had maintained since the renewal of independence. Sandra Kalniete [then independent, now a member of the New Era (Jaunias Laiks) party] and then Artis Pabriks from the People’s Party (Tautas Partija) began the change in foreign policy directives which included the national ‘image’ program.

The attempt to change the perception of Latvia was driven by three factors. First, as readers will know well, the Russian Federation attempted to use EU-Russian summits prior to the 2004 enlargement to put pressure on Latvia and Estonia to alter citizenship and language policies that affect the overwhelming number of Slavic speakers in the two states. As it has done since late 1992, the Russian government has made the predominantly Russian-speaking minority communities in the two states a frequent rhetorical implement to be employed when the Russian Federation is being criticised of human rights failures. In fact, the Russian government has often used its platform in the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the Council of Europe and the United Nations to apply pressure on the two states. Fortunately for Latvia and Estonia, EU officials did not accept Russia’s version of events. Nor should they have. The European Commission Regular Reports preceding EU enlargement, not to mention the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities and the Council of Europe, had accepted that Latvia and Estonia had altered citizenship and language policies to the degree to preserve peace, stability and democracy in the two states. Nevertheless, the trend illustrates how the Russian Federation was able to use international and regional organizations to spread ‘bad information’ in relation to the Baltic states. Once inside the EU and NATO, the Latvian government was keen to confront this picture of Latvia that had been drawn by Moscow.

Second, nearly from the beginning of their renewed independence, Estonia has been at the forefront of the Baltic states. For instance, along with Lithuania in 1993, Estonia entered the Council of Europe previous to Latvia (1995). Also, in 1997 Estonia, along with Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovenia became candidate countries to the EU before either Latvia or Lithuania. Furthermore, economically Estonia has been doing far better than its southern neighbour. Several reasons have been cited for this from quick, successful shock therapy to the ‘Talsinki’ effect. Of all of these events, the 1997 naming of Estonia as a candidate member ahead of Latvia had the most significant effect on how Latvia perceived its relationship with the West. Reasserting its effort to re-brand ‘Latvia’ was a way to bridge the gap between it and its northern neighbour.

Finally, Latvia has typically not experienced the same level of foreign direct investment (FDI) as its northern neighbour. According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), in 2003 Estonia received FDI amounting to 9.8% of its GDP as opposed to Latvia’s 2.7%. Yet, by 2005 FDI in Latvia had grown by 118%. Needless to say, FDI across the Baltic states like the rest of Central and Eastern Europe has improved with EU membership. Nevertheless, Latvia’s attempt to create a new image of itself has had a positive impact on foreign trade and investment. Yet, Latvia remains significantly dependent on the Russian Federation because of its energy needs as well as its location as a transit point for Russian energy exports, which are mostly concentrated in Ventspils. Whether to combat Russia’s methods of ‘bad information’, to compete with its Baltic neighbours or to increase foreign trade and investment, Latvia’s national ‘image’ policy has aimed at making a significant political impact on the perception of Latvia abroad.

Latvia’s shine has also been helped along by three important political personalities. First, the President of Latvia Vaira Viā·e-Freiberga is a well-known head of state in Europe and the United States. As the EU heads of state were posing following the signing of the EU Constitution, one could not help but notice the woman in the green business suit who stood out against the backdrop of a field of suited men. A refugee from the returning Soviet Army in 1945 and previously a Canadian citizen, Viā·e-Freiberga returned to Latvia after the restoration of Latvian independence only to become president in June 1999. Since her inauguration, she has been an effective face of Latvia within the EU but especially with the Bush Administration in the United States. An able stateswoman, Viā·e-Freiberga has been a strong supporter of NATO and the US policy in Iraq and Afghanistan, even at one point praising the United States for their support of the Baltic states and condemning Russia for its occupation in an address to a joint meeting of Congress in June 2006. The Latvian President is known to be close to both the US President George W. Bush and to the US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Most recently, the United States gave tacit support for her attempt to gain the post of United Nations Secretary-General. However, despite doing well in early voting, a consensus formed in the UN Security Council that the next UN Secretary-General would be from Asia. Perhaps unfortunate for Latvia’s ‘image’ abroad, her time as president expires in 2007.

However, the woman that may replace Viā·e-Freiberga as president has also made her mark on Latvian foreign policy as previously mentioned. Sandra Kalniete, who with her family had been deported as a young child to Siberia by the Soviet regime, made an early start in politics as an important figure in the Latvian People’s Front (Latvijas Tautas Fronte). Her LPF days have been captured in her book Es lauzu, tu lauzi, mēs lauzām. Viņi lÅ«za (I broke, you broke, we broke. They fell apart, Jumava 2000). Her influence on foreign policy began immediately after the restoration of independence as a deputy foreign minister from 1990 to 1993. She has been the Latvian Ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, France, and UNESCO before becoming foreign minister in November 2002. As foreign minister preceding the 2004 enlargements, it was under her direction that a post-enlargement foreign policy agenda (pamatvirziens) was first set out. Although the foreign policy agenda has been reshaped three times since, the latest in June 2006, Kalniete’s initial post-enlargement document included the national ‘image’ policy. After leaving the foreign ministry in March 2004, she became Latvia’s first European Commissioner, an otherwise short-lived affair before the appointment of the Barroso Commission.

