What is Latvia for?

A few years back when nation branding expert Simon Anholt was interviewing civic leaders in Latvia he began each conversation with a simple question: “What is Latvia for?”

Anholt usually poses this question to help governments get their priorities straight before committing themselves to a nation branding strategy. What politicians invariably discover is that the pursuit of economic growth, tourism, and investment (the usual reasons nations seek a brand) is much easier if it is built on a solid set of clearly stated values. Ones they actually believe in.

A recently proposed text for a preamble to Latvia’s 91-year old constitution does exactly that. It tries to explain what Latvia is for, why it was created, and why it matters so much to the Latvian people.

Most constitutions tell us how someone plans to run a country, but they don’t always explain why. Many, like ours, were written right after a war and the number one priority was to get things running again. To the founding fathers, Latvia’s ‘reasons for being’ were self evident enough not to require a lengthy explanation. They figured someone else could do that in more stable times.

It appears that the required stability has arrived because many people in Latvia from all walks of life are starting to actively debate the whys and wherefores of putting a preamble in front of our longstanding constitution.

The point of a preamble is to explain what you are for, and this one does it. It states that Latvia is for many things, but most of all, it says that Latvia was created to allow the Latvian people to live in their native land, where they can fully embrace their language, culture, history and traditions.

While keeping Latvia as Latvian as it can be, the preamble also guarantees the same rights for everyone else, regardless of ethnicity, race or creed. It encourages a civic society and proposes three guiding principles of nationhood: democracy, justice and social responsibility. For all.

There are plants and animals that thrive best in a particular valley, along a particular river, in a locally distinctive climate, nourished by the food and water that exists only there. The same goes for human beings who have developed rich and varied cultures through this living interaction between man and nature. If we truly value this planet for its diversity, these cultures and their unique habitats should be preserved, nourished and encouraged. While Latvians can grow anywhere, they do it best in Latvia. The preamble encourages others to do so as well.

By tradition, a preamble should offer the legal and historical grounds upon which a state is based, and in Latvia’s case, that all began in 1918, was threatened by a half century of occupation, and was won back once again when full independence was restored in 1991. Legal experts call it continuity, but to the rest of us it simply means we are willingly accepting a legacy left to us by our grandfathers.

Once the legal precedents are established, the preamble presents the primary responsibilities of the Latvian state. In this case, they are: To promote the spiritual, social, cultural and material welfare of all who live here. To provide them with order and justice in a secure environment. To protect the land we love and all the things that grow, live and thrive on it.

It also adds one relatively new responsibility that may or may not be a sign of the times: it recommends that we pursue our economic interests in a “humane way”. After the global economic crash, many long for a kinder, gentler capitalism.

In forming a state, a society can agree on certain red lines that can’t be crossed without compromising the very reason the state was created. The preamble lists those as independence, territorial integrity, the sovereignty of the people, and Latvian as the only state language. In the minds of the authors of this text, these are Latvia’s untouchables. If the will of the people ends up approving this preamble, it places upon them a solemn responsibility to preserve and protect these principles.

But civic responsibility doesn’t end there. We are urged to take care of ourselves, our loved ones and our fellow neighbors for the good of society as a whole. We are asked to leave this state and land in good condition for the next generations. And we are reminded that both traditional and Christian values have shaped the historical Latvian identity.

Thus, in addition to the guiding principles of the state, the preamble also spells out the basic social values of the people who choose to live here. They include a respect for freedom, decency, honesty and solidarity, as well as the family unit.

But Latvia is not an island floating in the vastness of space, so the preamble also expresses some internationally state-like thoughts about its place in the global community. It stresses Latvia’s active contribution to the humane, sustainable, democratic, and responsible development of Europe and the world. Here we announce our desire to be good global neighbors.

The first draft of the preamble has been made public and as expected, a vigorous and lively debate has ensued. Some question why we need one, some wonder whether we’ve said enough. Everyone will have a say and the process could take a long time before we all agree on the words and the way they reach final approval, either by parliamentary vote or referendum, or both. 

