Latvia is an independent republic in the Baltic region, bordered by Estonia, Lithuania, Russia and Belarus. It became a member of the European Union in 2004 and signed the Lisbon Treaty in 2007. Its capital Riga was named the European Capital of Culture in 2014 and the recent UN Human Rights Development Index categorises it as one of the countries with a "very high human development" score. Surpassing Argentina, Croatia, Bahrain, Montenegro, Russia, Romania and Kuwait, it's the world's 44th country in the list.
The Baltic state was ruled by the Soviets for centuries (1710-1918) and World War I and World War II became motives for Latvia to fight for independence and a better international standing. Latvia declared independence in 1918, its independence was recognised in 1920, and in 1921 the League of Nations admitted Latvia as an official member.
2018 marks the 97th anniversary of de jure recognition of the Republic of Latvia, a country which doesn't make many headlines, not because it doesn't play a positive role in international politics or doesn't produce high-quality academicians, artists and entrepreneurs. Latvia doesn't make many headlines because it's 41st internationally in the Good Country Index 2017, is trying to improve all-out and constructive relations with as many nations across the world and because as said by its Foreign Minister, is intent to ensure it "benefits from and simultaneously contributes to European peace project."
Edgars Rinkēvičs is the Foreign Minister of the Republic of Latvia and a member of the Unity (Latvian: Vienotība) party. He started a career in 1993 as a journalist reporting on foreign policy and international relations at Latvian Radio. He has held different government positions, including at the Ministry of Defence and in 2011, was appointed as the Head of Chancery to the President of Latvia.
In an interview with the Centre For Journalism, Mr Rinkēvičs detailed his views about the prospects of Latvia's foreign policy, the future of Latvia-Britain relation post-Brexit, the country's plans to establish closer ties with the Muslim world, among others. Here is the full text of the interview.
Q: Mr Foreign Minister; First, congratulations on the 97th de jure recognition of the Republic of Latvia. In your seventh year in office, what are the main priorities of the nation's diplomatic apparatus?
A: Seven years is a long enough period of time for a diplomatic service of any state. This year Latvia celebrates Centenary of Independent State of Latvia and there are great deal of achievements Latvia has accomplished, and in many ways because of her very focused and determined diplomatic service that should ensure the best possible international environment for wellbeing and security of the people of Latvia.
Today is no different from previous times. Diplomatic apparatus must ensure that Latvia uses opportunities provided by the fourth global industrial revolution that more and more impact everything what we do; from employment and social security to economic growth and national security.
The priorities of Latvia's foreign policy are to ensure that Latvia benefits from and simultaneously contributes to European peace project: the European Union. It forms the very foundation on which our economy develops its prosperity and growth. And it provides a very core of societal resilience in times when the EU is exposed to many internal and external pressures. Latvia wants to be part of a core of the EU integration, because it is in Latvia's strategic interests.
Latvia's foreign policy priority is to ensure that we can benefit from a strong and ever adoptive transatlantic relationship. Global geopolitics is changing and for Europeans to make a profound impact on its development relations with the U.S. and Canada are of critical importance, be it reinforcement of the security in the Northern part of Europe, including the Baltic Sea Region, or developing on the EU decision to embrace a concept of Permanent Security Cooperation in Europe (PESCO), or supporting those countries that ask for transatlantic security support. Transatlantic relations are of critical importance when we address asymmetric threats our societies and countries today are faced with.
Latvia geographically, culturally and historically has been a part of Baltic Sea Region that is one of the regions of Northern Europe. Geographically, we are bordering with Central Europe, and historically through centuries has been an unspeakable part of Europe. Europe as a political or economic phenomenon does not exist without strong and vibrant regional cooperation from West to East, from North to South. Our priority is to strengthen Nordic-Baltic (NB8) cooperation, try to work on matching interests with other European regions.
Our priority is to provide necessary support for Latvia's external economic interests in traditional or untraditional markets.
And last, but not least, because Latvians have become a very mobile part of a global village, we try to develop a pattern of relationship between the state of Latvia and our diaspora that has established itself in many countries around the world. We think that this relationship must be nourished and taken care of, for it is a win–win situation for both, our citizens and our state.
Q: How do you think Brexit will affect the future of Latvia's relations with the United Kingdom? Considering that withdrawal from the European Union will significantly degrade Britain's relations with NATO, to which Latvia also belongs, and adversely affect its ties with many other European institutions, do you believe Latvia's political, diplomatic and cultural bonds with the UK will be in any way compromised?
