Latvia

1. The Eastern Neighbours and Russia

Future relations with Russia: careful neighbourliness

For several years prior, Latvia has adhered to a cautiously positive approach towards Russia, not ignoring disagreements, but heavily focusing on economic cooperation. However, after Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, ‘business as usual’ was no longer possible and Russia became a threat once again. Economic cooperation, especially the profitable transit sector, is still important for the government. At the same time, Latvia’s active participation in multilateral and bilateral sanctions against Russia shows that it is ready to bear with even grave economic losses.

Latvia has been active on the EU level criticizing Russia for not complying with the Minsk agreement and for backing the fighters in Eastern Ukraine as well as calling for EU unity on its own part. Latvia believes that sanctions can be softened only when the situation in Ukraine’s eastern regions improves, and lifted only after the annexation of Crimea is resolved. It does not stand for complete isolation of Russia but also rejects appeasement as a failed strategy that led to World War II.

The Latvian government has started to pay more attention to its security and military forces, swiftly deciding to increase its defence budget to 2 percent of GDP as per NATO requirements; calling for increased NATO and American military presence; striving for energy independence; and, in particular, co-initiating massive international debate on Russian propaganda.

There are still dissenting voices within the country, especially from political representatives of the ethnically non-Latvian population (e. g. the Social Democratic Party and the MEP Tatjana Zdanoka). However, these attitudes should not be ascribed to all non-Latvians; last year, public opinion polls showed that approx. 40 percent of ethnic minorities did not support either Russia or Ukraine, and 45 percent opposed Russia’s use of force, while a small minority of ethnic Latvians actually were on Russia’s side. There is no imminent danger of disintegration of Latvian society.

Link:

  • Latvian Foreign and Security Policy Yearbook 2015, eds. Andris Spruds, Diana Potjomkina (Riga: Latvian Institute of International Affairs, Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, 2015).

Ukraine events: litmus test for a strong Eastern Partnership policy

Latvia has traditionally prioritized the Eastern Partnership (EaP) for identity, economic, political and security reasons, and is one of its most vocal supporters. Views on whether this policy has geopolitical importance in relation to Russia differ, and the official position is that it is not directed against any third party – read: Russia. At the same time, the geopolitical factor is still tacitly present, and leading Latvian politicians are wary about increasing and aggressive Russian influence in the region.

The Ukraine events, in Latvia’s view, served as an additional proof that the EU’s policy in the region must be strengthened in order to support EaP countries’ European integration and to prevent Russia’s aggression. Ukraine has been consistently supported – politically, with humanitarian aid and the advice of Latvian experts – and Latvia advocated for increased assistance from the EU. At the same time it frankly admits that Ukraine, like the other EaP countries, must implement serious reforms. In the framework of its EU Presidency, Latvia focused on the need to make the EaP more substantial and to forge closer links with all six states so that they can clearly see the value added from this project.

Unlike many other EU states and EU institutions, Latvia is positive about bringing in third parties. It suggested enhancing cooperation with the US to the point of establishing a “Euro-Atlantic Eastern Partnership”, and Latvian diplomats have also discussed EaP issues with Japan, a country closely interested in Ukraine.

Like in the previous case, Latvia’s society is not united on the issue; an anecdotal case is an argument in the quasi-minorities’ rights group, Non-Citizens’ Congress, which could not find internal consensus on the Ukrainian issue even in week-long internal arguments.

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Riga Eastern Partnership summit: optimum under present circumstances

Part of the summit’s positive evaluation can of course be explained by the organizers’ pride, but the results by all means correspond to Latvia’s priorities. Latvia kept its expectations realistic. According to the government, the most important task for this ‘wartime summit’ was to agree on the continuation of the EaP policy, per se.

The final declaration was officially lauded as a significant achievement. Despite increased differences among the participants and Russia’s pressure, the joint declaration not only recommitted the partners to the idea of the EaP, but also introduced stronger differentiation among the six partners; some new offers, e.g. promise of visa liberalization to Georgia and Ukraine; and expansion into certain new spheres such as security and information freedom. Latvian politicians and some experts are also happy about “good wording” with regard to the future of EU-EaP relations, and a joint position on Russia and on its annexation of Crimea.

Criticism, however, came not only from outside but also from within the ruling coalition. Some EaP supporters criticized the declaration as weak and shallow, without clear benefits for the Eastern partners and fundamental answers to the EaP’s future. In turn, politicians critical of the whole initiative opined that Latvia should have done more in promoting bilateral relations with EaP states, especially in the business field.

EU army would weaken NATO

Latvia has traditionally maintained a very strong Euro-Atlantic orientation in its security policy. When the Ukrainian crisis broke out, the government prioritized NATO and US presence in the region, and this conditioned the official response towards the subsequent Juncker initiative.

The general consensus within the country is that the EU must strengthen its role in security and defence – especially in what regards cyberattacks, hybrid warfare, strategic communication, and energy security – and therefore it has to review the Security Strategy and develop a new vision of its international role.

