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Establishing Foreign Relations

Prior to the declaration of renewal of Latvia's independence on May 4, 1990, several individuals were responsible for foreign affairs. Their presence in this field was wholly symbolic, however, because all decisions on foreign policy were made by government administrators and party officials in Moscow. After the May 4 declaration, a new Ministry of Foreign Affairs was established, headed by Janis Jurkans, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Popular Front of Latvia. Initially, the entire ministry, composed of a few dozen workers, was squeezed into a single house in the medieval center of Riga and had antiquated amenities and limited space.

The ministry had to start from the very beginning. Some of its personnel were sent abroad to learn the essentials of diplomatic protocol. Even the most prosaic of office equipment had to be scavenged. Initially, Jurkans was forced to deal with some holdover personnel with links to the KGB, but several of them were eased out of their jobs for incompetence and other overt transgressions. On June 19, 1990, the KGB created a furor in the republic when it arrested and expelled from Latvia (presumably with Moscow's blessing) a young Latvian-American volunteer who had provided English-language translations and other services for the ministry in dealing with foreign countries.

During this period of transition, Latvia received much help from the Latvian embassy in Washington. This embassy had been maintained as an independent outpost representing free Latvia throughout the years of Soviet occupation. It had been financed from the investments and gold deposited in the United States by the government of independent Latvia before World War II. Similar offices throughout the world offered advice and contacts with local governments. Indeed, the embassy in Washington was able to provide Minister Jurkans with about US$60,000 to further the cause of Latvia's independence, which was then the main thrust of Latvian foreign policy.

Until August 21, 1991, and the end of the Moscow putsch, Latvia was not able to convince any Western country to locate an embassy in the republic. The countries feared offending the Soviet Union and could not answer the logistical question of how to settle in Riga when all border guards at the airports and seaports were still under Soviet command. Most Western countries had not abrogated the de jure status of independent Latvia; the issue concerned purely de facto recognition. Several countries, such as Denmark, opened cultural offices in Riga, and, more important, many countries invited Minister Jurkans and Prime Minister Ivars Godmanis abroad to meet their heads of state and government and to present their arguments for Latvia's independence. Several meetings with President George H.W. Bush and other world dignitaries received wide media coverage.

An invaluable diplomat during this period of transition was the highly respected Latvian poet Janis Peters, who had been sent to Moscow to represent Latvia's interests. Peters also had many contacts and was highly regarded by the Russian intelligentsia. He was based in the prewar Latvian embassy, which had already been returned to Latvia several years earlier. A modern hotel, the Talava, had been built within its compound by Latvian communist dignitaries seeking trouble-free accommodations on their various sojourns in Moscow. The embassy building and the hotel became convenient locations for a multitude of contacts by economic, cultural, and political emissaries from Latvia.

Before August 21, 1991, Latvia's attempts to join international organizations were unsuccessful in spite of efforts by France and other countries to allow it to participate as an observer. Only at the regional level was some success achieved with the signing by Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania of the Baltic Agreement on Economic Cooperation in April 1990 and the renewal in May 1990 of the 1934 Baltic Treaty on Unity and Cooperation. At the bilateral level, Latvia and Russia under Boris N. Yeltsin signed a treaty of mutual recognition in January 1991, but this treaty was not ratified by the Russian Supreme Soviet.

After the failed Moscow putsch, Latvian independence was recognized by the Soviet Union and most countries of the world, and Latvia became a member of the UN. These events were exhilarating for Latvians, who had been under Moscow's domination for almost half a century. However, new responsibilities of representation entailed a totally new set of problems. Setting up new embassies and consulates in major Western countries required the choosing of suitable personnel from among people without previous diplomatic experience. A considerable number of ambassadors were selected from diaspora Latvians in the United States, Britain, Denmark, France, and Germany.

Financing was another major constraint. Initiatives were taken to reclaim the embassy buildings that had once belonged to independent Latvia but had been appropriated by the Soviet Union or by host governments. In some instances, cash settlements and building exchanges became the only solution.

Problems were also experienced in the opposite direction. Foreign countries wanting to establish embassies in Riga often had to scramble for suitable sites at a time when ownership and jurisdictional questions over property presented an interminable maze of inconsistent decrees and agreements. At times the Latvian cabinet had to step in to provide locations. Some of the major Western countries were able to settle into their prewar buildings. Others found new quarters or set up their offices in temporary shelters in hotels and other buildings. A great controversy erupted over the restitution of the prewar Russian embassy building, which for decades had been used for Latvian cultural and educational purposes.

Minister Jurkans spent much time traveling abroad. His distinctly liberal ideology ingratiated him with his Western hosts. In the process of representing Latvia, however, many Latvians began to feel that he was becoming too independent and did not reflect Latvia's real demands. After Jurkans's resignation in the spring of 1993, his replacement as interim minister was Georgs Andrejevs, a surgeon of Russian descent. Andrejevs joined the Latvia's Way movement and was reappointed minister of foreign affairs after the June 1993 elections. According to polling data, Andrejevs became one of the most popular politicians among ethnic Latvians, but ironically he did not find much resonance among non-Latvians living in the republic.

In June 1993, the Latvian Ministry of Foreign Affairs employed 160 people, a relatively low number, reflecting the limitations of government financing. Prewar Latvia had had 700 employees in the same ministry, and countries comparable in size to Latvia employ about 1,000 people on average.