It does answer Simon Anholt’s existential question, and someone even saw it as a pre-birthday present for Latvia’s 100 anniversary in 2018. Of all the commentaries I have read, my favorite is a woman who took to Twitter to share a revelation after reading the preamble over and over again. Her observation was aptly poetic. She saw it as a love letter to Latvia. I’m all for that.

Latvia’s concentric circles of foreign policy interests

A cursory look at Latvia’s National Development Plan 2014-2020 would suggest that foreign policy seems to play a very small role in Latvia’s future. The Foreign Ministry is solely responsible for only one section and that primarily deals with strengthening Latvia’s political and economic interests abroad.

However, each ministry is assigned a “Territory of Responsibility”. Here the Foreign Ministry takes on enormous importance, because its sphere of operation is designated as “The Whole World”.

Clearly, Latvia’s foreign service cannot embrace the entire world, so it is natural to divide that world into regions of priority. For the purposes of the Latvian Parliament’s annual Foreign Policy Debates, I’ve chosen to isolate those priorities by segmenting Latvia’s foreign policy world into concentric circles of interest. I have identified six such circles.

The first and closest circle includes our immediate neighbours: Lithuania, Estonia, Belarus and Russia. While relations with all these countries are important economically, they are much more complex and diverse politically. They will remain a top priority in 2013. 

The second circle is slightly larger, and includes the Baltic Sea region and the Nordic countries. Here we continue to develop good ties in such multi-lateral formats as NB8, the Nordic-Baltic Council and the Council of Baltic Sea States. This year Latvia hosts the Baltic Development Forum and in 2015 during our Presidency of the European Union, we plan to organize a special forum on the EU’s Baltic Sea Strategy.

But in 2013 most of our attention will be focused on the third circle, where I have placed the European Union and NATO.  Both organizations expand our areas of direct foreign engagement, although at the moment the greatest challenges lie in the EU itself, and our place in it. As always, our strategic partnership with the United States anchors our commitment to the transatlantic relationship.

This third circle also reveals the geographic direction of our interest in the fourth circle:  the EU’s Eastern Partnership. Cooperating with and supporting such eastern neighbours as Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova has always been a priority for Latvia. Direct person-to-person ties in these countries dating back to pre-independence periods has enabled Latvia to make robust use of Cooperative Development programs, which need to be expanded. Latvia also plans to host an Eastern Partnership Summit during our EU Presidency in 2015.

History, economic interests, and Latvia’s foreign policy priorities also determine the geographic direction of our sphere of interest in the next, fifth circle – Central Asia and Afghanistan. Latvia’s embassies in Uzbekistan and Kazahkstan have been extremely successful as contact embassies for NATO, and have developed a special expertise and respect in the entire region. This needs to be expanded.

Latvia’s role in the NATO ISAF mission in Afghanistan has produced a unique opportunity for long-term economic development as well. Working together with the US, Russia, NATO and regional countries, Latvia plays a key role in the Northern Distribution Network – the transport corridor for shipping NATO ISAF supplies from Latvia to Afghanistan. This has enormous future potential, for the moment that this network becomes a commercial transhipment corridor and connects to the planned New Silk Road, the door will open for Latvia’s road to the sixth and last circle, the Far East.

If until now such countries as China, Japan, Korea and India didn’t seem within reach of Latvia’s foreign policy grasp, then today they are very palpable. China and Japan have very active embassies in Riga and soon will be joined by South Korea. These countries are part of one of the most dynamic and rapidly growing regions in the world, and are looking with growing interest at Latvia’s strategic location in Northern Europe. The time has come to focus much more attention to this region, and determine how economic and political developments there can be aligned with Latvia’s long-term national interests. While some commentators have made much of the United States’ ‘pivot’ to Asia, it’s only natural that Europe does the same. Thanks to Latvia’s eastward tangent through the six circles of foreign engagement, this once distant region of the world is the logical next step in the long-term expansion of our international diplomacy.

