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.


  • 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.


  • Lat­vian For­eign and Secu­ri­ty Pol­i­cy Year­book 2015, eds. Andris Spruds, Diana Potjomk­i­na (Riga: Lat­vian Insti­tute of Inter­na­tion­al Affairs, Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, 2015).
  • Juris Poikāns, „We Should Allow the EaP Coun­tries to Choose Freely“, Viseg­rad Insight, 11 May 2015.

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.


  • Lat­vian For­eign and Secu­ri­ty Pol­i­cy Year­book 2015, eds. Andris Spruds, Diana Potjomk­i­na (Riga: Lat­vian Insti­tute of Inter­na­tion­al Affairs, Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, 2015).
  • Juris Poikāns, „We Should Allow the EaP Coun­tries to Choose Freely“, Viseg­rad Insight, 11 May 2015.

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.



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:

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.