Foreign Policy Directions

Latvian foreign policy has of necessity been preoccupied with its eastern neighbor, Russia. The lack of stability and the seemingly contradictory signals coming from Russia created strains in this relationship. A primary point of contention in the early 1990s concerned the evacuation of the armed forces, which were formerly Soviet but now Russian. Another major issue involved citizenship limitations on Russian-speaking settlers whose ties with Latvia began only after June 1940 and the occupation by the Red Army.

In late August 1993, the Russian armed forces were withdrawn from neighboring Lithuania, which has a relatively small native Russian population. In Latvia the timetable for the departure of the remaining 16,000 to 18,000 troops took longer to negotiate. Russia tried to connect the withdrawal to the issue of citizenship rights for Latvia's large Russian minority, but it failed to receive international support for such linkage. Another issue was the status of a radar base at Skrunda, which Russia considers an integral part of its antimissile early warning system.

Nervous about Russia's intentions, the Latvians could not forget that in 1940 a pretext for the takeover and annexation of Latvia was to protect Soviet bases established there in 1939. On January 18, 1994, Russian foreign minister Andrey Kozyrev explicitly claimed Russia's right to maintain troops in the Baltic states to avoid a security vacuum and to preempt the establishment of forces hostile to Russia. Similar statements had been enunciated earlier by the Russian defense minister and other officials.

Russia's continued military presence became a major bargaining chip for Russian internal politics and foreign policy. Along with Russia's claims about the strategic importance of the radar base at Skrunda, the Russian government said there was no room in which to lodge incoming officers from Latvia. Some Russian generals and governmental officials broached the possibility of tying their troop withdrawals to North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) troop reductions. Others asked for large grants to build living quarters back in Russia. Yeltsin declared that the troop withdrawals were tied to the human rights question in Latvia, especially as it pertained to residents of Russian origin. Many Latvians attributed the delay to the hope of some Russian military and political leaders that political changes might occur in Moscow and the status quo ante reestablished.

Under such circumstances, the Latvian leadership concluded that the best hope for security would be membership in NATO rather than neutrality. NATO, however, demonstrated a willingness to assist Latvia and the other Baltic states only in an advisory capacity. Much to their disappointment, Latvian leaders determined that joining NATO was an elusive goal.

Ultimately, in exchange for the withdrawal of the Russian troops, Latvia consented to lease the Skrunda facility to Russia for five years. The accord, signed in Moscow in April 1994, stipulates that the radar base must cease operation by August 31, 1998, and be dismantled by February 29, 2000. Agreements were also signed on social security and welfare for active and retired Russian military personnel and their families in Latvia. With the exception of several hundred military specialists at Skrunda, all active-duty Russian troops were withdrawn from Latvia by August 31, 1994, leaving behind a hodge-podge of toxic chemicals and buried, undetonated ordnance.

Latvia and Estonia received much help from Scandinavia, the United States, and other Western countries in pressuring Russia to remove its troops. To counter the argument that these troops would have no accommodations in Russia, several countries, including Norway and the United States, provided funding to construct new housing for Russian officers.

Other issues between Latvia and Russia included Russia's annexation of the northeastern border district of Abrene in 1944. Latvia's transitional parliament, the Supreme Council, reaffirmed the validity of the pre-Soviet borders in its Decree on the Nonrecognition of the Annexation of the Town of Abrene and the District of Abrene, adopted in January 1992. Although the withdrawal of Russian troops figured much more prominently than the border issue in Latvian-Russian negotiations in the early 1990s, it could resurface in the context of wider negotiations of claims and reparations.

The ongoing pressures from Russia have given impetus for Latvia to strengthen its ties with international institutions. As a member of the UN, Latvia was able to refute Russian charges on the abuse of human rights in Latvia. Latvia also has joined many of the subsidiary bodies of the UN, such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Latvia has also joined NATO's Partnership for Peace, a program of cooperation with the newly independent states.

Although Estonia and Lithuania were accepted as members of the Council of Europe (see Glossary) in early 1993, in spite of strong Russian objections, Latvia had only the status of an observer. Full membership for Latvia, precluded earlier by the unresolved issue of citizenship rights, was granted in early 1995.

In the early 1990s, the Council of the Baltic Sea States (CBSS) became a particularly useful forum for foreign policy contacts. This council was proposed on October 22, 1991, during a meeting of the German and Danish foreign ministers, Hans-Dietrich Genscher and Elleman Jensen, respectively. Its first directions were set by the ten countries bordering the Baltic Sea, including Russia, when representatives met on March 5-6, 1992. Concrete proposals for Latvia have included the coordination of an international highway project, Via Baltica, from Tallinn to Warsaw.

The Scandinavian countries and Germany are among Latvia's most active international supporters. Mutually friendly bilateral relations are maintained with members of the Visegrád Group (consisting of Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary). Latvia also has been able to develop advantageous relations with Belarus and Ukraine. A generally good and cooperative relationship exists with neighboring Estonia and Lithuania. At the economic level, these states have signed free-trade agreements. They are also cooperating at the military level. Military cooperation among the Baltic states included an agreement in October 1994 to form, with Western assistance, a Baltic peacekeeping battalion, headquartered in Latvia.

Together with the other Baltic countries, Latvia has many more adjustments to make in its evolution from "cause to country," as noted by Paul Goble in Tallinn's Baltic Independent , May 21-27, 1993: "The peoples and governments of the Baltics must cope with the difficult challenge of being taken seriously as countries . . . The Balts must find their way in the world as three relatively small countries on the edge of Europe--and for many people, on the edge of consciousness--rather than figure as central players in a titanic struggle between East and West."

Data as of January 1995


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