Preserving our common values

Latvia places great emphasis on education and I have been told that many students come into Rīga from throughout the country to come here to go to school. Some of you get here through Rīgas heavy traffic or come by train or bus from outside the city. You’re making a commitment to get your education. Many of you, I understand, hold down full-time jobs while completing your studies. As my grandfather used to say, “Your education is something no one can ever take away.”

Young people are the future of any country and with the drive, energy and commitment that I see in Latvian students, Latvia has the possibility of a very bright future. However, ensuring that future is not always easy. It takes commitment and dedication—the same kind of effort you bring to your studies, but on a larger scale. Today, I want to discuss with you some challenges for the future and encourage you to consider ways you could be helpful in addressing them. And I assure this is neither a lecture nor will there be a test.

I have been in this room—this great hall of the Latvian university—two other times in the last year. It was here that President George W. Bush and Justice Samuel Alito of our U.S. Supreme Court came to celebrate the strong relations between our two countries. We’re coming up on the one-year anniversary of the Rīga NATO summit. As part of that, President Bush spoke here in this very same room on Nov. 28 of last year. And this past July, Justice Alito came for our conference on ethics and transparency in the judiciary.

Both of these men praised the strong bonds between the United States and Latvia, bonds that are based on a shared set of values. We often talk about the relationship being based on events, such as:

  1. America’s non-recognition of the Soviet occupation of Latvia,
  2. Latvian cooperation with the United States in the struggle against terrorism, especially with the contribution of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and
  3. Our common membership in NATO.

In recent days, we have seen additional events that highlight the strong relationship between Latvia and the United States. Last week, the Saeima extended the mandate for Latvian troops participating in the International Security Assistance Force mission in Afghanistan—NATO’s most important mission—for another year. We welcome this commitment to the alliance. And the prime minister’s office has announced his plans to travel to the United States early next month. We look forward to that visit and I am confident that the prime minister will be warmly welcomed in Washington. The friendship and close ties between our two countries will endure. As NATO members the United States will remain committed to Latvia’s independence and security. That will not change. What underlies these partnerships is a commitment to a collection of the values that both countries—and the people of Latvia and the United States—hold precious and dear. And that is our shared commitment to freedom, to democracy, to the rights of the individual, and to basic standards of fairness.

Standing in this hall last November, President Bush recalled the difficult course of freedom for Latvia and the courage of citizens throughout the Baltics who joined hands on that August day in 1989 to form the Baltic Way and show their solidarity against Soviet repression.

It was one of a series of events within the larger “Singing Revolution” in which so many Latvians stood up and demanded the freedom that is their natural right.

In that same speech, President bush held up Latvia as a model for other post-Soviet states struggling to make the transition to freedom and democracy. And he was right to do so. Over 16 years since the restoration of independence, Latvia has undergone an amazing transformation.

A market economy and free enterprise have replaced state command and control. Free and fair elections have been held to elect members of saeima and to resolve essential questions in referendums. New institutions have been developed to ensure the protections of the rights of the individual.

As a result of this difficult work, Latvia took its rightful place as a part of Europe and the Trans-atlantic community, joining the European Union and NATO in 2004. Students here today benefit from this with opportunities of work, study and travel available to them that even five years ago seemed hard to imagine.

Now, just three years after joining the EU and NATO, Latvia finds itself at an important juncture in its history. What will be its future path? Will it hold to our shared values? Will Latvia continue down the path of reform and strengthen the rule of law, increase transparency and further develop itself as a free and democratic state?

Or will Latvia, safe in the European Union and NATO, decide that it is has done the hard work and let the state become the playground of a few individuals where they go to line their own pockets and those of their friends?

To put it a different way—will Latvia continue the hard work of building the institutions and judicial system that are needed to ensure a democratic and prosperous future for the people of Latvia, or will Latvia slide back and begin to resemble those countries that have not undertaken extensive reforms?

The United states and the other NATO and EU partners can help you if you remain committed to the values that lie at the heart of these two organizations. But the choice is going to have to be made by Latvians.

