An exclusive interview of the Senior editor of Pirmais Biznesa radio (First Business Radio) in Riga, Latvia Aris Jansons
1. What is the current position of Latvia in NATO?
The membership of Latvia in NATO has been one of the most important core elements of country's security and defense policy. Latvia’s position in NATO is the most specific among the member-countries, as this Baltic country has the largest Russian diaspora, and Latvia's exports are largely dependent on Russia.
Now it is recognized that in view of the high support to Russia’s promoted ideas among the Russian-speaking population in Latvia, there is a risk that the case of military threat the internal division processes will intensify and cohesion of society in the fight against external aggressor would be rather difficult. Therefore attention of various NATO officials, as well as NATO and particularly American military presence is essential for Latvia.
Latvia, of course, expect that membership in the Alliance would give it greater security and is pleased that regarding the security situation in the Baltic countries NATO has currently focused on deterrence policy.
In its turn, with its Temporary Forward Operating Site and Adazi Training Area Latvia has been significantly contributing to preparation of troops for service in international operations. NATO Strategic Communications Center of Excellence in Riga has been created according to Latvia's initiative.
According to Latvian Ambassador to NATO Indulis Berzins, “the consensus of NATO member-states during the last year has been if not ideal, then close to it.” Riga has already received confirmation that the United States will stand firmly for strengthening the military presence in the Baltic states, and this issue will be viewed in NATO’s Warsaw Summit.
A little less than half of the Latvian population trusts in NATO, according to the survey ordered by the Ministry of Defence. 45% of respondents indicated their confidence in NATO, including 10% which admitted that they fully trusted the alliance. When asked to explain why Latvia’s defence situation has improved, respondents most often mentioned NATO's support and its presence in Latvia. Survey participants admitted that regular exercises, exchange of experience, as well as increase of the defense budget added to their greater sense of safety.
2. Latvia has demonstrated achievements in its energy security assurance. What are the issues and challenges Latvia faces in this sphere today?
Conceptually, Latvia like the other Baltic states finds answers to the crucial elements of its energy security vulnerabilities in the EU Energy Union project. Long-term threats and risks are visibly matched with the priorities of the project declared in its first two pillars: Security of Supply and Internal Energy Market. One storage facility in Latvia (Incukalns) plays an important role in provision of common interests in this sector.
In 2015, the Baltic States quantitatively progressed in the interconnection capacity for electricity (from 4% to 10%) and increased their general energy security of supply by launching or constructing many diversification projects in the gas and electricity markets. However, compared with its neighbours, Latvia, in fact, has taken too little actions to solve its dependent “energy island” situation. The dominant reasons for this apparently the lack of political will. Latvia hasn’t been enthusiastic about participance in a joint nuclear power plant project in Lithuania and it governments have demonstrated placidity in opening of gas market in Latvia.
The government has taken a posture of an observer, while the vertically integrated natural gas operator JSC Latvijas Gaze turned to lawmakers with a proposal to amend the existing legislation so that the operator can maintain a monopoly position. Only thanks to insistent position of Brussels, the ruling circles were forced to turn to the issue of separation of gas transmission and storage system operators.
Just on the eve of 2017, when the contract with the Russia’s Gazprom ends, Latvijas Gaze (with Gazprom as the major shareholder) has gained over a number of former government and security services officials and former Prime Minister Aigars Kalvitis has become the head of Latvijas Gaze.
Positively, that Latvia formally joins the other Baltic states in their wish to synchronize the electricity power networks with the EU, especially since their power transmission systems are still synchronized and controlled by Moscow.
3. What kind of special importance is given to the recently signed bilateral relations with the USA in defense?
In mid-May, Latvian government behind closed doors listened to an informative report on Latvian-US defense cooperation agreement. In the nearest time, it is planned to sign a cooperation agreement with the United States, which will require the involvement of several ministries, in order to facilitate the admission of the Latvian allies, thereby contributing to the Allied presence. This agreement shall also be evaluated as part of the work to prepare for the July NATO summit in Warsaw, which is intended to make decisions to ensure the long-term presence of allies in the Baltic countries - in the air, at sea and on land.
