Speech by Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkēvičs at the annual Foreign Policy Debate in the Latvian Parliament (Saeima), 28 January 2021

28.01.2021. 09:02

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Mr President,

Madame Chair,

Members of the Presidium of Parliament,

Mr Prime Minister,

Members of Parliament,

Ministers,

Excellencies, 

and all interested in this online meeting,

 

This is the first time in Latvia’s parliamentary history that the annual foreign policy debate at the Saeima is held online. And, it is in some respect symbolic that in the week when the centenary of Latvia’s international de jure recognition is celebrated, we meet in a digital format to ring in the second century of Latvian diplomacy.

These days we mark the 100th anniversary since 26 January 2021 when Latvia was granted international recognition de jure. To paraphrase what the then Foreign Minister, Zigfrīds Anna Meierovics, has said, weapons and human lives were needed to achieve the independence of the state and liberation of Latvia, but to gain its international recognition, the newly-established Foreign Service had only two weapons: the point of a pen and the sharpness of their wit and intellect. And thus we were able to succeed and secure our country’s international recognition de jure.

History is our best teacher. The establishment and international recognition of the Latvian state, its occupation and maintaining the idea of continuity, restoration of independence and reintegration into the international community strengthens assurance in the chief effort and goal of Latvian diplomacy for this century, namely, ensuring our country’s independence and security.

The Latvian poet Ojārs Vācietis has once said:

I have a piercing premonition
that the world I’m living
may be torn down much sooner than yours.

At this point in time, one hundred years after the de jure recognition of Latvia, the situation across the globe is volatile. The democratic order that helped establish and then, later, restore the Latvian state is currently, just like it was then, threatened by the proliferation of expansionist authoritarian ideologies that are espousing philosophy of power and spheres of influence.

In Europe and Asia alike, as it was during the 1920s and 1930s, revisionist great powers make their presence felt, while isolationist tendencies are growing in the traditional pillars of liberal democracy.

Latvia’s foreign policy formula is simple and complex at the same time – to analyse the global international environment, define its interests and then combine them with the means at our disposal. The experience of Latvia and similar states demonstrates that when approaching issues of global policy, priorities should be chosen, focused on. and we must be ready to pay for and defend those priorities.

Experience shows that history moves in cycles. Both in the period between the wars and at present, it is completely clear that our independence and freedom is first and foremost our own responsibility. Therefore, the DNA of Latvia’s foreign policy is found in an international order which is based on the rule of law around the world and international organisations. Our main challenge is with revisionist countries that have always attempted to undermine the international order politically, ideologically and through military means. Add to this the present-day challenges, where a society acting on passing emotions and feelings of the moment is ready to give up their most important and fundamental principles and values.

After the regaining of its independence, Latvia finished its political, institutional and legal integration into the Western world. Nevertheless, Latvian society as a whole has much ground to cover so that we could integrate ourselves mentally into the European model of thinking, as well as promoting a world outlook that places Latvia in Europe. This is not only a narrative of our history but also a story about the path of the future.

Many rights that we are enjoying now and regard as self-evident are the result of determined efforts of the United Nations over a longer period of time. In 1954, one of the most outstanding UN Secretaries General, Dag Hammarskjöld said: “The United Nations was not created in order to bring us to heaven, but in order to save us from hell.” Latvia has experienced and survived occupation and totalitarian regimes; therefore, the United Nations system as a whole and UN membership is essential for us. As a full member of this international organisation for 30 years, Latvia has been able to clearly demonstrate to the international community that we are a western-oriented, democratic country that honours human rights, and at the same time, stand up for democratic values worldwide.

Last year, we already debated on Latvia’s candidacy for the seat of a non-permanent member of the United Nation Security Council for the elections of 2025. Together with the President, members of the Saeima and diplomats we have been working on our priorities and the campaign. This work will be continued in the present year and the coming years. Our priorities will be the rule of law in international relations, digital policy and climate change.

Therefore, Latvia’s inner power is of vital importance – an active society, non-governmental organisations and their participation in governance and all socio-economic and political processes.

In the fight against the global COVID-19 pandemic and its impacts on the economy, a surge of populism in many places worldwide, and a post-Brexit European Union confirm that Latvian diplomacy will also have to continue on its classic tasks – preservation and strengthening of independence of the country with circumstances in a state of flux.

