Latvia’s future lies with Europe amid fears of Russian muscle
2015-07-01 15:47:24 -
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Michael McGowan

 

My latest trip has been to Riga, an elegant and green city with tree-lined streets with an impressive art nouveau district, previously recognised as the European Capital of Culture. 

 

It’s also the capital of Latvia, a small Baltic country of two million people whose six month presidency of the European Union ended on 30 June, and which has just elected the EU’s first Green president.

 

I couldn’t have timed my visit any better, following sharply on the European summit where leaders of the EU’s 28 member states met in Riga and declared the Latvian EU Presidency a success, a view endorsed when I met Latvian parliamentary speaker Inara Murniece, who spoke of the achievements of Latvia’s EU presidency “despite pressure from the Kremlin”.

 

The country shares its eastern border with Russia, has a long history of foreign occupation, and has real concerns about Russia following the annexation of the Crimea and the conflict in Ukraine.

 

Strengthening EU sanctions against Russia and increasing financial assistance to the Ukraine were key successes of Latvia’s presidency, said Murniece, who added that other main achievements were giving priority to the issue of energy and organising negotiations for the EU-Trans Atlantic Trade Alliance.

 

 

Not alone in facing threats

Latvia also has a new president in former defence minister Raimonds Vejonis, a member of the Green Party and the first from that political platform to hold so high an office anywhere in the European Union. 

 

President Vejonis won on 3 June when 55 of the parliament’s 100 MPs cast their votes in a secret ballot, and he takes office on 8 July at a tumultuous time for his region.

 

At a meeting with Ojars Eriks Kalninshe, chair of the foreign affairs committee of the Latvian parliament, he expressed concerns about hostile speeches against the EU and Nato from Russia and Russian aggression in Ukraine. 

 

However, he added that “this time we are not alone in facing threats from outside our country,” expressing his support for Latvia as a member of Nato.

 

On the other side of the coin is the Mayor of Riga, Nils Usakovs, a Russian Latvian who has promoted stronger ties with Russia particularly in freight transit through the port of Riga and tourism. He is a very popular mayor and a member of the Concorde Party, which he says is social democratic and the only leftist party in the country, but one excluded from Latvia’s coalition government despite having the largest number of MPs.

 

 

Unique traditions

What’s more, a quarter of Latvia’s two million people are Russian. But at the same time, despite the country being under foreign rule from the 13th until the 20th century, it has kept unique linguistic and cultural traditions, especially in choir and folk singing.

 

After the First World War, Latvia declared independence from Russia, but two decade slater, following a pact between Stalin and Hitler, Soviet troops invaded in 1940 and Latvia was absorbed into the Soviet Union. Nazi forces pushed the Soviets back in 1941 but the Red Army returned in 1944 and remained for half a century. In August 1991 Latvia declared its independence, became a member of the United Nations the following month, and joined both the EU and Nato in 2004.

 

Latvia has come a long way in a very short time and, despite its long history of foreign occupation and the real fears of Russian aggression, is determined to build on its experience of the EU presidency, its membership of the EU and Nato, and its unique language and culture.

 

It may well also play a key future role using its strategic position between east and west in Europe in helping to build better relations between the EU and Russia, which we all so desperately need.

 

 

Michael McGowan is a former MEP and president of the Development Committee of the European Parliament

TAGS : Riga Latvia European Capital of Culture EU Russia Ukraine Green Party Nato
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