The Baltics' eastward expansion

  • 2009-02-11
  • By Monika Hanley

LOOKING EAST: Ties have remained strong between Latvia, often known as a gateway between East and West, and Central Asian countries.

RIGA - It was not so long ago that the phrase "go West young man" resounded in the air both in the U.S. and Europe. Business was booming and new opportunities were plentiful. Now, with an economic crisis upon most of the world, businesses, tourists and ordinary citizens are increasingly looking East to find fortune, adventure and even love.


It is an increasingly common sight these days to see Latvian banks and financial institutions in Central Asia, especially Uzbekistan. Latvia's Aizkraukles Banka has been in Uzbekistan for a number of years, as has Parex Bank.

Latvian Ambassador to Uzbekistan Igors Apokins has specifically mentioned areas of development to be fine tuned in the future. He cites the scientific and technical trade as the most important.
"The most prospective areas of trade and economic cooperation are transportation, industry, including pharmaceutical and food sectors, agriculture, tourism, scientific-technological cooperation and the field of information and communication technology," he said. 
Despite a huge expansion of trade and business in recent years, the East-West trade schemata isn't as new as many economists say.

A Kyrgyzstan official from the State Agency for Tourism, Bakyt Joldoshbay, said that trade has been ongoing since Soviet times. He recalled the days when cars, either stolen or rebuilt, were driven from Lithuania to Kyrgyzstan. Dealers made the trip because they could get the cars for less money in the Baltic state. 


AirBaltic has done much to foster the relations between Latvia and Central Asia.
Business is booming and passenger lists keep getting longer as more and more people are using and trusting airBaltic as opposed to Russian or other CIS airline companies to complete their travels.
Since 2005, Uzbekistan Airways has been using Riga as a stopover point for their Tashkent-Riga-New York flights. One year later, airBaltic got in on the action and started their first Central Asian flights to Tashkent.
Airbaltic was "pleased to be expanding our network of eastbound flights by launching cooperation with Uzbekistan Airways 's one more strategically important partner in the former USSR," airBaltic president Bertolt Flick said at the time.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, many citizens of former satellite states have been reluctant to travel because of problems with transportation infrastructure.
"Former Soviet Union countries are rapidly developing markets. However, travel possibilities to CIS are limited and complicated from Scandinavia, the Baltics as well as the rest of the Europe," Flick said.

After witnessing these difficulties, combined with a sometime reluctance from Western airlines to offer flights to Central Asia, airBaltic decided to stop trying to break into the Western market and turn its eyes to the East. The company began offering direct flights to Tashkent and Almaty.
After the idea was met with financial success, airBaltic started focusing on Caucasian markets, and now offers flights to Yerevan, Tblisi and Baku and Istanbul.


AirBaltic doesn't quite have all the market cornered. Turkish Airlines is the chief competitor, offering direct flights from Riga to Istanbul as well.
As part of a recent endeavor to boost tourism, the Turkish government as well as Turkish Airlines sponsored a number of journalists, politicians and tourism professionals to travel to Izmir, Turkey during their 2008 Travel Turkey convention.

In mingling amongst the sponsored delegates, it was interesting to note that not one of them came from Western Europe. In fact, the largest foreign delegation came from Latvia. Other delegates traveled from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and other Eastern nations.
It may seem odd that Turkey and Turkish Airlines would desire more Eastern than Western tourists, but relations have been in place for hundreds of years. Businessmen of both regions have enjoyed success in the textile industries as well as hospitality.

In fact, when walking along a street in Istanbul, it is not only common that most people have both heard of Latvia and have Latvian business contacts, but many even know a bit of the language.
"Latvians are some of my best customers," said Tim Mehmet, a carpet salesmen in western Istanbul.
The phenomenon stands in stark contrast to Western European countries such as Italy and France, where many businessmen are unaware of Latvia as an entity, let alone fellow EU member state.
There is also the appeal of visa-free travel from the Baltic's to Turkey and Central Asia. While hordes of tourists have to line up to pay their 15 euro visa fee, Latvians have been able to cruise right on through the check-point since 2006.

The link between Turkey and Latvia was established long before direct flights. In 2001, Turkey, which never recognized Latvia's occupation by the Soviet Union, pushed for NATO to admit Latvia and the other Baltic states.
In 2006, then Latvian Foreign Minster Artis Pabriks said that it was "important to leave EU doors open for Turkey." However, because of Turkish-Cypriot relations, EU talks were suspended.


Cold, unfeeling, and unemotional are just a few words that guidebooks have used to describe Latvians. This may contribute to the huge rise in across the border marriages that have arisen over the years, especially with the more emotional, passionate Turkish people. With the advent of direct travel, many Turkish businessmen have come to Latvia not only for trade purposes, but to find love.

A heartwarming example can be found in marketing manager for Turkish Airlines, Sanita Geka. She traveled from Latvia to Turkey before it was fashionable and now has a wonderful Turkish husband and children.
She speaks fluent Turkish. The language barrier seems to have had little to no effect on the many Latvian-Turkish couples today, as most learn the others language quite quickly.

Although there are just under 100 Turkish residents in Latvia, there are many more that come for business on a regular basis. Those that have chosen to stay and marry have not forgotten their homeland.
"Every Sunday at the Turkish Cultural Center in Riga come about five children who are half Turkish, to learn their mother tongue. Mothers speak to them in Latvian or Russian and many children do not speak Turkish at all," said a Turkish colleague of writer Aleksandrs Sabanovs, Ramazan Inan.

He went on to explain that the businessmen, most commonly in the textile and restaurant business, want their children to stay in touch with their Turkish roots.


On Feb. 9, President of Tajikistan Emomali Rahmon made a working visit to Latvia to help foster relations between the two nations. Tajikistan has the least amount of contact with Latvia of the Central Asian countries and has flown under the radar in recent years.

That, however, is about to change. Latvian President Valdis Zatlers said that he and the Tajik president have discussed opportunities for closer cooperation, especially during the economic crisis. They also discussed strengthening transit and air traffic between the two nations. Increasing the use of Latvian ports for Tajik imports, most commonly textiles, was also discussed. 
Despite the lack of many working agreements and joint ventures, Tajikistan has been close to Latvia since Soviet times. One of the highest mountains in Tajikistan was named Soviet Latvia. It has since been renamed Latvia.

"It would be a great challenge and honor for Latvian mountaineers to climb this peak," said President Zatlers.
Zatlers' phrase could perhaps be seen as encouragement for all Balts and Central Asians to pull their way out of the financial crisis by starting to work together to ensure a more prosperous future.