Latvia, you’re on a roll

It’s a great pleasure to be with you tonight, and to have had an opportunity to chat with many of you during the opening reception and registration period. Some of you are familiar to me already from the annual receptions that I’ve hosted in my home to honor my government’s Fulbright, Muskie and Humphrey Fellows. Others of you are special to me as new acquaintances, including several who have just returned from study experiences in the United States. All of you have brought back a personal understanding of America from your studies in my country, as well as a treasure of your own adventure stories, insights, and new perceptions of the United States to share on evenings such as this one.

I am especially gratified today to see you coming together as an association, and believe that beyond sharing common experiences, you can accomplish great things together—from helping other scholars to learn about American universities and exchange fellowships, to serving on our fellowship selection panels, to organizing and hosting lectures and performances—and even, perhaps, to developing fellowships and awards of your own for enhancing U.S.-Latvian educational ties. While alumni associations in other European countries are already active in such contributions to international understanding, there is no reason why Latvian alumni can’t do just as well—or even better—once they set their course. I congratulate you, Mr. Skudra (president of the alumni association), and your current board of directors, for bringing this talented membership together tonight, and wish the association great success in the elections for the coming year’s board later in this meeting.

Some of you may know that this evening has special meaning to me for one more reason, as well: my tour of duty in Latvia is approaching its final days, and what I say to you tonight will be the last public speech that I deliver as your U.S. ambassador.

In my three years here, I have seen—and have contributed all my own best efforts, every day, to assisting—tremendous progress by Latvia in returning to its rightful place in Europe. Economically, politically, and socially, your country belongs in the West, and in many ways has already returned to the West.

No one who knows Latvia uses the label "post-Soviet" any longer, even though only 10 years have passed since the fall of the Soviet Union. Indeed, Latvia and its two Baltic neighbors are all too rare success stories emerging from the former Soviet Union. I take great satisfaction in noting that during my tenure in Latvia your country traveled most of the final distance in development to reach the very doorsteps of both NATO and the European Union. That impressive progress was the result of the Latvian government’s hard work, and its courage in making—and following through on—the right decisions. All along the way you have had clear, energetic support from the U.S. Embassy. You can count on us to continue backing you as you make the final steps through those doorways to attain EU and NATO membership, and you can be confident that we will remain your friends and allies on into the future.

"Developing nation" is another label that Latvia is rapidly shedding. In fact, it is only now that my own mission has stopped treating you as one: the fundamental development aid that the United States brought to Latvia through U.S. Agency for International Development and the Peace Corps helped you in your first years of independence to build the basic infrastructure for a free market economy and the rebirth of a business culture. But the "heavy lifting" that those agencies provided then has accomplished its goals: at present, while a few regional assistance programs continue to address specific needs remaining in Latvia, my mission’s USAID office celebrated its closing two years ago, and our Baltic Regional Peace Corps Office will close out its operations in the coming year. Here too, they represent a rarity in the assitance business: they close because of success in achieving their objectives, not because of failure.

Latvia has developed past the need for such basic assistance. The speed with which this maturation took place has been dramatic, and promises further surprises in the near future. In fact, I expect that the next step, now that you’ve become a developed country, will be to become providers of expertise yourselves to neighbors still tagged with the "post-Soviet" and "developing" designations. And some of those Latvian foreign aid projects might well include joint efforts with my own country’s international development agency.

Graduation from fundamental development aid hasn’t meant the end of U.S. support for Latvia. We will continue to support regional programs in environmental reclamation, energy efficiency, public health, social integration and rule of law. But beyond that, American university education, specialized seminars, and workshops for professionals have replaced the direct infrastructure funding and fundamental skills training of previous years. During my tenure in Rīga, my Embassy staff has steadily grown, and the fastest growth has been in programs that offer education and professional expertise.

Our new U.S. Customs Service office offers training and exchange visits for Latvian law enforcement and Border Guards officials. A team of U.S. Justice Department experts will be making regular visits this coming year to assist in the development of your Anti-Corruption Council and in the reform of the criminal procedures code. Our Office of Defense Cooperation now brings in trainers for addressing needs identified by your armed forces, everything from development of a chaplain corps to improving the skills of military public affairs officers. Early this fall a team of American military justice experts will visit to offer their expertise.

Our resident offices of the U.S. Commerce Department and the U.S. Department of Agriculture offer fellowships and exchange visits to acquaint Latvian business and government leaders with the latest ideas and trends in American business and farming. Our Public Affairs Section has gained multi-year grants to fund affiliations between American universities and Latvian institutions including the University of Latvia School of Law, the NGO Center, and the Latvian School of Public Administration. And to compensate for Latvia’s recent graduation from eligibility for further Muskie Fellowships, we have gained funding for additional Fulbright Fellowships, and have even added a new exchange program, the Humphrey Fellowships, for public officials.

And, together with Soros Fund, Latvia, the U.S. government has championed the cause of non-governmental organizations through a 10-year, multi-million dollar support program designed to build, educate and sustain Latvian NGOs. The Baltic-American Partnership Foundation is unique in this regard in Europe and will make NGOs a vibrant part of the Latvian political process well into the future.

This emphasis on education and sharing expertise will characterize the next step in U.S. assistance to Latvia, and in this matter all of you here tonight can play an important role. The knowledge that you acquired from your studies in the United States, and the broader perspectives and outlook that you gained from studying abroad, are already empowering each of you professionally, and contributing to the overall development of your country’s talent and leadership. The understanding that you gained of the United States—and the impressions that Americans gained of Latvia from you—will ensure the continued closeness and mutual high regard that have always characterized our countries’ bilateral relationship. And, there is much more that you can contribute together, as an alumni association.

I hope that this association will be energetic, innovative, and open to all who wish to join, including Americans residing in Latvia. If my wife, Connie, and I were here longer, we would both be applying for membership tonight.

Finally, I hope that your association will also be motivated by service to Latvia, and to the continuation of close U.S.-Latvian relations.

I will follow your progress from my next postings, and look forward to hearing of your accomplishments and growth. You are entering a very bright period of Latvia’s history, with wonderful, realizable prospects ahead of you—a full return to your country’s rightful place in the West, peace and stability in the Baltic region, an economy and talented workforce competitive with the best in the world, and friendly relations with neighbors to the East. Your country is, as we say in the United States, "on a roll"—enjoying a period of success that leads to more success—and the only serious obstacle to guard against is complacency. Maintain your steady progress. Stay focused on your goals. Find ways to serve your country in reaching those goals. And above all, have confidence in yourselves, and in each other. As I have witnessed repeatedly during my three years of service in your country, Latvians excel at setting ambitious goals for themselves—from rebuilding their military and rebuilding their economy, to organizing the world’s largest city-wide birthday party—and then finding ways—not always the most direct ways—to fulfill them.

Good luck to you all, and God bless Latvia.

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