A: United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is an important partner of Latvia, including within the European Union. Yet, the exit of the United Kingdom from the European Union will not make it necessary to compromise any bonds that the two countries share. Latvia and the United Kingdom will continue to cooperate on the basis of bilateral relations and diplomacy, which we aim to strengthen, as well as in the framework of other international organisations that both countries belong to, including NATO. Not least, our cooperation will continue also in the framework of the future cooperation between the European Union and the United Kingdom in line with the agreement that the two sides will reach.
Our cooperation with the United Kingdom is especially close in such fields as security and defence as well as trade and economics. Also, after the United Kingdom leaves the European Union, we will continue deepening our ties in these fields through all the cooperation channels mentioned above.
In view of that, the relations between Latvia and the United Kingdom are to remain as close and strong in the future as they are now.
Q: I am a citizen of Iran and am very much interested in learning about Riga's policy on the expansion of bilateral relations with Tehran. In the recent years, there have been new developments including in the facilitation of tourism and easing travel restrictions and economic ties. Does the Latvian government have any concrete plans to develop further ties with Iran, including through opening embassies and appointing ambassadors?
A: During last few years, the bilateral ties between Latvia and Iran have intensified significantly. There is a growing interest among the business communities of our countries to expand contacts and cooperation. We have established regular political dialogue between the Ministries of Foreign Affairs. Likewise, our line ministries are actively developing ties and cooperation, particularly in the transportation domain. I myself visited Iran in 2014 and met with the President of the Islamic Republic Hassan Rouhani and my colleague, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Dr. Javad Zarif. Dr. Zarif visited Latvia in 2016. We have exchanged non-resident Ambassadors who are very active in promoting our cooperation. I believe that further intensification of relations with Iran can bring significant benefits for both our countries.
Q: Latvia was one of the 35 countries that voted in abstention on President Trump's Jerusalem decision at the UN. What is your government's view on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the possible solution to end the crisis? Do you believe this seven-decade-old controversy can be finally settled, given the humanitarian costs that are already paid and hundreds of hours of useless negotiations, while the two parties seem to be intransigent and some external role-players appear to be unhelpful?
A: The position of Latvia on Middle East Peace Process (MEPP) remains unchanged. Latvia is strongly committed to the "two-state solution" reached through direct peace negotiations between Israel and Palestine, mediated and assisted by all international partners, including the U.S., the EU and regional partners.
Regretfully, we are now witnessing a chain of decisions and initiatives that are taking place outside the MEPP framework and are not in any way contributing to the MEPP. The vote on the UNGA resolution is just one of such initiatives. We have consistently maintained that the status of Jerusalem can only be resolved through dialogue and as part of an overall Israeli-Palestinian settlement.
The recent meetings my fellow EU colleagues and I had with the leaders of Israel and Palestine provide cautious optimism for the future resumption of peace talks. Latvia will remain committed to advancing the MEPP through dialogue.
Q: As far as I understand, Latvia's foreign policy is pretty much Europe-oriented. Is the government interested in developing ties with Asian countries, Muslim world, Arab nations, Africa and many other countries with which you haven't maintained close relations?
A: Latvia has its interests in expanding our cooperation with nations that are not part of Europe; countries in Asia, Muslim world, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean. And we are doing that and are looking for new opportunities. Latvia is an attractive partner for many. But, it is important to keep in mind that Latvia was for about 50 years under the Soviet occupation and that brutal regime cut off all our natural international ties. We have done a lot correcting that.
First decade after regaining our independence, our foreign policy priorities were largely focused on EU and NATO Allies. Today, as we celebrate centennial of the Republic of Latvia, relations with Asia, Arab nations, Africa is a fundamental part of the Latvian foreign policy. We have been gradually extending our diplomatic network. Few recent additions include opening the embassies in South Korea and United Arab Emirates to serve the Gulf region where our business community has been very active. Latvia has developed strong ties with China, India and Japan. Latvia is a member of the 16+1 (China and the Central and Eastern European countries) format, and is actively involved in the China’s Belt and Road Initiative. We have established regular dialogue formats with Afghanistan and Pakistan and are actively contributing to the “Heart of Asia” process. As a member of the ASEM format, we recently hosted ASEM Transport and Education Ministerial Meetings in Riga. Our business community is present and taking keen interest across the African continent. We will certainly continue this trend and will be steadily increasing our reach and interests.