Latvia’s ambassador to the United States made his first-ever official visit to Washington state’s Capitol late last month with a message for state leaders: Latvia is an independent country, free from Russia’s grip and eager to trade.
“Europe is not only five countries,” Ambassador Andris Razans told TVW during his visit to Olympia. “There are other countries in Europe – smaller, but with great potential, great opportunities.”
Part of the former Soviet Union, Latvia was under Russian occupation from 1940 to 1991. In the more than 20 years since, the small country of barely more than 2 million people has grown into its independence, now serving in the Presidency of the Council of the European Union, the leadership role that rotates among 28 member countries.
Now, for the first time, the Baltic state is reaching out to Washington state as part of a larger effort to encourage trade with other nations. “Our problem is we have been hidden behind that double Berlin wall from during Cold War times – a small wall in Berlin, a huge Soviet border in our case,” he said. “That’s past, that’s history, I think now it’s really important to engage.”
Razans was in Olympia to promote the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, a controversial proposal that would create the world’s largest free-trade zone between the EU and United States.
The deal would merge regulatory standards, allowing the two economic superpowers to trade freely and in higher volumes, covering nearly half of the world’s gross domestic product. Razans said it’s a win for both sides. “It will determine development in the next decade, not only on our side of the Atlantic, but here as well,” he said.
But the proposal has faced opposition on both continents. Critics worry the proposal would undermine democracy, allowing big business to take legal action against laws that threaten free-trade or lead to smaller profits – laws like minimum wage.
Washington state has a role in the economic relationship between the two continents, Razans said. “Washington definitely is among that states that do trade with Europe in very big volumes, with great companies and products every European kid knows,” he said.
That’s part of what Razans told Washington’s Lt. Gov. Brad Owen during his visit to the state, which included a tour of the Boeing Co. and meeting with University of Washington students.
He said it’s part of a new effort for Latvia. “We come from 50 years of situations where nobody really tried to develop our exports,” he said. “I’m trying now to understand as Ambassador where we have these intersections.”
One of the products Razans hopes Latvia and Washington will intersect: wine. “We are not the greatest nation on Earth at producing wine,” he said. “Latvian wine is undrinkable, I think. It’s just for fun and personal pleasure. Washington is a great wine-producing state.”
Latvia can offer music in return. “Latvia definitely punches high, high, high above our weight in music,” he said. “Among the top ten opera stars these days, top four or five are Latvians. Out of 2 million people, is not that bad.”
Washington leaders have not voiced concerns about the international trade agreement, Razans said, but supporters in the EU face one powerful opponent: Russia.
Latvia’s neighbor that occupied the country for more than half a century has been “financing and working against this deal,” Razans said. He said Russia is behind campaigns and non-governmental organizations that aim to “make sure there is no agreement between Europe and the United States.”
Russia’s threat to Latvia
Russian military activity is increasing in the Baltic region, and after the country’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region, some say that could have troublesome implications for Latvia. The country is made up of 26 percent ethnic Russians – more than Ukraine.
But Razans said the threat is exaggerated. “We don’t have a direct military threat,” he said. “When I read that we might be the next target, I think it’s stupidity at a high level, it would be the same thing to say one country has quite many Muslim population, it doesn’t mean that all will fight in Syria or Iraq in ISIS.”
Russia has impacted Latvia’s political and trade relationships in the past, but now, his country is part of the EU and things are different, Razans said. That’s what he hopes Washington leaders will come away with after his visit.
“I wish that they put a pin on European map with the name Latvia,” he said. “Latvia might look small on a map, but if you take into account that we are part of the EU internal market, it’s not that small at all.”
Latvia will serve in the six-month rotating EU presidency until July, when Luxembourg will take over.
May 7, 2015