Last year, the Latvian Foreign Ministry took a bold (and necessary) step in providing the framework for Latvia’s ‘pivot to the Far East’.  It established an ‘External economic policy coordinating council’, which brings together the Foreign, Economic, Transportation and Agricultural ministries, as well as other state institutions.  This institutional model of cooperation is ideally suited to review and analyse just how Latvia’s economic interests, geostrategic location and existing logistical and transportation links to the east can be further developed to promote our national interests. Suddenly, the Far East no longer seems so far.

Latvia cannot embrace the world, but thinking strategically about our potential long-term interests in specific geographic directions and regions, Latvia’s foreign policy can play an essential role in promoting our national interests. We are moving in the right direction. But we must move faster, further and with a greater understanding of Latvia’s unique place in a globalized world. 

(This article is based on remarks made on January 24, 2013 during the Latvian Parliament’s annual debates on foreign policy.)

Finding national security between free mobility and mass migration

While it may sound like a cliché to call migration a two-way street, in some countries, both directions on this street can pose a serious security threat if they go against the flow of national interests—especially if what began as a quiet street becomes a bustling superhighway.

In Latvia, both inward and outward migration has been a national security concern over the last seven years and continues to be a valid subject of national debate.

Concerns over the impact of uncontrolled migration came to Latvia somewhat as a surprise along with membership in the European Union. When we joined the EU in 2004 we eagerly welcomed all the benefits that the free movement of people, goods and services would bring to Latvia. What we didn’t anticipate was that it would also take something away. We hoped to move our goods and services around our new European home, but we never imagined that tens of thousands of our people would be moving out with them.

I grew up in a diaspora that had been created by the Soviet occupation of Latvia during World War II. That same occupation had a devastating effect on Latvia’s demographic situation and threatened Latvians with the prospect of becoming a minority in their own country. But low wages and the freedom to move about the EU has created a new Latvian diaspora that overshadows the older expatriate community that had been created by the war.

This unexpected exodus created a labour shortage, which presented Latvia with a second challenge. Our citizens were leaving in droves, which prompted employers to seek migrant workers from other countries. Already burdened with several hundred thousand former Soviet citizens who had little interest in integrating into Latvian society, the prospect of replacing outward-bound Latvian citizens with foreign workers posed a new challenge.

When Latvians talk about national security, we are not just talking about territorial integrity, but also the strength and integrity of our national identity, which includes a common language, a sense of history, and a respect for long-held traditions and values. If departing Latvian citizens are replaced by incoming foreigners with no sense of loyalty to the state, no desire to identify with the Latvian nation, and no intention of learning the Latvian language, national security is threatened in a very essential way.

The global economic crisis that began in 2008 solved half of this problem. As Latvia’s economy collapsed, businesses went under and jobs disappeared; there was no longer a need for foreign workers. But the outflow of citizens continued.

While we have not stemmed the tide of economic emigrants from Latvia, inward migration has been relatively low and stable. As of 2010, Latvia had a population of 2.2 million people. Of those, only 50,000, or 2.25 percent of the population, were foreigners with valid residence permits. The vast majority of those were former Soviets or their family members who chose not to apply for Latvian citizenship.

Of the foreigners residing in Latvia in 2010, 31,000 were from Russia, 3,000 from Ukraine, 2,000 from Belarus. The rest—numbering in the hundreds—came from the United States, Israel, Armenia and other countries. 

Yet the economic crisis, while eliminating the need for foreign workers, created what some perceived as a need for a different category of migrants—foreign investors. In 2010, the previous parliament (the 9th Saeima) made controversial amendments to the Immigration Law that that allowed for foreign investors to acquire residency permits based on the amount of money they were prepared to invest in Latvia: basically, if you invested LVL 200,000 in a bank, LVL 25,000 in an enterprise, or LVL 100,000 in real estate, you were entitled to a residency permit. The politicians who proposed these amendments saw it as a quick fix for the economic crisis.

Response to this was mixed. Those who supported the amendments hoped this would bring a flood of new investments into the economy. Those who opposed them feared that this would bring a flood of foreigners who would buy up property and businesses and further degrade the already troubled demographic situation. It could also promote the use of Latvia as a cover for shady international business schemes as well as organized crime.