The COVID-19 pandemic has left a huge and still not fully understood influence on the world in 2020 and will continue to exert its influence this year as well – on the health situation, movement of persons, goods and services, an increasing use of digital solutions in all realms of our daily lives. However, the pandemic has not reduced the need for also addressing issues that existed prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and will continue after the virus has been brought under control.

It will still be important to oppose attempts at undermining the system based on international law. Traditional threats to the security of countries and regions will still need to be tackled. We still have to be prepared to respond to new challenges including those that cannot be predicted at present.

To be free means to be vigilant. Latvia has integrated itself into the circle of like-minded countries and we can rely on our Allies and closest cooperation partners acting jointly and responding jointly to new and old challenges on the basis of shared values.

The global crisis triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic has been an endurance test for the Latvian diplomatic and consular service, a test of its abilities and skills. The largest event for the repatriation and homecoming of Latvian nationals in the history of Latvia was arranged – it was meant for Latvia nationals who live in Latvia on a permanent basis and whose stay abroad posed threat to their life, health or security. I would like to illustrate the situation with just a few figures. In the first half of 2020 alone, our Consular Service responded to almost forty four thousand calls, and the intensity even exceeded more than fourteen thousand calls in one day in March. In addition, about ten thousand email messages were received in March and April. I would like to thank the entire Latvian Foreign Service, its diplomats and consular officers, who still manage to come up with effective and even creative, innovative and digital solutions under these circumstances so as to offer expedited assistance to Latvian nationals worldwide. Thank you for the job you’ve done!

On behalf of the Latvian Foreign Service, I would like to offer many thanks for close ongoing cooperation to the President, the Saeima, and its Foreign Affairs and European Affairs Committees. And likewise, I offer my personal thanks and gratitude to my colleagues in the Government, government institutions and local authorities, and to all non-governmental organisations. Thank you for all the work we have been doing together!

This year, we are going to initiate a discussion on Latvia’s foreign policy scenarios in the Euro-Atlantic area in 2030. In view of the rapidly changing international environment and the need to systematize risks and map out possible courses to take in the social and political environment, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in association with experts, foreign policy and security policy research centres and academic circles shall be projecting various alternatives of where international politics are headed for the coming decade and Latvia’s foreign policy directions in response.

The discussion on scenarios is going to be a creative and, possibly, even a challenging opportunity to evaluate a forward-looking overall view of optimistic, pessimistic and moderate directions of development, which are not utopian and retain a medium or high level of credibility, while also being discomforting. This will also be an opportunity for formulating and expressing concerns and outlining our hopes and expectations.

 

Ladies and Gentlemen!

Latvia’s interests lie in a European Union that is based on the concept of democracy, the rule of law and human rights. Only by actively supporting and consolidating such initiatives, we can influence joint processes in Europe and safeguard our interests, thereby getting stronger ourselves. Polarisation in the world and differences in opinions between the USA, Europe, Russia and China can still present new dilemmas. One is clear – Latvia should remain a country that strengthens Europe and transatlantic links with the United States and Canada.

Last year, the European Union’s multiannual budget was approved after gruelling negotiations. Talks on the Multiannual Financial Framework have always been difficult, but this time, in light of the withdrawal of the United Kingdom, new priorities and rule of law issues, they were especially demanding.

The outcome for Latvia was quite good – over the next seven years, Latvia will receive almost 10.5 billion euros from the European Union, which is a 39 % increase compared to the previous seven year period. In addition, we shall also be able to borrow 2.5 million euros on favourable terms. Almost five billion euros of these funds can be invested towards economic recovery after the crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. At the same time the foundation for Latvia’s further growth will be reinforced on the basis of a more climate-friendly economy and digitalisation.

Latvia has adopted an ever more prominent role as a country that aspires to have a climate-neutral economy. The European Green Deal approved last year, and the climate goals the Green Deal sets, mark a new turning point in contemporary European political thought.

Member States must allocate at least 37% of the European Union Recovery Instrument funds to mitigating climate change. What does that mean in practice? With grants to be awarded under the European Union’s Green Deal and the new recovery package, it will be possible to further reduce dependence on Russia’s energy resources and promote a sustainable energy policy.

