Latvian President Edgars Rinkevics: “Our demographics and education quality concern me most besides security”

  • 2024-02-01
  • Linas Jegelevicius

So far, when addressing his audiences, the new Latvian President, Edgars Rinkevics, does not sugarcoat things and does not beat around the bush. In the opening speech of the Riga Conference 2023, he said that the world and Europe is “a mess”, and then surprised many by the other blunt statement, forecasting that the next four to six years will likely be very difficult for Latvia’s internal and external security. At the turn of years, the President sat down with The Baltic Times Magazine in his Office to speak on a range of topics – from security to demographics and education.

Some would say a president ought to shun  apocalyptic language, while the others admire your straightforwardness. Why do you opt for such rhetoric?

Because that is what I think. And I do stay by my words – look what is happening in Ukraine and the Middle East, and, then, (we have) the situation in the Balkans, especially in Kosovo and North Macedonia. 

Although, in the large picture, we have a lot of challenges,  I have a little bit different opinion when I hear some say that a war in Europe or an attack against a European country, a member state of NATO, is inevitable. 

The EU and NATO memberships that Latvia and the other European countries have are the best security guarantees. However, I want to stress that we need to prepare for all kinds of (security) scenarios. If we are properly prepared for them, we can avoid what they could bring along. 

I do believe that to warn the people is the right thing to do, but I do not want to scare them by hysteric predictions or such forecasts.

Having said that, I have no doubt, if Mr. Putin (Russia’s President – TBT) sees a crack in NATO in one or another war, he will attack to ruin the NATO defence concept or make a hole in it.

If he sees no cracks in it, he will attack neither in five, seven or ten years from now.

Do you believe that all  three Baltic States are equally well protected by NATO? It seems that, amid war in Ukraine, they are also individually exerting to secure larger protection by some NATO member states – I  have in mind Lithuania’s efforts to have a German brigade deployed in the country – which made some analysts  speak about the rivalry among the three Baltic States.

Latvia has Canada's strong military presence, which has increased since the start of war. In all, the numbers of Canadian troops will soon go over two thousand and, in addition, as part of NATO, we have the Polish, Slovenian, Slovakian, Albanian, Italian, Spanish troops here in Latvia. I’d say, in Latvia, we probably have the most multi-national NATO brigade force – we  have a true NATO here! To answer your question, I do not think there is any difference in terms of defence of the Baltic States- just some differences in the NATO troops composition, the general outline is the same. Protecting the Suwalki Gap is of utmost interest to NATO, and that is where the reinforcement, energy and transportation is focused.

Just several months ago, speaking of the situation in Ukraine, many analysts described it as a “stalemate”, but at the turn of years, more dire words, even “defeat” or “loss” are emerging when depicting the situation. How do you believe the situation will evolve in Ukraine in 2024? What would you see as Ukraine’s defeat?

When Russia’s full invasion in Ukraine started in 2022, many analysts predicted that Ukraine could last two or three days or two or three weeks at most. However, the predictions appeared not true. When, at some point, Ukraine was able to regain some of its occupied territories, indeed, there was euphoria, suggesting that with just another counteroffensive, Ukraine will win the war, liberating all of its territories. But even then, and now, to me it seems that it will be  a long war. And if you have a long war, you have battles won and lost and being led with optimism or pessimism. Still as  the Foreign Minister, I said last spring and I can repeat it now as the President: what we lack in the West is strategic endurance.

Although it is improving – we see the commitments from Germany, France and some other European countries, and the European Union is working on funding Ukraine despite some objections from some EU member states, I am still optimistic that the US Congress can pass support packages for both Ukraine and Israel (the interview took place on December 19 – TBT) – without  continuous substantial help – financial, military, logistical – Ukraine probably cannot win the war alone. 

Partly why Ukraine is in the situation we see now is the West’s inability to provide all it has asked, especially when it comes to  ammunition, air defence. Western tanks are also coming to Ukraine much slower than expected.

With regards to the aid, I do not expect any major political breakthrough – in any form – until the end of 2024 and the beginning of 2025 (The United States of America hold a presidential election in November 2024 – TBT).

What do you believe needs to be done to improve the preparation of Latvian society in resisting a possible intruder?

To go back to your first question, we need to tell the people how  things really are. I believe we are well prepared for all kinds of eventualities although, as I said, I dispute the discussions that war in Europe is inevitable. However, I also  said, we should be prepared for all kinds of scenarios, especially when we see what is happening on the Latvian-Belarusian border (the instrumentalisation of migrants for political purposes by Belarus has been condemned by the EU -TBT), when we hear the propaganda. As a country, we need to use the experience, practice and knowledge that Ukraine and its public has accumulated in dealing with the enemy, allowing the local governments to make decisions swiftly when there is a need for that, as well as work with our allies, especially NATO. Third, we need to do our homework when it comes to strengthening our military infrastructure, combining the force of NATO with our own. Fourth, we need to introduce compulsory military service – we call it state defence service. We are now transitioning from voluntary military service to what we call a lottery-based conscription, meaning that not everyone will be called up. Communications, preparedness and vigilance are what we need and what we are focused on.