Previous generations of Latvians paid a steep price to keep alive the dream of Latvian independence. The current generation of Latvians, especially you the students, must decide whether an independent Latvia will be worthy of its founders sacrifices.

We have seen a pattern of events that appear to be inconsistent with our shared values, for example, attempts to pack the courts with judges who “will know what to do,” efforts to manipulate the laws governing the security services to allow greater avenues for political interference in their operations, and public campaigns to discredit the institutions of justice and the rule of law in the country.

As partners, these strong values form the basis for the close relations between our two countries, governments and peoples.

Keeping the values strong keeps the relationship strong. I have tremendous respect for so many Latvians that I have met and have particulatrly enjoyed your culture, history and tradition. I have formed solid relationships based on trust. We will always honor those friendships. These are hardworking, committed individuals who want to see Latvia succeed and prosper. But, I have to say, I have also seen them beaten down by having to take instructions from unelected officials in the clouds or down by the sea.

The development of the rule of law in Latvia is also an important issue for the global business and investment community. As the U.S. ambassador to Latvia I have actively encouraged american companies to consider Latvia as a place to do business. I point to the talented and educated workforce and the pro-business climate here. I talk about the eager and talented students I meet all around this country as evidence of Latvia’s future potential.

But investors want to know that their money is safe and their investment protected. They need to know that they will be able to do business without being asked to pay bribes or “protection money,” and that their bids for contracts will be considered on the merits.

And they need to be sure that if a dispute arises, they can count on getting a fair hearing in court to resolve that issue. Potential investors are attracted to countries which strictly adhere to the rule of law.

I have also often been asked by Latvians what the United States can do to help solve these problems in Latvia. The answer is that the United States can’t and won’t fix these problems. While I am happy to set out some of the many ways we have worked together to strengthen rule of law and transparency, the United States can offer help only as a friend. The essential questions about which path Latvia will take must be decided by and for the Latvian people.

The United States of America has stood by Latvia as a friend and offered help in strengthening the rule of law. In my time as ambassador, we have had a number of projects to address key issues in Latvia and to share our common experiences in fostering the rule of law.

We have exchanged best practices on the operations of the Port of Rīga and provided help for studies of security at the other two major ports. We have provided training to judges, police and members of the KNAB (Korupcijas novēršanas un apkarošanas birojs, the state-run Corruption Prevention and Combating Bureau) in combating organized crime, prosecuting public corruption, and combating terrorist financing.

We have worked closely and effectively with government, regulators, and the banking sector to address serious concerns that Latvian banks could be exploited for criminal purposes. And just, this past july, we met for two days in this room with a member of our Supreme Court and a group of highly distinguished law professors to discuss issues of ethics and transparency in the judiciary.

I want to stress something that too often some in the media overlook. All of these were cooperative efforts where we worked together to advance our common agenda on the basis of our shared values. And much of what the United States has offered to Latvia has been based on the often difficult experiences that we have had.

Now, please know, and you are hearing this from me, Americans are not perfect in these areas and we know that. Scandal and corruption are too often a part of our political life. But no government made up of people will ever be perfect.

What we have learned in the United States is that to address these challenges effectively you need a free and active press, strong and independent law enforcement agencies, a credible judiciary free from interference, a legislature able to conduct effective oversight but, most importantly, informed, engaged and active citizens. All of these institutions and groups are vital to ensure that a vibrant and healthy democracy can flourish and grow. However, the last of these, active and engaged citizens, is the most critical, as it is the people who must be ever vigilant to the actions of their elected officials so that they can be ready, as President Thomas Jefferson once wrote, to ring the fire bell in the night when they see a threat to their democracy.

President Bush in his second inaugural address on january 20, 2005, said that, “it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.” That is why we have been such active partners here. Latvians know what it is like to live in tyranny and they stood up to it and demanded freedom.

The President also noted the essential truth of democracy: that it must be chosen by the people. “Freedom,” he said, “by its nature, must be chosen, and defended by citizens, and sustained by the rule of law and the protection of minorities.”

