Latvia and Hungary view Russia very differently while seeing Europe’s strengthened nation-states towards Brussels. According to the Baltic State, the sanctions against Russia have achieved their goal. An interview with the Latvian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Edgars Rinkēvičs.
On 19th December, Edgars Rinkēvičs met Péter Szijjártó in Budapest. The Latvian Minister of Foreign Affairs said in the interview before the meeting that sanctions against Russia will also be discussed. Rinkēvičs claims that we should beware of the excessive dependence on Russian energy, and it is not a problem if in a country a leading government party must find coalition partners if it wishes to operate.
When it comes to the Russian threat in the Baltics, politicians always talk about high tension but they add quickly that the chance of a direct military attack is slight. What does Russian threat mean then?
Five years ago, it was even inconceivable that Russia could occupy Crimea and take on a military role in the east of Ukraine. Developments in 2014 taught the world that we have to prepare for every eventuality which may seem unlikely: accordingly, NATO increased its presence in the Baltic and Poland. This also reduced the likelihood of Russia considering any ideas related to a military attack. At present, it is not so much the threat of a classic/conventional military offensive that cause concern but more of a hybrid, information warfare and hacker attacks, and the appearance of paramilitary troops in Eastern Ukraine, which is also quite worrying.
Is NATO mean strong enough guarantee against Russia?
We, like Hungary, had a good reason to join NATO and the EU. Considering our historical background, I am certain that the membership gives the best guarantee for security of the Baltic States and Hungary. I don’t think Russia would challenge NATO, but if Russia felt that NATO is weakening and the security situation is changing, maybe it would push its limits further. That’s why we need to do everything for fortifying the alliance. Meanwhile, the hybrid warfare continues on the TV, hacker attacks on the internet and diplomatic manipulation are taking place.
Out of Latvia’s two million population, 25% belong to Russian minority, while in Riga this rate is 40%. Does Russia use these people to increase its influence?
This was often asked before 2014, and the question still remains. Undoubtedly, members of the Russian minority are watching Russian television, listening to Russian news and agreeing with many of Russia’s foreign policy ambitions. However, according to the surveys, they wouldn’t like to see Moscow realizing the same Ukrainian scenario in the place where they live. But it should be made clear that here the stakes are much higher. This is no longer about the Russian minority in Latvia or Estonia. Russia’s goal is to influence the entire political spectrum, whole societies, and not just in the Baltic States but even in Germany. Next year, there will be election in three main EU and NATO member countries: Germany, France and the Netherlands. The Russian influence instruments are already targeting them.
The largest opposition party in the Latvian parliament is the Harmony Centre (SC), with Russian-speaking voters constituting its electoral base. Would it be dangerous in any way if this party ruled?
Indeed, the integration of the Russian minority is a longer, ongoing process. There are still a large number of those who settled in Latvia during the Soviet occupation. But more and more of them are obtaining the Latvian citizenship. It is not true that these people may not be represented in political life or in public administration. The Harmony Centre’s views on foreign policy and economic policy are rejected by the other parties and therefore the SC does not have any allies among the political spectrum. In Latvia, there isn’t any party which has an absolute majority, and thus the need for a coalition is obvious. I cannot imagine that the SC would be able to find partners in governance because the party has differing views on a lot of sensitive issues – the official language, perception of Soviet occupation.
Latvia is liberalizing its energy market and is looking for new sources instead of the Russian natural gas. Is this an economic or a political issue?
Both. If there is only one source, then it is the seller who dictates the price. And over the past ten years we have also seen natural gas become a political weapon in the Ukrainian-Russian gas dispute. Russia has never attempted this against Latvia, but if this has already been done elsewhere, we should not rule out the possibility of that risk. Gazprom will of course remain a partner but only on the basis of market competition. Latvia is developing interconnections with its Baltic neighbours and Poland, but the necessary infrastructure for liquefied natural gas (LNG) has also been built in Lithuania. They took the risk to invest in a more expensive source, but it was worth it: the price of Russian natural gas decreased by 20 percent upon the mere appearance of alternative sources. This also shows that a country should not tie itself to only one source.
It seems that if Hungary would have taken a different path with/than the expansion of the Paks Nuclear Power Plant, which is carried out by Russia, and the loan is also given by the Russian side.
This is obviously the Hungarian government’s decision. I would only like to add that based on our experiences, if the dependence on Russia is too big then a situation may come up where this dependence becomes a political instrument. We seek to balance the energy sources.
The situation with evaluating the sanctions against Russia is different from the Latvian and Hungarian perspective. The Hungarian side is often accused of being overly cooperative with Russia; the Government emphasizes economic losses, and this is why it doesn’t oppose lifting up the sanctions.