However, neither the hopes nor the fears were realized. Between July 1, 2010, and January 4, 2011, only 230 people received residency permits based on investments. Of those, 132 invested in real estate, 11 invested in companies and 87 deposited money in local banks. The vast majority of these permits went to citizens of the Russian Federation.

Although attempts have been made in the 10th Saeima to revoke these amendments, they appear to have failed. Foreigners can continue to buy their way into residency permits, although the numbers—both in terms of cash and people—are small.

One notable opposition politician recently proposed that Latvia sell citizenship at 1 million euro a head, but the idea was roundly ridiculed and rejected.

While economic migration continues to flow outward rather than inward, Latvia, along with the rest of Europe, is now faced with a new challenge that is being left by the boatloads at the EU’s doorstep on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. In response, the EU’s justice and interior ,inisters have been meeting in Brussels to discuss the growing refugee problem that has been created by the Arab Spring. At last count, over 30,000 refugees have arrived in Italy and more appear to be on their way.

How should Latvia react to this crisis? With understanding, deep concern, sympathy and solidarity. Since I myself was born in a refugee camp in Germany after World War II, and was able to resettle in the United States, I have an understandable empathy for political refugees who are driven from their homelands by war, conflict and state-sponsored terror. All three of the Baltic countries have had presidents that benefitted from favourable refugee and immigration policies in the West.

Yet Latvia’s present ability to accept refugees from North Africa or the Middle East is sorely limited.  We don’t have the infrastructure, experience or financial resources to house, feed and protect thousands of refugees. Given that we are still trying to come out of our own economic crisis, are still suffering from high unemployment and must make do with an austerity budget that has minimized social services, we are in no position to be helping others.

But in the spirit of solidarity we are prepared to do what we can. This includes expanding our role in FRONTEX (the European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders of the Member States of the European Union) operations on the EU’s southern border, and sending our experts to the European Asylum Support Office. 

On the other hand, we believe that any revisions of the Schengen border-free area need to be approached with caution. We worked long and hard to join the Schengen zone, and despite its shortcomings, we are not eager to begin reinstating internal border controls.

What I have emphasized here are the practical reasons for Latvia’s response to the refugee crisis coming out of Africa. But we all know that if we had the money, experience and infrastructure to take on refugees from the Maghreb countries, we would have to deal with a whole new set of political, social and cultural issues. Namely, are our societies prepared to accept, integrate and cohabitate with people from countries, cultures, races and religions that dramatically differ from our own?

It might seem logical to turn to our EU neighbours and learn from their experiences in this regard, but in recent years it has become clear that they too are struggling with this issue. The multiculturalism that was embraced by so many in Europe is now being condemned as a threat to national security, integrity and identity. We have heard this from leaders in France, Germany, the United Kingdom and elsewhere.

Ironically, leaders from these very same countries once accused the Balts of being excessively nationalistic in their language and citizenship policies. Our concerns for the preservation of our unique languages and cultures were considered paranoid, old-fashioned and verging on xenophobic. And yet, in a speech earlier this year, U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron stressed that the government must make sure that “immigrants speak the language of their home.. .ensuring that people are educated in the elements of a common culture and curriculum.” Judging from this, it sounds like we Latvians, Lithuanians and Estonians weren’t so backward after all—just ahead of our time.

National security begins with national integrity. Integration that supports and strengthens core national values and traditions, not segregation that keeps people apart and alienated from the land they live in. That doesn’t mean we can’t be humane, tolerant, generous, helpful and supportive to others. It also doesn’t mean that we must close off our societies to new members. But it must be done with balance, care and above all, with a clear understanding and respect for national values, traditions, language and law.

Free mobility is a must. Mass migration is a tragedy. Somehow, we must find the middle road in this increasingly chaotic two-way street.

(Editor’s note: This essay is based upon remarks made by Ojārs Kalniņš in Tallinn, Estonia, on May 13, 2011, at the International Parliamentary Seminar of the Baltic Assembly “External and Internal Security Policy Nexus: Avoiding the Frontiers.”)