Latvian Ambassador Talks NATO, Defeating Communism and the Future of the Baltic States
Ambassador Andris Teikmanis of Latvia sat down with me at his embassy in D.C. to discuss Latvia's history of triumphing over foreign oppression from the Soviet Union. The ambassador and I also discussed current threats to European security and possible NATO responses, while highlighting the special relationship Latvia has with the U.S. in the fight against radical Islamic terrorism.
Gayle Trotter: Today I am speaking with Ambassador Andris Teikmanis of the country of Latvia. I am so delighted to be with you.
Andris Teikmanis: I'm delighted as well.
GT: We're talking in the embassy of Latvia, which overlooks Sheridan Circle on Embassy Row where many of the embassies of different countries are located. Your office is at the very top of the building, and you have a wonderful balcony from where you could stand out and address the American people. Is that correct?
AT: I could if I would be interested, but I haven't had an opportunity to address the American people. I think ambassadors are very shy so I'm better at looking at others, although I do have this opportunity here with this balcony.
GT: I have not yet been to Latvia, but I grew up during the Cold War and certainly Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia were constantly in the news as part of the countries that were unfortunately under the control of the Soviet Union. They did not have the type of freedoms that you now currently enjoy. I'm curious: where were you when the fall of the Berlin Wall happened?
AT: I was in Latvia most probably when the Berlin Wall fell down, but I should say the changes had happened in Latvia already a year before the Berlin Wall came down. In 1988, the popular movement started in Latvia. We stood for, at that time, maybe not being able to pronounce “independence.” It was a forbidden word.
GT: It was a forbidden word?
AT: Absolutely. We spoke about more “serenity,” but, of course, everybody had a background idea. We should move towards independence, back to independence because that's what we heard. That's what every Latvian family, grandparents and parents, had told the children about the time before Soviet occupation, and we knew that our country had lived differently, and we wanted to come back to it. In the late 1980s, it was when people made crucial decisions; they were on the edge, either now or never. If not me, then who? If not now, then when? Of course I was, at that time, part of such a movement, and it was a crucial --
GT: What was the name of the movement?
AT: It was the Popular Front. It was a big change for me, plus a big change for many, many people in Latvia.
GT: There was a very famous historic event where they held the Baltic Way Chain on August 23, 1989, which was the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Two million people from the three Baltic states, Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania, held hands over 419 miles. Do you remember this occurrence?
AT: I remember. I remember quite well this day, and it was a really unforgettable moment for all of Latvia and for all three Baltic states. It was the first time this human chain had connected three Baltic capitals and without interruption and afterwards, there were quite a number of attempts to repeat such a chain, but this was the very first one. I should confess. I was not in Latvia at that time. I was, that very day, in Paris taking part in a gathering of politically active youth, and we had a demonstration at the Statue of Liberty in Paris. It was representatives of Eastern Europe, of Vietnam, and of Cambodia. All the nations, captive nations, gathered together that very day, and we spoke about liberty, about independence, and against terrorism. That was my day, but all my family were there in Latvia at that time.
GT: Did Latvians like you and the people who were involved in this movement, did they see the idea of independence and freedom as particularly a Latvian concept or is it something that they saw abroad, perhaps in America or other countries, and they wanted that for themselves? Was it a recapitulation of something that they had had before and craved again, or was it something that they saw abroad and wanted to imitate?
AT: It was not a new concept, and I have seen in a number of media (currently also) that Baltic states are sometimes considered newly independent states, but we are not. In the end of the 1980s, we wanted to be back in Europe, and we wanted to bring back Europe to Latvia and that was really the main incentive and main driving force because we knew that before the war, before 1940, Latvia was, at that time, a rather wealthy country, much wealthier than many neighbors in Europe. Wealthier than Finland, wealthier than Austria -- we were a well-developed country with well-developed culture, and with manufacturing and well-developed industry. We produced, at that time, many innovative things like this very tiny spy camera, Minox.
GT: A spy camera?
AT: Yes. It was a very tiny camera used by spies. It was produced in Latvia in Riga. We wanted to be back there. We wanted to decide ourselves about our destiny. It was not a new concept because each and every Latvian family has grown up with stories about the First Republic, about the time of our independence. That was really the major idea that was pushing us and it was a crucial time, a crucial moment, in the history of Latvia and the history of many people. Once in a lifetime, probably you can do it and so we grasped this opportunity and used it.
GT: You're coming up on your 100th year celebration of independence?
