In 2007 Latvia had the fastest growing economy in Europe. Just two years later the country was facing an impending state bankruptcy. The army too was affected by a serious crisis. „We considered it an opportunity to create a system that will be healthier and will operate more skillfully than the previous one. The reform was worth it,” says Jānis Sārts, State Secretary of the Latvian Ministry of Defence.
Even in 2008, Latvia gave more than 1,5 percent of the GDP to the defence and was ranked among the ten „richest” NATO member states. A year later the military budget fell by 40 percent, in 2010 the fall was even deeper. At that time the Ministry of Defence of Latvia decided on a radical and rapid reform. „We did not want to make wide-reaching cuts. We chose the same approach as when a person falls ill. The fever and medicine destroy all viruses and at last this person is healthier than ever,” says Sārts.
A part of the reform that involved similar steps with which comes the Czech White Paper on defence was the cancellation of four operational headquarters, the reform of other eight headquarters and the establishment of a fully integrated Ministry of Defence. „In addition, we reduced the number of workers from different headquarters by more than a third, we gave up about 20 percent of military immovable property, which we offered for sale. And we also had to give up on some skills,” he explains.
The measures many did not like at first – including a 20 percent reduction in wages – turned out to be the right decision. „On the one hand we got rid of some commands, but on the other hand we increased the number of soldiers in the units,” says Jānis Sārts and reveals that in the beginning especially at the headquarters there really was not any great enthusiasm. According to Sārts the adoption of the reform by the army was helped by the visits of the Minister of Defence at the soldier units. „We talked to everyone, not only the officers. For us it was important to explain each change face to face. I think that all of the soldiers eventually appreciated that at the end of the reform there are less management levels and the units stand in the forefront.
According to Jānis Sārts the crisis has been beneficial in a way. „After two years of struggling, now we can say that thanks to the enormous effort it is possible to turn even the worst situation into something positive.” The Latvian army has now more troops ready to be deployed for longer than before. In Afghanistan, where Latvian units are operating, this year their scope will even be expanded. „Things are better for us now. For the year 2011 the government set aside more money for us than last year and I expect that we will start discussing the further increase in the budget. It is a long-term view, but we will talk about ways of how to return the level for defense expenses back to 2 percent of the GDP.
The Latvian Delegation headed by State Secretary Jānis Sārts had a discussion meeting with the First Deputy of the Minister of Defence Jiří Šedivý. They visited the Aviation Training Centre in Pardubice, Latvians are seriously thinking about training their helicopter pilots in the Czech Republic.