It is important for the European Union’s investments to be targeted and in line with the national long-term development strategy focusing in particular on regional development and raising productivity. Education, science and research are indeed the areas that are vital for Latvia’s future.

Last year, the Eastern Partnership region experienced a number of shocks, including a violent crackdown on protests and the repression of civil society in Belarus following a rigged election, as well as an escalation of the military conflict in the Nagorno-Karabakh region. Given those developments, new goals should be considered for long-term cooperation with the six partner countries in the Eastern Partnership format. Therefore, we believe that the European Union needs to expand cooperation with the three associated partner countries – Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova – whose ambition lies in closer integration with the European Union. European policy towards those partners should remain rooted in the strengthening of democracy and the rule of law, assistance to progress with reforms, and support for their territorial integrity and sovereignty.

 

Dear Colleagues,

The United Kingdom has left the European Union, and relationship with the country will not be as close as before. As of the 1st of January, other rules apply to the United Kingdom not only with respect to businesses but also for private individuals: regulations governing travel, postal services, mobile communications and other services have changed. For instance, a visa is needed to start work and begin studies in the United Kingdom.

An agreement reached between the European Union and the United Kingdom on trade relations and social security coordination makes it possible to also build close and comprehensive relations in future.

Although we shall be dealing with many practical matters in relation to the consequences of Brexit for quite some time, it should be noted in particular that the United Kingdom remains a reliable partner and Ally to Latvia. It is our task to expand cooperation with the United Kingdom in the Baltic and Nordic region, in the transatlantic community and globally.

The importance of the Three Seas Initiative in the region of the Baltic, Adriatic and Black Sea region has considerably increased. During the Cold War, this region experienced a set-back in its development; its infrastructure and economy were weakened and depleted.

The Three Seas Initiative creates better preconditions for the region’s security and brings further opportunities for levelling out differences and bridging the quality gap now existing in transport, energy and digital infrastructure between European Union Member States.

It is of special importance for the new United States Administration to be involved in an initiative that is essential for the entire region. Since 2018, Latvia has been providing substantial input to the establishment of the Investment Fund and last year Latvia’s contribution to the Investment Fund was officially approved. Further along, it is important that projects supporting transport, energy and digital infrastructure are approved in negotiations with the Investment Fund.

 

Dear audience,

Latvia is a responsible member of NATO’s collective defence system. Troops from 19 NATO member countries are currently stationed in the territory of the Baltic States: this clearly demonstrates the Alliance’s commitment to safeguard the security of all its members. I would like to offer special thanks to our Canadian friends and Allies who continue with their duties of a NATO framework nation in Latvia – this is a very strong signal of deterrence and solidarity.

This year, Latvia’s defence expenditure was 2.3% of GDP. As a NATO member, Latvia should continue investing in its defence and also strengthening and enhancing NATO member state capabilities on land, at sea and in the air. This means at the same time broader expertise and action in the field of cyber security and strategic communication, solidarity, taking part in international operations, and ensuring immunity against external hybrid threats.

This year, diplomats will also have to work on strengthening of the Alliance’s political unity. In a rapidly changing world, this is a never-ending effort. For the existing defence capabilities to be of use in crises, not only must there be political readiness to use them; there must also be a common understanding of threats and a shared perspective among the Allies of strategic and tactical action and priorities in the distribution of resources. In this context, a discussion will continue on NATO’s strategic concept for 2030, which is a process of generating ideas for the future, thereby contributing to the formulation of a new strategic concept for the Alliance.

At the same time, we’ll have to speak about the ability of the European Union to adjust to global security challenges. These efforts however must not create a mistaken idea about the European Union aspiring to becoming independent in military terms and duplicating NATO’s functions, which consequently would also have an impact on transatlantic unity. We are cautious about strategic autonomy being set as the leitmotif in European defence and military cooperation. First of all, strategic autonomy should be reinforced in critical areas in which the COVID-19 crisis has highlighted the EU’s weak points, for instance, more efficient and speedier coordination among Member States in crisis situations.