US have already made a major contribution to strengthening security in Latvia. US not only gave funding for a variety of defence projects, but also since the annexation of the Crimea in 2014, it has continuously ensured presence of their troops in Latvia.
One of the latest examples of the US-Baltic exchange was the meeting between the three Baltic foreign ministers and the United States Secretary of State John Kerry on 19 May in Brussels to discuss preparations for the NATO Warsaw Summit and measures for strengthening of collective defence in the Baltic region. Edgars Rinkevics of Latvia expressed gratitude for the ongoing support and contribution offered by the United States in strengthening Latvia’s defence capabilities – both through presence of US troops and through assistance for strengthening the security of Latvia’s eastern border.
4. What impact can experience NATO-members and other countries resulting from Moscow's terminates transit of os its military equipment for Afghan group of NATO forces?
Following Russia's decision to ban the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF)/NATO military cargo transit to Afghanistan through the Russian territory, the question of commercial cargo supplies to Afghanistan, including attraction of the flow of cargo to Latvia updated among the interested parties. So far, Latvian transit volumes were largely dependent on the action of ISAF and NATO, but now there is the question of the Latvian's own active involvement in the global competition for Afghan cargo. Latvia has to compete with the Black Sea countries and the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea countries, aware of both their advantages and disadvantages associated with different risks. Afghan transit through Latvia still has a real chance, and only two things, competitive sea-port tariffs and political will, are currently required.
Banks and insurers do not want to work with shipments through the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea region due to the risk of unstable situation. Latvia’s competitors are also the Black Sea countries - Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, Georgia.
Latvian railway infrastructure is ready for the cargo service and the prices are competitive. The attitude of the Central Asian countries which possess the advancing Northern distribution corridor is in principle favorable for Latvia. Thus Latvia needs to develop further negotiations with the countries of Central Asia to provide remaining preparations otherwise it will be a missed opportunity. Competitive tariffs of Latvian sea-ports is a key to the Afghan transit commercial cargos, however, cogent demonstration of the political is still lacking, possibly, also due to influence of Russian lobbying in Latvia. Decisive steps, such as a visit of top Latvian officials to Afghanistan, is urgently required.
5. How do bilateral relations of Latvia with the Partnership for Peace participants develop?
The Partnership for Peace (PfP), the NATO program aimed at creating trust between NATO and other states in Europe and the former Soviet Union, has not been particularly mentioned in the Latvian governmental guidelines. The declaration of the current Latvian government has pointed out that Eastern Partnership member-states and countries of Central Asia belong to the priority regions of Latvian foreign policy.
Escalation of tension in international relations following the annexation of the Crimea and the armed conflict in Eastern Ukraine, has adversely affected relations between Latvia and Russia. In this connection, Latvia fully supports the position of the EU and NATO allies, pursuing the sanctions policy, which simultaneously has negatively affected its economy.
Still Latvia’s relations with most of the PfP participants remain without negative dynamics and even progresses. For instance, a constructive political dialogue has been established between Latvia and Azerbaijan, which is a significant Latvia’s partner in the South Caucasus. Latvia admits its interest to extend mutual cooperation in the transport and logistics sector, in particular regarding attraction of cargos from Azerbaijan, as well as the implementation of investment projects in Riga international airport.
As regards Georgia, Latvia has friendly relations with it and considers that Georgia’s closer integration into the EU fully corresponds to its interests. Currently Latvia stands for faster introduction of visa-free regime between the EU and Georgia.
Latvia maintains good neighborly relations and active contacts both at the political level and in the economy, as well as good practical cooperation in border control with Belarus. Latvia is trying to practically support the Belarusian renewed dialogue with the European Union. During its presidency in the EU Council, Latvia invested significant efforts in the normalization of Belarus-EU relations. Belarus is Latvia’s important partner in economic cooperation; transport, transit and logistics are among the most perspective areas of cooperation. Latvia hopes that positive dynamics of rail freight will also continue between the two neighboring countries.