However, according to the then Minister of Defence (now President) Raimonds Vējonis and other key officials, a joint EU army would “dub” (functionally overlap with) and thus weaken NATO; in the circumstances where Western defence resources are limited, NATO should continue to play the key role. Differences among EU allies were also quoted to prove the unviability of such a project. Some experts had more nuanced views on the issue, admitting that the EU theoretically needs its own military capacities, but concurred that a joint army is presently impossible. Only a few were positive about the idea.

2. EU Enlargement

Tough love: support to membership through reforms

Latvia is one of the six or seven EU member states who dare to be explicitly positive about further EU enlargement to the eastern neighbourhood. It believes that eventual EU membership of the eastern partners will serve its economic interests, expand the European community of values, improve security on the continent and will also be a moral decision; leading Latvian politicians often speak about historical justice and the need to view the Eastern partners as truly European.

In the Foreign Minister’s annual report issued in January 2015, Edgars Rinkēvičs opined that the Riga Summit should recognize Eastern partners’ European aspirations and the efforts invested in their relations with the EU, an aim that was ultimately achieved.

At the same time, Latvia is viewing the enlargement very pragmatically. In its opinion, freedom of choice goes both ways – the EU should not “lure in” countries not interested in membership (e.g. Belarus and Armenia). Latvia is also strongly focusing on the need for the partner countries to reform; for instance, there were no calls to speed up Ukraine’s membership due to the crisis, as Latvia believes that Ukraine first has to implement all the necessary reforms. Generally, Latvia has become more sensitive of its EU partners’ opinion over the years, and despite its principled support does not mention the ’M-word’ frequently. However, pro-European non-governmental players and politicians who have greater freedoms are often more vocal in their support for enlargement than the government is.

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Enlargement to the Western Balkans and Turkey: a matter of principle and interest

The Latvian government has expressed principled support for EU enlargement, both to the Western Balkans and to Turkey. This fits in the broader Latvian paradigm of an “open doors” policy: all countries aiming for and deserving membership must be accepted, and the EU itself must be active in supporting them. Support for expansion to the South is also seen as a precondition for obtaining future support for eastern enlargement. However, Latvia has lesser interest in the Western Balkans, with which it has only fragmentary ties, than in Turkey, a major political and economic partner.

Latvia’s interest in the Balkans intensified while preparing for the EU Presidency, and in the beginning of the year, the Minister Rinkēvičs promised that “Latvia will contribute to the enlargement process” and that it wants to maintain active political dialogue with all potential candidates. Latvia does not have developed economic or political contacts with Balkan countries, and has only vague expertise and interest in bilateral cooperation; some interviewed officials are wary about Russia’s increasing influence in the region, but this is overshadowed by concerns about eastern partners. Thus, Latvia’s support for enlargement is mainly explained by general statements like “spreading EU’s values and norms outside its borders”. Similarly as with the eastern partners, Latvia is strongly supportive of the EU’s conditionality, but in this case it is less vocal in demanding EU assistance for reforms. Due to the low salience of the issue, there is no clearly identifiable political or public opposition to enlargement in this direction.

Things are different with Turkey, a NATO partner, an energy hub and a much more important market for Latvian goods. Latvia is one of the few EU countries that support Turkey’s eventual accession; while other EU countries are wary of Turkey’s size and political influence, Latvia views this as an asset for developing EU relations with the region. The Latvian government also has nothing against Turkey’s Islamic heritage and opines that “Turkey is an indispensable part of Europe” (Latvian Ambassador to Turkey Mr. Atis Sjanīts). In autumn last year, the newly elected president of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, chose Latvia as his first EU destination. The Latvian EU Presidency hoped to open new chapters in Turkey’s accession negotiations and was ready to consider a visa free regime for Turkish citizens. At the same time, Latvian officials are strict about the need for Turkey to continue with reforms and to rigorously observe the EU’s conditionality, including in politically sensitive areas such as democracy and human rights.

Views in Latvian political circles and society may differ, in particular because of different appraisals of Turkey’s readiness for democracy. However, lately Turkey’s potential accession has not ignited controversy, and the government could realize its policy unhampered.

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The author would like to express gratitude to Mariam Apriashvili and Arnolds Eizenšmits for their valuable research assistance.

This EU-28 Watch is part of the a project called ‘Eastern Neighbours and Russia: Close links with EU citizens’ (ENURC) in collaboration with TEPSA (Trans European Policy Studies Association). The project focuses on developing EU citizens’ understanding of the topic of the Eastern Neighbourhood and Russia and aims at encouraging their interest and involvement in this policy which has an impact on their daily lives.

The EU-28 Watch project is mapping out the discourses on these issues in European policies all over Europe. Research institutes from all 28 member states are invited to give overviews on the discourses in their respective countries.

This survey was conducted on the basis of a questionnaire that has been elaborated in March 2015. Most of the reports were delivered in June 2015. This issue and all previous issues are available on the recently relaunched EU-28 Watch website: www.eu-28watch.org.

The EU-28 Watch No. 11 receives significant funding from the Otto Wolff-Foundation, Cologne, in the framework of the ‘Dialog Europa der Otto Wolff-Stiftung’, and financial support from the European Commission. The European Commission is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information contained therein.