The importance of the Arctic and strategic interest of countries in the Arctic region is increasing internationally. The scope of urgent issues covers security, climate and ecology, economy and politics. The Arctic has also become part of Latvia’s foreign policy agenda in its dialogue with partners in the Baltic and Nordic countries and the Arctic region. With the region being brought into an ever increasing focus, a sustainable and peaceful development of the Arctic based on international cooperation also lies in Latvia’s interests. Therefore, Latvia will prepare an application seeking observer status in the Arctic Council, which is an important forum for sharing views and for international cooperation.

 

Ladies and Gentlemen,

We are currently witnessing dynamic developments in American society and in U.S. policy, both foreign and domestic. Regardless of changes to the United States Administration, Latvia as a member of the European Union and NATO should continue cooperating closely with our partner across the Atlantic, the United States of America. Why is it important? First, like-minded countries should be united and be acting on their principles in matters related to our common values and security viewed from a wide perspective.

Together with the United States, both in the NATO framework and at the European Union level, an agreement must be achieved on transatlantic challenges to climate and security posed by China and Russia.

 

Dear Colleagues,

China is a fast growing power with high ambitions and a broad foreign policy. China sees itself as a global super power with economic autonomy and pronounced interests in strengthening that economic autonomy. There is also a problem with China’s orientation in terms of values – its understanding of the rule of law, democratic principles, norms and values. China’s sphere of interest includes not only the South China Sea or Hong Kong, but a much broader swathe of the globe including Africa and also Europe. China is already the second largest economy in the world and it continues to grow. If this continues, the PRC will overtake the USA and become the world’s largest economy.

In relation to Europe, we see a Chinese government strategy that includes takeover of innovative companies of strategic importance or at least becoming involved in companies with the aim of gaining control and knowhow for the consolidation of its of economic independence.

Europe should also develop a strategy and autonomous instruments to protect its political and economic interests. One such instrument that has become operational is the mechanism for the screening of foreign direct investment. A cooperation mechanism has been established to share information on foreign investments and their potential crossborder influence on the security of other Member States and on projects that are in the interests of the European Union.

 

Excellencies,

The fight for values and influence in cyberspace is a central issue of foreign relations today. During the pandemic, disinformation and hate speech spread even faster than the virus, with destabilisation for the international community and its order, bringing violence and the risk of war in the real world.

Disinformation is a long-term threat to democracy and public health; therefore fighting disinformation calls for every effort at the level of nation states and international organisations. Fighting disinformation should be a priority in the political and digital development of any democratic country.

For quite some time, global social media platforms were taking no action to prevent the spread of fake news. Regrettably, this has global repercussions. Vivid examples are the interference of other countries in elections and in referendums, and inciting of unrest and hatred in society.

Social networks have so far been evolving as private companies the main purpose of which was to gain profits which were as high as possible. An increasing number of people have been using these platforms without the regulations existing in the realm of traditional media, and this has resulted in the spread of disinformation and fake news, including manipulation of society and political processes. At present, following recent events in the United States, we have gone to the other extreme – censorship of disputable content without comprehensible legal regulation. It is clear that we need to find a legal framework for social media that respects responsible freedom of speech. We shall be working on these matters in the European Union and other international organisations.

A mechanism for action, and tools, including legislative ones, should be found at home and within the European Union and NATO to prevent the opportunities offered by technologies from being abused in pursuit of selfish and even criminal goals. At the same time, a balance must be struck between the right to privacy, freedom of speech, and responsibility. It is no easy task, yet it is a matter of general public health and national security.

Meanwhile, nothing is so bad that something good cannot come out of it: due to the pandemic, media literacy among the general public has increased. Therefore Latvia and the European Union as a whole should invest more in independent, professional and quality media. Only media of this kind, information search companies, fact checkers, researchers and civil society are the cornerstones of a safe and protected information space.

 

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Also in the area of foreign trade and economy, 2020 was a complicated year, full of challenges and uncertainty. Trade barriers were set up everywhere, border control was resumed or strengthened, export bans were even imposed on certain goods. Meanwhile, the pandemic unexpectedly highlighted just how fragile theglobal supply chains are and our excessive dependence on suppliers outside Europe in sectors of strategic importance.