Conversely, the Baltic States are often accused of being too aggressive, coming forth with blunt/categorical statements in some cases. I do not think such allegations are fair. We discussed the issue of sanctions within the EU; they will surely remain in effect until the end of July 2017. This will also be discussed in my Budapest appointments, an open and frank dialogue should be maintained in this case. But it seems to me that sometimes it is the accusations that prevail, and there is less dialogue.
As to sanctions, they have reached their goal. Critics say no, because there is no change in Russia’s political course with respect to Crimea and eastern Ukraine. But this gave a very strong warning to Russia against making the situation any worse.
The sanctions may also keep the more hot-headed Russian politicians from going further down this road. Besides, we should better look into how much, in fact, it will cost to maintain the sanctions; I think this is often overrated. The downturn in tourism, for example, may have been caused by the decline of the ruble and low oil prices, not by the sanctions. As to the sanctions, the overrating of damage to the EU may be a part of the Russian information war.
Of course there is an economic impact on Latvia as well. But we must realize that the conventional diplomacy was not successful. We have seen the shooting down of an airplane over Donetsk, and witnessed a country violating the international order. This is also not incidental from business perspective: if a country breaches its international obligations, we cannot be sure that we can trust that country in the field of economic cooperation.
According to Viktor Orbán, the spread of Brussels influence should be stemmed whilst keeping a community of nation-states. A few years ago he saw a parallel between Brussels and Moscow. Does it make sense to compare the EU to the Soviet Union?
Absolutely not. But I agree that the EU should be an alliance of strong nation-states: the time hasn’t yet come for the united states of Europe. The gap between society and the EU institutions is increasing and this needs to be addressed. But in no way can that be compared with the Soviet Union. We have entered the EU voluntarily, the Soviet Union forced us – the difference is clear to all who once lived in that country.
Despite the Hungarian government’s criticism of Brussels’ central power, Viktor Orbán would actively support the establishment of a common European army. At first, it seems surprising that, on the other hand, this is opposed by Latvia and its Baltic neighbours.
Let’s make it clear: we support the strengthening of the EU’s security cooperation, but are not certain of the idea of a European army. Our defence capabilities should be developed in accordance with the NATO requirements; it is clear that we don’t want any duplication or taking part in establishing any force separate from NATO.
The whole idea is already precarious in political terms: who decides on the deployment of the army? Could it also operate outside of the EU or just within? How does this comply with the autonomy of member states? What about any neutral EU members? Would the member states indeed be ready to delegate more rights of their national parliaments to Brussels? I doubt it.
The situation is also questionable financially: in addition to the already existing defence expenditures, should we spend more on establishing a common army? 2% of Latvia’s GDP is spent on defence, which is not very much, but many countries don’t even reach that figure. From where could additional resources be drawn? At the same time security cooperation between EU members should be strengthened and theoretically instruments for that are already in place: the EU Battle Group, established in 2005, which is under the control of the Council of the European Union, and has as yet untapped potential. First, we should find function for the existing assets, and only then consider the setting up of any new forces.
Territory: 64.5 thousand km²
A population of 2.01 million
GDP per capita: USD 24 700 (in Hungary – USD 26 200)
The unemployment rate is 10 percent, with 17 percent among those under 30 years.
Ethnic composition: Latvians 61%, Russians 25%, Belarusians3.5%, Ukrainians 2.3%, Poles 2.2% Lithuanians 1.3%, and 3.5% others. In Latvia, there live 300 Hungarians of Transcarpathian origin.
The country became a member of NATO in 2004 – five years after Hungary. However, Latvia joined the EU at the same time as Hungary.
Latvia adopted the Euro in 2014.
Edgars Rinkēvičs was born in 1973 in Jūrmala. He was 17 years old when the Supreme Council of then Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic declared Latvia's independence, which was also officially recognized by Moscow a year later.
The Soviet – at that time already Russian – troops withdraw from the country in 1994.
Edgars Rinkēvičs majored in History and Philosophy at the University of Latvia, and studied at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands.
For a short time he worked as a foreign policy journalist. At the age of 22, he was employed by the Latvian Defence Ministry, where he soon became Chief of Division.
In 1996, Edgars Rinkēvičs was already Deputy Secretary of State of the Defence Ministry, and Secretary of State a year later.
In 2002, he was Deputy Head of the committee for negotiations on the accession to NATO.
From 2008, for three years, he served as Deputy Head of the Presidential Chancery.
Since 2011, Edgars Rinkēvičs Latvia's Foreign Minister.
He speaks English, French and Russian.
Edgars Rinkēvičs has become the third most followed Latvian politician on Twitter . Two years ago, in a tweet, Rinkēvičs came out as gay and announced that he will fight for the legitimization of various partnerships.
Published on: at 17:32 on 29.12.2016