Latvia and Russia: a complicated relationship

We are committed to constructive dialogue with the Russian Federation

Juris Poikāns
18 May 2015

Juris Poikāns, Ambassador-at-Large for the Eastern Partnership, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Latvia, talks to editor-in-chief of “Visegrad Insight,” Wojciech Przybylski. Read the first part of this interview here.

 

In the first part of this interview, you painted quite a pragmatic and positive image of the perspectives between Russia, the EU, and the relations between particular member states. When it comes to Latvia and Russia, we read of particular tensions regarding the Russian-speaking minority in Latvia and the rising level of threat perception. What is the Latvian government’s approach to this issue?

Naturally, this has been a complicated relationship since we regained independence, and it is quite difficult to expect anything else. By restoring independent statehood it was a manifestation of historical justice from our point of view, because our country was erased from the political map of Europe in 1940. While, naturally, in Russia’s case, the collapse of the Soviet Union demonstrated something else.

So as a result, the relationship has been complicated – we regained our national identity, we became a part of the West like we had been historically and traditionally. Russia is still searching in its soul for where it wants to go. Since we regained independence, the Latvian government has always been interested in pragmatic and constructive relations with the Russian Federation, but based on a mutual acceptance of interests. We have a willingness to work with Russia and pragmatic relations.

We also have good ties when it comes to economic links – they are one of our biggest trade partners – we have good relations in the field of culture, we have many tourists and daily flights from Riga to Moscow and St Petersburg, as well as good people-to-people contacts; but when it comes to political dialogue, it could always have been better. Naturally, what has happened in Crimea is completely unacceptable and revives negative and painful memories coming from the past. And it’s difficult for the international community, this is not a unique Latvian position, to accept the fact that one country has annexed a part of a sovereign country regardless of any arguments involved in the situation.

So, this doesn’t create very positive feelings within society. The key thing is, however, that we are still committed to finding a reasonable and constructive dialogue with Russia; we are working hard with our European and transatlantic allies to strengthen the Latvian state, we are increasing our defense capacities and budget, searching for solutions regarding energy security, and it’s quite clear that we need to use all possibilities to strengthen the country.

 

When it comes to the twenty-eight member states of the EU, and the approach to security and regional cooperation, where do see the best working alliances or links and understanding within the member states?

The EU is learning all the time how to work together in a better way. It’s quite difficult to immediately come to some joint understanding and consensus among twenty-eight states. But at the same time, I wouldn’t over-exaggerate these national differences. The European project has been absolutely successful, and when you look at the current level of German-Polish or German-French relations, something unbelievable has happened.

The European project is an ongoing process, and countries which are situated in the same region – Poland, Germany, and Sweden – due to geographical or historical ties, are used to having more active dialogue, but it doesn’t mean we should exclude the other states. We are trying to develop ties with Benelux and France, and this is an ongoing process.

Latvia is a pretty young state, so we must be active to explain our positions, to seek joint opinions, and we are very much committed to working with all countries. The key is to speak with one voice, regardless of any foreign policy issues. When we speak with a united voice, our voice is much more effective and much better heard.

 

Has “speaking in once voice” been proved to work for the EU, taking into account the recent Russia-Ukraine tensions?

When it comes to Ukraine, I see different levels of interest from different member states. But when it comes to the actual decision-making, I wouldn’t say we see a lot of disagreements – there is a clear interest in a permanent ceasefire in eastern Ukraine; there is a clear interest in assisting Ukraine when it comes to reforming the country; there was strong condemnation of the annexation of Crimea.

So, all in all, regardless of different aspects, the EU has been able to act with one voice. But when you have twenty-eight different countries, when we look at the European policy specifically regarding bigger states, there is definitely room for improvement.

 

If you were to rank the possibility of Belarus now being somehow open to dialogue with the EU, and the EU being more open to Belarus, what is the main reason this process has been reopened? Is it because the EU has finally realized that an isolated Lukashenka may fall victim to the imperialism of Vladimir Putin?

Relations with Belarus have always been at a very low level in comparison to relations with the rest of the countries of the Eastern Partnership. So, in a way, there is mutual interest in closer ties. And the EU has always been very open to working with Belarus, but again based on the respect, for example, for the issue of human rights. If all concerns are met, we are ready to have closer ties. When it comes to Belarus, yes, absolutely, official Minsk has played a very constructive role with respect to the events in Ukraine, and we see the willingness of Belarus to provide Minsk as a platform for very important negotiations.