In 2020, as a priority, the Foreign Service rendered support for businesses and public authorities during the state of emergency, for instance, resolving situations when the goods we needed were held up and stuck at the border or new suppliers had to be urgently found, notably in health care related sectors. There were occasions when diplomats had to act as detectives tasked with finding and supplying medical equipment such as face masks or protective clothing.

The principal mission of the Foreign Service in business and trade is to help companies to recover from the COVID-19 crisis, and this primarily means exploring new export opportunities for our companies. The expected signing of free trade agreements between the European Union and promising partner countries, such as Australia, New Zealand, as well as Latin American countries will help.

Special attention will be devoted to the strengthening of economic links with the United States. We pin our hopes on cooperation with the new United States Administration, especially on matters concerning technology, climate and energy.

We shall remain firm in our stand against protectionism. We need an open, fair and rules-based environment for international trade with a modernised World Trade Organisation at its core.

In the context of energy security, our priority is the synchorinsation of the Baltic States’ energy networks with those of the continental Europe by 2025. Together with like-minded partners, we firmly advocate putting the Nord Stream 2 project on hold.

At the same time, we see that the promoters of Latvia’s development cooperation projects – public authorities, civil society organisations and the private sector alike – can demonstrate to the wider world their contribution to sustainable development. For instance, by sharing best practices and solutions produced in Latvia and by addressing the digitalisation of governance, society and business. Appropriate funding is required to promote that. Latvia’s rates are still amongst the lowest in the European Union’s Member States.

The long-expected opening of a Latvian Embassy in Australia this year will have a special and symbolic significance. It will open avenues for much more active cooperation with Australia, including in the economic areas of business and trade, and building relations with a number of countries in Oceania.

 

Dear Colleagues,

Latvia’s closest neighbours and allies in the European Union and NATO are Estonia and Lithuania, with whom we are implementing the most ambitious transport infrastructure project since the restoration of the Baltic States’ independence – Rail Baltica. This project is expected to enhance transportation links, and we shall soon be connected to the rest of Europe.

Latvia is directly interested in sustaining good neighbourly relations with the Russian Federation, but the principles that underpin those relations are no less important. We must be able to reply to the question “What kind of Russia would we like to see as our neighbour?” And the answer is directly related to Latvia’s national security interests.

We would like to see a democratic Russia with a stable domestic policy where human rights are honoured and civic liberties are guaranteed, a neighbour which respects international law and the territorial integrity of its neighbours. Latvia’s national security interests also lie in a Russia which does not pursue an aggressive foreign policy and poses no threat to the sovereignty of the countries at its borders.

Regrettably, 2020 proved that we still have a long way to go to reach that goal.

Efforts by the ruling circles of the Russian Federation can still be observed to utilise questions of history to solve domestic policy and foreign policy tasks and to pursue goals Russia is attempting to rewrite its own history – various interpretations it deploys are mainly aimed at distorting the facts about the origins of World War II and its denouement.

The Russian Federation is trying to return to a 19th century principle which stipulates that only great powers possess unlimited sovereignty, while being allowed to violate the sovereignty and territorial integrity of small nations in the name of their security interests or stability.

Here we see an obvious attempt at manipulating internationally recognised values and norms, and to relativise them in the context of the current international developments and create a basis for the insistence of the Russian Federation it has a right to use force at its own discretion.

Throughout the year, Russia’s authorities continued exerting pressure on human rights defenders, public activists and organisations, and against members of the free and independent press. An attempt to poison the leader of the political opposition, Alexei Navalny, and after his return to Russia, sentencing him in a “hearing” held at the police station, without the presence of his lawyer, is one of the many incidents that demonstrate a negative trend in Russia.

Over the past year, Russia continued actively falsifying history through a biased representation of historical facts, and was using this as a political instrument. I would like to mention but a few examples here: an attempt to present a tendentious assessment of the incorporation of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia into the USSR 80 years ago by force, as well as manipulating public opinion concerning the causes and effects of World War II.

Attempts to exonerate and absolve the crimes of the Stalinist regime and to present them as political normalcy cause great harm to the civil society of Russia itself, by distorting the public consciousness and curbing the formation of a modern democratic society in the country.