Artis Pabriks replaced Kalniete as foreign minister following the collapse of the New Era-led government in 2004 and the subsequent establishment of the Greens’ and Farmers’ Union (Zaā¼o un Zemnieku savienības) minority government that was initially supported by the People’s Party. As a Saeima deputy for the People’s Party and a Professor of Political Science at Vidzeme University College in Valmeira, Pabriks took up Kalniete’s foreign policy agenda and added to its depth. Well-spoken and well-educated (PhD from the University of Århus, 1996), Pabriks has used the position of foreign minister to further elaborate Latvia’s bilateral relations, refocus European attention to the EU’s ‘new outsiders’ in the east, and maintain a good relationship with the United States. There is little doubt that one of his best assets has been President Viā·e-Freiberga. Under Pabriks’s leadership, the national ‘image’ policy has further fostered, particularly in areas related to US cooperation and relations with other post-Soviet states, such as Moldova, Ukraine and Georgia.

And what can the Latvian government do with this new image abroad? Like Estonia and Lithuania, the Latvian government has made helping other post-Soviet states a primary foreign policy goal. However, unlike Estonia which has supported development in a range of post-Soviet countries, such as Georgia and Ukraine, Latvia has focused almost entirely on supporting Moldova. In 2005 and 2006, Latvia’s entire foreign development budget was targeted towards the government in Chisinau. Why would Latvia as well as Estonia and Lithuania be interested in promoting development in other post-Soviet states? The Baltic states have been through the processes of de-Sovietization, democratization, and marketization. In the case of Moldova, Latvia has the opportunity to support a state that is going through similar growing pains but with the added trouble of the stalemate over Trans-Dniester. And this brings us to the second reason: regional gamesmanship. In interviews conducted in the Latvian and Lithuanian foreign ministries, officials often expressed the opinion that their states had an advantage in turning Russia’s ‘near abroad’ into Europe’s ‘neighbourhood’. This outcome requires two things. In combination with Estonia and Lithuania, Latvia needs to be able to influence the EU’s European Neighbourhood Policy to focus on the East, when so many other member states would prefer that the EU focus on the Mediterranean. Second, the ‘neighbourhood’ needs to have regimes that desire the attention of the West. For instance, Armenia has often found this to their cost. Latvian development aid, partly contributed by other states such as Canada, predisposes these governments to support a ‘Western’ agenda in the region. From the point of view of Riga, the less influence Moscow has in the former Soviet region, the better.

Finally, in a ‘state-eat-state’ world, Latvia is keen to do everything it can to maintain its sovereignty after years of Soviet occupation. As the one self-acknowledged Baltic state, Latvia is all too aware of its geographic location and the failure to gain the attention of the West in 1941 and 1944. The Baltic states have consciously focused on foreign policy objectives that would prevent the future restoration of occupation. Latvian efforts to attract and keep the attention of the West are the next step after gaining NATO membership. For the Latvian psyche, every little bit helps.

All of this being said, Estonia and Lithuania have been doing much the same. Like Latvia, they have joined the US-led ‘war on terror’, sending forces to both Afghanistan and Iraq; committed to the continued prioritization of NATO as the main collective security organization in the region; and contributed to the transition processes in Moldova, Ukraine and Georgia. In the end, what has made the difference in propelling Latvia forward into the limelight? No doubt, it has been spurred on by Russian bellicosity and regional competition; the need for FDI has also been important. But the same could be said of Estonia and Lithuania. Perhaps the reason is that since 2004 the Latvian government has implemented a planned policy of improving its image abroad, even going so far as to run advertisements on the US-based network CNN. Yet, no amount of strategic policy planning could produce such a change in Latvia’s image abroad, not to mention that Estonia and Lithuania are as conscious of their image in the West as their mutual Baltic neighbour. In the end, owing much to the political opportunities provided by EU and NATO membership, able political leaders have managed to produce The Latvian Guide to ‘Making Friends and Influencing People’.

The November NATO summit is the latest testament to Latvia’s positive image abroad. The Riga NATO Summit may perhaps be one of the most important meetings of the collective security organization, rivalling London in 1990 and Istanbul in 1999. The summit comes at a critical time in NATO’s engagement in Afghanistan, where it has recently taken over all military operations in the country despite a reported lack of contributing member states (other reports have stated that there is no shortage). For some commentators, NATO is a relic of the Cold War, which is why its days are numbered and the operations in Afghanistan are only bringing its end closer. If this is the case, the Riga summit may go down in history as the beginning of the end. This would be an unfortunate outcome for Latvia and the Baltic states as a whole. Other commentators claim that NATO is an ever-changing security organization that will not only be able to cope with Afghanistan, but will become more robust, specialising in out-of-area operations to press the ‘war on terror’. This outcome will need significant political will from NATO member states. Whether a new beginning or the beginning of the end, the Riga NATO Summit should be one to remember.

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