An exclusive interview of the Senior editor of Pirmais Biznesa radio (First Business Radio) in Riga, Latvia Mr. Aris Jansons.
1. After Brussels summit, to what extent NATO will be contributing to the regional security?
Latvians concluded that they could breath a sigh of relief after the Russia-US Summit in Helsinki because US President Donald Trump had not given Russia's leader Vladimir Putin a pledge to withdraw US troops from Europe, including the Baltic states. Asked by the LNT TV channel whether Trump's lenient attitude to Putin does not raise concern, Prime Minister Maris Kucinskis answered that NATO was taking care of Latvia's security and NATO was not President Trump alone: "There are joint decisions by NATO and they remain unchanged."
Following the meeting of NATO Heads of States and Governments in Brussels, on 11 July, President Raimonds Vejonis acknowledged that, in general, the summit might already been considered successful, as the decisions "will further improve NATO's ability to respond to the crisis situations and further strengthen NATO's presence in our region." Just one day prior to Nato summit, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau paid a visit to Latvia and it was announced that Canada would extend the leadership of the Nato Battalion located in Latvia, for the period from April 2019 to March 2023, for another four years.
Following a 11 July signing ceremony at the Nato summit, it was confirmed that Latvia would be the location for a newly-agreed Nato headquarters covering northern Europe. The work has started to successfully deploy the Multinational Division Headquarters North in Latvia's Adazi. The headquarters will be efficient and combat-capable command unit, which will ensure joint command over division-size units, including units of the headquarters' framework nations and Nato's enhanced Forward Presence battlegroups currently deployed in the Baltic states, experts say.
According to President Raimonds Vejonis, the summit's decisions make Nato even stronger and make the Baltic region even better protected. "They will further enhance NATO's ability to respond to a crisis and further strengthen NATO's presence in our region," said Vejonis.
2. Latvia and the other Baltic States had done much to integrate into the EU energy market. What do You think about Nord Stream project?
Right these days, on 14 September, the project for the synchronization of the Baltic power grids with the Continental European system received the green light in Brussels. The scenario calls for synchronizing the Baltic grids via the existing LitPol Link interconnection between Lithuania and Poland and a new sea cable between the two neighboring countries, as well as for installing synchronous compensators at hydro power plants in the three Baltic states; the EU is expected to cover 75 per cent of the costs.
This significant step means that the Baltic states can no longer be regarded as "energy islands".
As regards the Nord Stream 2, the official Latvian viewpoint has been that it is more of a political rather than a business project. We have worried that this gas pipeline can become a collision point in transatlantic relations. The best known thesis of the project's opponents is that the Nord Stream 2 threatens to increase dependence on one dominant supplier and delivery route, which is contrary to the principles of the Energy Union. It is also jeopardizing the planned and already made investments towards the diversification of supply routes and promotion of competition, which could have significant political repercussions in the future.
I can only agree with the Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics that the only way to address these issues at the European Union level is to support the diversification of energy supply sources and develop the EU's internal energy market.
Appearing on LTV on 30 June, Rinkevics listed four significant risks that the pipeline might pose. First of all, the security risk for our region, taking into account the Nato presence. For instance, business activities at Ventspils port could potentially be used as a cover for espionage. Secondly, it is a foreign policy risk as "yet another attempt to pit EU countries against each other, bringing the US into it and to screw with Ukraine." Thirdly, it goes against common EU policy and lastly , the environmental risks.
As the pipeline is being layed from Russia to Germany under the Baltic Sea, circumventing Poland, Ukraine and the Baltic states, Latvia could be likely to be threatened by an unpredictable ecological accident in the course of construction rather than a kind of direct economic impact. Of course, the pipeline would be an additional factor leaning towards the extending of Latvia's dependence on Russian gas. And if we see the Nord Stream 2 pipeline as the Kremlin’s political instrument increasing Europe’s dependency on Russia, then it is a question of national security. Anyway, we believe that this issue should be addressed at the EU level by adopting amendments to the Gas Directive.
3. The Rīga Conference has become a unique venue for constructive dialogue on international security. How do you assess Latvia-Russia relations today?
Latvia-Russia relations are currently on a slightly higher level than the overall Western- Russian relationship that is understandable because of our irreversible geographic proximity. On the one hand, today Latvia has almost only a negative agenda with Russia - sanctions, restrictions, mutual allegations. Latvia supports Nato's policy in relations with Russia and believes that there is no reason to make advances to Russia until it changes behaviour, as Prime Minister Maris Kucinskis has said.
The growing Russian military activity near the Latvian state border and the presence of a huge Russian military contingent at our borders can be evaluated as a clear threat, but Latvians are already used to it. Russian warships continue to enter the waters of Latvia's exclusive economic zone on a regular basis and Russian warplanes appear at the air border with Latvia now and then. Russia's deployment of Iskander rocket systems in Kaliningrad would not change much by way of theoretical military threat to Latvia's security, seeing as Latvia is within reach of rockets stationed near St. Petersburg, Latvia's ambassador to Russia, Maris Riekstins explained. Though Russia reportedly played attacking Baltic states in the last year's major exercise, right now the assumption is that the Russians would not dare to move into the Baltics, because that would get them into a conflict with the United States and the Nato alliance.
This year's parliamentary election on 6 October is crucial for Latvia not to enter the orbit of the post-Soviet space, - in these elections, Latvia is "on a knife's blade", as Egils Levits, a popular former politician, currently member of the European Court of Justice from Latvia, has said. Some commentators have been warning of the real possibility that in the autumn, politicians loyal to the Kremlin can formally and fully legitimately take over political power in Latvia.
The premier's candidate of Association of the Regions, Edvards Smiltens, has warned that "big bets are placed on the election by a very influential group, which, from a business perspective, has a justified desire to change relations with Russia, since past relationships mean nothing but multi-million losses."
Unlike the Crimean annexation, Russian President does not need any gross, brutal military power in Latvia. Often the feeling tends to take over that in the European Union there is no second country like Latvia that would be so deeply and extensively saturated at all levels with the Russian agents of influence of all types, from security services to media. It is no secret that Moscow has been looking for politicians in Latvia who are more favourable towards Russia and are focused on collaboration.
First time in almost four years, a meeting between the Latvian and Russian intergovernmental commission has taken place in Riga, during which the transport ministers of both countries agreed on railway transit issues.
Russia made it clear that despite all the political difficulties in the relations between the European Union and Russia, Moscow did not close the door for cooperation and did not plan to declare a transit boycott to its neighbour in the Baltics. The transit of Russian cargo both by rail and by road through Latvia is continuing. Despite serious disagreements on a number of issues, Latvia continues to cooperate with the Russian Federation at many levels, which are not subject to sanctions. According to Russian data, Latvia closes the top ten list of Russia's European Union trade partners.
Poor relations with Russia have led to the fall of the transit and food industry in Latvia, there is a growing emergence of consensus that Latvia needs to be open to Russian investments in seaports.
At the same time, we can not cherish the illusions on noticeable warming in the Latvian-Russian relations in the face of tense international situation and upcoming parliamentary election in Latvia. "It is hardly possible to daydream about the change of relationship with Moscow, which can not live without myth about the evil neighbours (NATO, USA, others) westwards from the Russian border," as my commentator colleague Atis Klimovics has put it.