Aivis Ronis is the third Latvian ambassador to the United States since 1991. The new envoy, who succeeded Ojārs Kalniņš in April of this year, brings with him nine years of experience at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He has served as deputy secretary for foreign affairs and also as ambassador to Turkey in 1999. In a profession where gray hair is considered a virtue, the 31-year old ambassador is an exception. In fact, citing his age, the Latvian parliament’s foreign affairs committee deadlocked Ronis’ nomination as the new ambassador. Ronis was appointed without the committee’s approval. The new ambassador, who takes over at a time when Latvia is trying to join both NATO and the European Union, now has a challenging tenure ahead. He recently spoke with SVEIKS.com in the Latvian embassy in Washington, D.C.
Question: What are your priorities as the ambassador to the United States?
Ronis: I have five priorities. First, ensuring the continuity of the Latvian-American relationship once the next administration takes charge early next year. Second, garnering wider support for NATO enlargement and the invitation of the Baltic states to join the alliance. Third, enhancing U.S.-Latvian economic cooperation, in particular U.S. investment in Latvia in the fields of energy and information technologies. Fourth, ensuring the participation of American non-governmental organizations in the integration and modernization of Latvian society. And last, strengthening Latvian identity among Latvian Americans and enhancing their ties with Latvia.
Q: Concerning NATO expansion, what are the chances that all the nine candidates are invited to join NATO at once, especially after the Vilnius statement (made during May’s conference in Vilnius between representatives of the nine NATO candidates) received wide international response, including support of both U.S. presidential candidates?
Ronis: The chances to get invited are as bright as the chances not to get invited. It is important that the solidarity of the nine countries has attracted attention and, even more importantly, gained approval in the United States and Europe. The NATO aspirants are heading in the right direction by showing solidarity and agreeing on a common goal. (The NATO aspirants are Albania, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia – ed.). This increases the possibility of the U.S. deciding in favor of inviting all of the nine countries to join either simultaneously or in small groups. These countries have to become members of NATO, if Europe is to be united and free.
Q: There are apprehensions about Latvia being left alone while Lithuania is advancing towards NATO and Estonia towards European Union.
Ronis: Analysts say different things. Their conclusions and prognoses often change, nevertheless they influence the opinion of people who are not very familiar with the NATO expansion issue. I don’t see any logical, persuasive and rational argument for not inviting all the Baltic countries at the same time. In general, all the current NATO aspirants have reached the same level, with only slight differences, as regards defense structures, democracy and other areas. The only exception is a different degree of economic development in these countries. And that is where Latvia, Estonia and Slovenia stand out.
Q: As far as Latvia is concerned, which U.S. presidential candidate would be ideal, with respect to U.S.-Latvian relationships, particularly NATO enlargement?
Ronis: Both Democrat Al Gore and Republican George Bush are excellent candidates if one considers them from the perspective of Latvia and the whole Baltic region. But the U.S. policy vis-a-vis Europe, the Baltics and Russia will depend rather on the evolution of world affairs (such as the effectiveness and speed of reforms in the Baltic region, European integration and security, and the tendencies in the hot spots of the world, as well as internal processes in Russia and America). The above-mentioned factors, not the presidential candidate who wins, will determine the policy of the next U.S. administration.
Q: How do you see the role of Baltic American organizations—such as Joint Baltic American National Committee, Baltic American Freedom League, and Expand NATO—in the NATO expansion debate?
Ronis: Local Baltic organizations will, of course, be of great importance in the debate. Nevertheless, it will be hard for these organizations alone, without the support of other ethnic groups of Central European origin, to impress themselves upon U.S. legislators. That’s why the cooperation not only among the nine NATO candidates in Europe, but also among the respective ethnic groups in the United States, is so important. Baltic organizations in America are very efficient, despite the relatively moderate size of Baltic population. Still, one has to keep in mind that other ethnic groups, for example Poles, Hungarians and Czechs, are much bigger and could be of great help.
Q: Does the embassy have a good cooperation with Latvian-American organizations?
Ronis: Yes, we have an excellent working relationship. The embassy is grateful to these organizations for the support they provide in helping different Latvian organizations and individuals, as well as cooperating with Latvian state institutions. We are frequent guests at the American Latvian Association and other organizations, as well as at different Latvian communities here in America. Likewise, Latvian Americans are greatly interested in what Latvian Embassy does and what happens in Latvia. For instance, we were very pleased to see that the previous ALA congress in Boston was devoted to Latvia’s integration to NATO.
Q: What do you think are the main interests of the United States in the Baltic region?
Ronis: First and foremost, it is security. Second, it is a free and united Europe, one that could be a more unified partner of America on the global stage.
Q: How would you evaluate U.S.-Latvian economic relations?
A: Until now, American companies that wanted to participate in the investment projects in Latvia encountered different problems, due to hindrances posed by Latvian legislation and the privatization process. Also, American companies were not as interested in these projects as we would like them to be. It seems that the remote geographical position and the different scope of Latvian and American industries also slowed down the business contacts. Even though many projects were hampered by the drawbacks of Latvian legislation and too strict an administration policy both on the level of local municipalities and central government, the cooperation has been successful. We shouldn’t be shy about it. At present, we feel a stronger U.S. interest in the Latvian economy. As it is approaching the European Union, Latvia has become more attractive. European integration and the economic development of Russia will be the main factors that will influence U.S.-Latvian cooperation in future. If reforms in Russia are successful, we can expect a more active U.S. involvement in Latvian economy.
Q: What are the most promising areas of cooperation?
Ronis: Several American energy companies are interested in the Latvian energy monopoly Latvenergo (which is being offered for privatization, although that privatization is being challenged by some officials and members of the public – ed.). The other lucrative field is information technologies where different projects, for example, between IBM and Latvian companies, have already been started. It is important that the Latvian government is willing to make the investment environment more hospitable, particularly in relation to these areas.
Q: What do you consider your main achievement since you became ambassador?
Ronis: (Laughs.) I have adjusted to the time difference.
Q: What do you like in America? What do you dislike?
Ronis: I don’t like calling people and hearing an answering machine. Very rarely, there is a live voice answering. It’s almost always a mechanical answer by robot or a recorded tape. That’s irritating, and it makes me say, “Come on, I want to talk to a human being.” I’m also surprised that American football games take place on Monday evenings. That’s a unique phenomenon; you can’t find it in Europe. Europeans either work at that time on Mondays or watch TV. But things that baffle me can also please me. It all depends on mood, situation and environment.
(Editor’s note: This article orginally appeared on SVEIKS.com.)
Aivis Ronis is Latvia’s third ambassador to the United States since 1991.
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