AT: Yes. In 2018, we will celebrate 100 years since the proclamation of Latvian independence. It was proclaimed just after the First World War on November 18, 1918. It took some time to get the recognition as a state, as a subject of international relations, international law and that's what we got in 1921. This is a national day, always celebrated. Celebrated in the families even at the time of Soviet occupation when it was forbidden. You could easily land into prison when you were celebrating.
GT: Prison? Wow.
AT: That's right. That was the time.
GT: Terrifying. What is the culture of Latvia like? What is a particular aspect of Latvian culture that you really love? That you would not be you without this aspect of the Latvian culture.
AT: Probably the singing.
GT: The singing?
AT: We have an old tradition since 1873 when every five years, we hold a song and dance festival where tens of thousands of people gather on one stage and sing in one choir with dancing. We have our folk songs. All collected, they number over a million, and practically each Latvian has (his or her) own separate folk song. That's our historical heritage. Actually, this collection of folk songs is even registered in the UNESCO Register. This tradition of song festivals was also a driving force because Latvians are two million only, but it was quite easy to bring for one demonstration, in the late 1980s, something like 500,000 people.
GT: Wow. Out of two million people? So a quarter of your population.
AT: Yes. We were singing together. Well, we still call it a singing revolution.
GT: A singing revolution!
AT: That was a time of singing revolution.
GT: I just am riveted by that idea of the singing revolution. It reminds me of so many amazing images we have of peaceful protests against totalitarian dictatorships across the world. You think of the Tiananmen Square demonstration in China where there were student demonstrators who were standing in front of tanks and the idea of having 500,000 people out of a population of two million come together and sing in order to band together in support of independence is just such an inspiring image. What an amazing people you have! I hope everybody has an opportunity to go visit Latvia. So as we turn a little bit, you were sharing with us that you are new to this post. You have been an ambassador to other countries before -- is that correct?
AT: That's right.
GT: This is a relatively recent posting to the United States?
AT: That's right. I'm only half a year since I have arrived here in D.C. My previous postings have been mostly connected and placed in Europe. So I've been ambassador and (in) Council of Europe, in Strasbourg. I've been ambassador in Germany in Bonn and Berlin.
AT: Wunderbar. I've been ambassador in Moscow. I've been ambassador in London. So from London, I came here.
GT: You have very much experience with the job of an ambassador, and you've been in DC for the last few months of President Obama's presidency, and you're here at the very beginning of what many Americans see as a very different sort of presidency. Not to ask you your opinion of the current administration, but I'm curious, as an ambassador, what do you see the core interests of Latvia are that you want to communicate to America? What are the concerns that Latvia has that America, as a country, can work in conjunction with Latvia to achieve?
AT: I think, first and foremost, the priority of my job here is security policy. This is not only a policy worked out between Latvia and America, but also in NATO, and Latvia and America are members of NATO. This is an organization that's really the most successful and strong military organization in Europe, and that's what has secured long decades of peace in Europe. So security policy, of course, is probably the number one priority.
Particularly in a time when we see that after several decades of peace, cooperation, diplomatic efforts, and diplomatic successes, we see that countries have challenged this international rules-based approach, the rules-based order. We see that we still have to care about our defense as NATO members. I'm happy that the last NATO summit in Wales, in Cardiff, and in Warsaw, in Poland, has confirmed strong commitment of NATO and all the member states to secure peace in Europe (and) to respond to any kind of challenges and to care about their defense. So that's what Latvia is doing and we are substantially increasing our defense expenditures.
GT: Right. It looked like 8,000 new people had signed up for the Latvian National Guard.
AT: That's right, and this number is growing. We have abolished the conscription. We have a professional army, and we have our National Guard. We are not planning to come back to conscription, but it now works pretty well. At the same time, we should care about our defense very seriously. That's a good reason why some two years ago the Latvian parliament decided to increase the military expenditures up to two percent and this year we do have 1.7 percent of GDP to defense and next year, definitely, we will have two percent because this is a priority that is not contested. There is no opposition to it. Next year we will have two percent, and then we will see how we can raise more our capabilities and defense spending, but that remains for the Latvian government and parliament for next year. Certainly we know that if we won't be serious about our own defense, who will care about us?
GT: Right. It seems like you're also saying to Americans: “We have reaped the peace dividend of the end of the Cold War, but we can't coast on our prior success. This is something that requires increased commitment and sustained attention to manage.”
AT: Very much so and that's the reason why we have also participated in different peacekeeping missions and in combating terrorism. We were together with Americans in Afghanistan. We were together in Iraq.
GT: Thank you.