Chosen and defended by citizens. That is an important reminder. As I said, too often I am asked by Latvians what the United States will do to solve the problems they perceive in Latvia. But we can only act where needed to protect our interests. In the end, the people of Latvia must stand up for what they believe and for the values and principles they hold so dear.

Our United States Constitution begins with the simple words, “We the people of the United States.” The constitution of Latvia says that “the sovereign power of the state of Latvia belongs to the people of Latvia.” My friends, across an ocean and written over 130 years apart, our constitutions rely on the same basic principle that ultimate power resides with the people, with government acting on their behalf.

But democracy is a two-way street. It is a system of government that provides many rights and freedoms to the people, but it also requires the active involvement of the people. Outside of the National Archives in Washington, D.C., the building that houses the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States, is a statue reminding us of this fact: “Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom.”

This is a concept Latvians know well. Eighteen years ago in the Baltic Way and 16 years ago at the barricades, Latvian people stood up in daring fashion to demand their freedom and the rights to which they are entitled.

They did that in the face of a global superpower that had shown time and time again its willingness to crush, with violence if necessary, such attempts to stand up for freedom. It is not ever an exaggeration to say that Latvians risked their lives in defense of freedom and, in doing so, changed the course of history.

There is no question that the threat to freedom in Latvia today is much different than in Soviet times. Latvians should still feel empowered to stand up for what they hold dear.

Maybe, Latvians are satisfied by membership in the EU and NATO. Maybe these problems don’t seem that serious. Maybe you think this will not affect your economic well-being. That is only for Latvia to decide.

But do not expect that anybody can or will care more about the situation in Latvia than the people of Latvia themselves. The United States will, as President Bush said, stand by those who stand up for freedom. But we will not stand up in their place when they have the freedom to do so. That is something you must do for yourselves. Please know, I say these things because we care and we believe in the friendship and good relations between the United States and Latvia and we all know that sometimes friends must speak to each other honestly and openly. I anticipate that much of what I said here today will generate discussion and some controversy. But it is in times of difficulty that friendships are most needed.

America stands for democracy and values. We speak out and we meet with both political elements and civil society in a country. We express ourselves when we have problems and when we have concerns. And other countries talk about American politics. This is a global world; everybody talks about everybody else.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has challenged all of us who serve as American ambassadors not to simply watch events in the countries where we serve but to help shape them for the advancement of freedom. We call this transformational diplomacy. Secretary Rice defined transformational diplomacy as “working with our many partners around the world, to build and sustain democratic, well-governed states that will respond to the needs of their people and conduct themselves responsibly in the international system.” She added that “we seek to use America’s diplomatic power to help foreign citizens better their own lives and to build their own nations and to transform their own futures.”

To the students and young people who came here today, paldies. And to the others in the audience, thank you for being here as well. I hope I have given you some things to think about and that all of you will find some way to contribute to our partnership of shared values, to build your own nation and to transform your own futures. The ties between Latvia and the United States will grow stronger with your active involvement. It is needed.

My alma mater is Franklin College in Franklin, Ind. It is thousands of miles away, but one of its traditions is especially fitting today. At the end of the graduation ceremonies the graduating seniors walk through an arch and above that arch is the motto of our college, “Were opportunity lies, there then lies responsibilities.” The same holds true for any democracy. As you move out to take your place in Latvia’s future, remember the responsibilities that come with the opportunities you have. In his Gettysburg Address of 1863, our 16th president, Abraham Lincoln, explained the challenge of our Civil War and the threat to the “experiment in democracy” that we created in 1776. He ended on a hopeful note, saying that “the government of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from this earth.” This statement sums up the shared values that are at the heart of our relationship.

I want to end on that same message. Government exists to serve the people—all the people, not just a select few—but people, especially you young people, have an exciting future. Be involved, take an active role in your government and carry on the work of a free and democratic nation.

Thank you, paldies, visu labu.

(Editor’s note: The speech has been edited for style and to clarify acronyms.)

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