Unlike the Lithuanian and Estonian governments, a Latvian government rarely serves a full four-year term. Not delving into the peculiarities, what is the main reason for that? Would you have a wager with me that the current Latvian government will last the whole term?

(Smiles). Well, the good thing is that, unlike in Lithuania and Estonia, all Latvian presidents last all their term. Speaking seriously, it is a little bit Constitutional. Our Constitution was written and adopted in 1922 and reinstated with some minor amendments in 1993. No wonder that the Latvian governments in the 1920s and in the beginning of 1930s were notorious for also not lasting very long. Our previous government headed by Krisjanis Karins lasted the entire four-year term. Despite what it may seem, with some exceptions, Latvia is a country with not long-lasting governments, there is no change regardless of government when it comes to security, foreign policy or defence. However, in Government and the Saeima (Parliament) heated debates erupt on other issues, like, say, the Istanbul Convention, the partnership law (Latvia is set to put the law, encompassing homosexual couples, for national plebiscite – TBT), or whether the Rail Baltic needs to go through Riga or outside the city,  taxation  etcetera. 

I’ll deliberately make no comment on the longevity and prospects of this government. If the people see than it can deliver and address their expectations, then it can work successfully. 

Over three thousand Russian citizens living in Latvia are believed to be subject to removal due to their failure to pass an exam of the Latvian language and put their documentation in order by a set date. Would you feel okay if an old grandma who has lived all her life in Latvia and whose children and grandchildren are Latvia-loving citizens ended being on the list?

Let’s be very precise here. The number you mentioned is how many of the people without Latvian citizenship did not register in time to get their residence permit extended. There is a great deal to suspect that some of them do not already live in Latvia whatsoever. The Latvian Ministry of Interior is now trying to figure out how many of the Russian citizens living in Latvia – we are not talking about Latvian citizens or non-citizens – have yet not complied with the law. What we want is that the people take the existing Latvian legislative requirements seriously. Any country wants that. Passing the language exam and adhering to local laws should not be  subject to question for all. So from that standpoint of view, I’d not become very emotional about – to quote you – “grandma being removed from Latvia.” But I agree – it is a sensitive issue, and, yes, it is part of the Russian propaganda. However, honestly speaking, I was not and I am still not particularly happy with the immigration legislation amendments our former Saeima approved and how they were amended a year later. However, because of the issue being Constitutional, I could not veto it. We’ve been having the issue with Russian citizens for the last four years – some of them did register, but some others – we have strong suspicions – are travelling through other Schengen countries without a proper registry in Latvia.

Are you concerned about what  seems to be an increasingly detrimental effect of the English language – ironically, not the Russian language anymore! – on the Latvian language, the Latvian youth and culture? My experience is that whenever I hear youngsters talk in a gym – be it in Riga, Vilnius or Tallinn – they start the chat with their Mother Tongue before switching to English or using chunks of it.

Your question resonates very much with the question I received from a teenage schoolgirl in one Latvian school recently (smiles). Here in Latvia, we have had the strong influence not only of the Russian language, but – perhaps some will be surprised –  of the German language, too. Around 10 years ago, when I visited  Brazil as the Foreign minister, I was surprised that some of the local Latvian community members I was talking to profusely used German words, some of which I could not understand in their language. As a reminder, the first Latvians departed for  Brazil in the beginning of the 20th century, meaning that the younger generations took over the verbiage from their grandparents. Indeed, now, we’re seeing a bigger influence of the English language. Would I be happier to hear kids in either Baltic capital talk their native language – Latvian, Lithuanian or Estonian – yes, I would be. Do the kids I meet now still speak to their President  in Latvian? Yes, they do. That’s a good sign (smiles). But I agree – we need to address the influence – and we are discussing here what needs to be done to make the Latvian language and culture more attractive and interesting, among the youth particularly – but let’s not exaggerate it. 

No doubt that security issues are and will remain the most important for Latvia, the entire Baltic region, for years to come. What other issues  do you consider to be the most pressing in your country?

There  are a couple of them. First of all, demographics. All  three Baltic States have lost a lot of people – due to the economic and financial crises, emigration. The coronavirus pandemic, war in Ukraine cause insecurity to some – rightly so. As a result, we had really low birthrate statistics in 2022 and the trend does not seem to be improving. 

Then I’d be much happier if our education were of a better quality. It is not bad, but it should be much better. I really believe that education is very important and I’ll make efforts that  everyone understands that.