We must be aware that only a democratic Russia that has a stable domestic policy, a Russia where human rights are honoured and civic liberties are guaranteed, a Russia which respects international law will make it possible to achieve economic cooperation between our countries which as productive and mutually advantageous as possible. 30 years ago many of us stood at the “barricades” to protect our freedom. Democratic Russia helped us in those days. It is our duty today to help democrats in Russia, Belarus and elsewhere in the world.

Latvia wishes to see its neighbour, Belarus, as an independent, economically developed and sustainable democratic country, a country where its citizens can express their opinions openly in free elections.

Regrettably, the presidential elections that took place on 9 August 2020 marked a turning point in the opposite direction. The decision on which direction to take for Belarusian society and the Belarusian state should be made by the Belarusian people. Latvia is already providing, and will continue providing support for Belarusian civil society and to businesses that do not see the possibility of continuing their work under the conditions of Lukashenko’s regime and are expressing their intention to move to Latvia in order to implement their business ideas here.

The European Union’s previous sanctions package was only the first step towards sanctioning Belarusian oligarchs who support the regime or enrich themselves due to favours offered by the current regime. The fact that the European Union imposed restrictive measures on just a few oligarchs should be seen as a signal to the others that if they do not stop supporting those who crack down on their people in the streets, throw them in jail and drive them into exile; the European Union will not hesitate to apply sanctions to such individuals in the next rounds and Latvia will not protect them.

The time has come to decide what they see as more important: another million brought by favours granted by the regime, or the will of the majority of the people to have justice, change and new, fair presidential elections. It is time for them to decide on which side they stand. Only standing on the side of the people, ceasing to finance the regime and condemning, without further delay, its brutal treatment of its own people, is the way in which these businessmen will be able to continue cooperating with companies in the European Union.

It is totally clear that the way out of the crisis is a free election in Belarus to be followed by the transformation of this authoritarian political system into a democratic system.

Belarus is, and will remain our neighbour with whom we are linked by long-term cooperation. Latvia’s long-term interests lie in continued cooperation through the development of railway corridors and logistics for the movement of goods with Belarus, and in transit through Belarus, with third countries – such as Ukraine, China and others. This could be fully implemented after the stabilisation and resolution of the crisis in Belarus.

 

Ladies and Gentlemen!

Against the backdrop of the present-day economic processes, the Latvian diaspora brings vital support for the protection of political and economic interests of the country. The economic and political potential of our diaspora is increasing, which is especially true with respect to those working for international organisations and to businesses. The opportunities offered by the diaspora are expanding, and Latvians abroad, even though they may not be diplomats in the formal sense, have the ability to be supporting Latvia.

Cooperation with the diaspora organisations and direct assistance to our nationals abroad is one of the cornerstones of our work. I am going to highlight three noteworthy examples today.

In the spring of 2020, during the repatriation operation, under conditions when people had to wait for several days if not weeks before they could return home, diaspora organisations and members of the Latvian communities on all continents were prepared to engage in order to help their fellow countrymen to find temporary accommodation or give practical assistance in some other way.

We also went ahead with a focused implementation of the Diaspora Law. Let me thank the Saeima that supported and adopted laws on the possibilities for declaring one’s place of residence, and on a number of other practical matters.

 

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It was a week ago that, in the Government, we approved the Diaspora Action Plan for the next three years. In our work, we shall continue focusing on safeguarding our language and culture alongside with the development of economic and practical cooperation, including among specialists in various fields and scientists of Latvian origin. Diaspora organisations have also expressed readiness to actively engage in the enhancement and international promotion of the image of Latvia.

On 18 November 1921, Zigfrīds Anna Meierovics said in his remarks to the Constitutional Assembly: “We have achieved de jure recognition without any special reservations and we can build our future as a full-fledged country in the way our interests require.”

Our interests require for us not to be indifferent to our country and the wider world. Our interests call for us to support human rights, democracy and the rule of law here at home and around the world.

Our interests call for us to be active and conscientious members of the world community of countries.

The work has radically changed over the past century. Pope Francis once said: “Too often we participate in the globalization of indifference. May we strive instead to live with global solidarity.” Let us not remain indifferent to what transpires in Latvia and all over the world.

On the centenary of Latvia’s international recognition de jure, to every Latvian patriot, I wish that one value in the world remain unchanged – a free and democratic Latvian state!

 

Thank you for your attention!

 


 

 


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