AT: We have sacrificed several lives of Latvians during these operations. We are now in Mali. We are also in Iraq in the global coalition against ISIS, and certainly we are ready to continue our commitment to combating international terrorism. We should not care only about us. If we want to be good partners, and we want to expect something from our partners, then we should be cooperative and we should engage.
It is some kind of ironclad bond with Americans when you are fighting shoulder to shoulder with American boys and you are sharing the same risks. On one of my first visits here when I came to the U.S., I visited Michigan. The Michigan National Guard has a particular relationship to Latvia and cooperation with the Latvian National Guard. Next year we will mark twenty-five years since that friendship began. When I visited the Hall of Fame of the Michigan National Guard, where photos of fallen soldiers were hanging on the wall, I was proud to see also Latvian boys on the same wall who have fallen together. That's a link that you can't erase.
GT: That's beautiful. We're talking about engaging with Americans and other countries to fight against terrorism in these hotspots around the country. Also, there is something closer to home to Latvia. Certainly Russia has staked out a lot of aggressive positions and with its incursion into Crimea, I'm sure that must make many Latvians worried that Russia is trying to reassert itself in ways that are very detrimental to Russia's neighbors. Is that something that the Latvian people are thinking about or are concerned about?
AT: Of course like all the Europeans, we are concerned. It was some kind of wake-up call for many, although probably Latvians are more realists.
GT: So they thought so all along?
AT: We haven't had any major illusions. Although, on one hand, as a neighboring country certainly we are very much interested. Even more interested to keep good neighborly relations (with) Russia to cooperate and make common economics, make common business projects, and have cultural exchange. At the same time, we should be realists and assess what Russia is doing and ... (the) annexation of Crimea, that was a real wakeup call that the time of peaceful cooperation is over and we should address, seriously, this issue, and we should respond. I think European nations have responded adequately and Russia should understand that Russia should come back to a rules-based approach, a rules-based relationship within Europe, and particularly when it matters, Ukraine. That's a reason why all the sanctions were imposed because certainly economic sanctions, well, (are) not good. Not a good type of relationship, but certainly it's better than a war. We are a part of EU response. We are a part of NATO's response. We have our own experience, not always very good, but that also has taught us what's the right approach.
GT: President Trump and his administration have signaled publicly that they're going to increase U.S. defense spending. Do you think that will be helpful to Latvia to have the United States focus more on defense, or does it not really affect Latvia one way or the other?
AT: I think it will concern Latvia. We already have U.S. troops in Latvia, and they're permanently rotating and having military exercises. America has started a new initiative called ERI or EDI, European Reassurance Initiative or Deterrence Initiative. Within the framework of this initiative, American troops are located in the Baltic states, in Poland, and other countries. That gives an additional reassurance to this. I would call it some kind of long-term insurance policy of NATO. American presence, of course, is giving an additional value of NATO presence. We are hosting, starting this year, a Canadian-led multi-national NATO battalion who are not only Canadians, but also other nations are part of this battalion. Estonians are hosting a British-led battalion. Lithuanians are hosting a German-led battalion. So this is a NATO response that is securing the region. We should be very clear all Baltic states are, first of all, they are defendable. We are ready to defend our country (against) anybody who will challenge or attempt to breach our border; we are ready to fight. But it's not about fighting, I think. It's more about deterrence and the goal of NATO is to deter anybody from challenging NATO borders, and here there is no difference. Either it's Latvia’s or Estonia’s border or the Portuguese border, all the NATO borders, all the NATO territories are enjoying the same kind of security and that's what really matters. And that gives also to Latvians a sense of long-term security for the future. That's extremely important to develop long-term business projects that are well-planned. Each family can more easy plan their future, having in mind that the country will be secure and safe.
GT: Ambassador, this is my final question, which I hope will be a fun question. You've been in the United States for six months. What is something that you would like to do in the U.S. before your term here is over? Is there any particular place that you'd like to visit or any particular event that you would like to participate in so that you really get a sense of taking advantage of your time here?
AT: My experience in different countries has taught me a very simple truth. If you want to know a country, if you want to know people, go out of the capital city.
AT: I want to learn more about American people. In Seattle, in Tennessee, in Florida or California -- because that’s the way to learn about a country, how to learn a people, and how to understand them and that's my good intention to visit different spots in America. Probably I should mention also -- I will be very happy to arrange some events of the celebration of 100 years of my country and the best way to celebrate such a big, big event is to celebrate it with friends.
AT: I hope I will be able and I will have an opportunity to celebrate this centenary together with our American friends.