So there is a mutual process, a mutual interest in de-freezing the dialogue we have had. But when it comes to building closer ties, we must be realistic of what is achievable. Belarus is a European state. Lukashenka likes to stress that they are situated at the heart of Europe; so if you are at the heart of Europe, it’s legitimate to expect from the European side some joint understanding on how lives within respective societies are organized. European concerns about political prisoners and about the general level of human rights cannot be dismissed. Europe is not going to again enter into some kind of geopolitical thinking, but Europe is open.

At the same time, there are moves coming from the Belarusian side to deepen ties, which as I mentioned are at a very low level, and more active relations between Belarus and the EU is in European interests. However, we are making the first steps towards reopening ties, but this is subject to steps on behalf of the Belarusian government, which must decide if they want to have a more active role and presence within the Eastern Partnership. There are limitations even for the opening of this dialogue and these limitations are very obvious; the European position has not changed on that.

 

The recent killing of Boris Nemtsov in Moscow has been clearly linked to the language of violence in the media – the hate speech that we all encounter against human rights. Will the Latvian Presidency or particularly the upcoming Eastern Partnership summit address any particular issues of hate speech, propaganda, and truth in politics?

Propaganda has, indeed, returned into our ordinary lives, and we have a completely different understanding of what has happened in Ukraine, as well as the murder of Boris Nemtsov. And, in general, the overall environment we have seen in Russia and this particular event is deplorable. When you look at the propaganda issue, it’s quite clearly important to bring balanced information based on facts, allowing people to evaluate what is really happening; and this forms part of the events during the Eastern Partnership summit.

For example, a media conference will look at how to improve the situation in general, although it’s quite clear that the whole of Europe is currently facing some kind of a new challenge, with many citizens becoming subject to this propaganda and have a completely distorted view on international relations and international conflicts. We must do something about it.

 

A recent report by Petr Pomerantsev and Michael Weiss in The Interpreter proposed directed media campaigns to language minorities within EU member states, balancing the information campaigns conducted by the Russian media. Is this something that is already happening or is this being considered in Latvia or the region as a whole?

We understand the weakness of our own programs that are produced in Russian compared to Russian television itself, due to the different resources and entertainment, and we are working hard to improve them. I have recently noticed that programs are improving, for example, on Latvian TV7, which is public television. I also see improvements on private channels to provide more balanced opinions. But there is still a lot of work to do, as sometimes in searching for pan-European solutions you must also have some national solutions that you can do on your own. And this is something the government is taking very seriously – and I have seen some practical results with more interesting programs.

The problem is not only how you provide the news, the problem is very often about entertainment – movies, sports – and TV shows, which are at a very high level on Russian television. This is also a question of competition. Why should a Russian in Latvia watch Latvian Russian TV? This is a question of how you mix it up. And although it is improving, we will never achieve a 100% result. We need to be realistic. The most important thing is to provide every citizen in this country the possibility to choose. You might have Russia television with their version of the events, but you also have professionally made European Russian or Latvian Russian programs, which provide a different perspective.

 

To be Latvian requires passing a rather demanding Latvian language exam.

More than 90% of people pass the test. If it were so extraordinarily difficult, you wouldn’t have such a high pass rate. More than 140,000 people have taken the test, and there are less than 300,000 people who are not citizens. If you compare this with 1991, it has dramatically decreased, and we are trying to make the test show that you are loyal to Latvia. This is more something to do with sociological attitude.

Another very important thing is that when you are a non-citizen of this country, you can travel to Russia without a visa, and you can travel to the EU without a visa. If you are a Latvian citizen, you can’t do this, to Russia, at least. So, you would find different arguments why not to pass the citizenship test. But, again, if you look at the situation we were in in 1991, and when you look now in 2015, there has been considerable progress in learning the language, in terms of ethnic minorities represented in the government and parliament.

 

Do you see Latvia’s ethnic minorities as – I don’t want to use the word “threat” – a tool for destabilization?

We are living in the same country, and I hope we are all interested in the stability and prosperity of this country. During our battle for independence at the end of the 1980s, we saw many representatives of ethnic minorities fighting together for independence. We are one family.

 

Juris Poikāns, Ambassador-at-Large for Eastern Partnership, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Latvia.

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