A popular public figure in Latvia who has risen through the ranks of national politics, Artis Pabriks has a lot on his mind these days. He held, until recently, the post of defense minister where efforts included continuing the modernization of the military. But Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis’ resignation last year meant the end of his term in office. Pabriks after being passed over as a new prime minister candidate by President Andris Berzins amid much controversy now considers his options, at both the national, and international political levels. The former defense minister sat down with The Baltic Times in January to discuss politics, defense issues and his next move.
It’s been a very interesting year for Latvia, obviously a lot has happened. Can you tell us what you believe your main achievements have been, and what have been your main challenges for the Defense Ministry.
For the Defense Ministry I think the biggest challenge has been our defense budget, because during the times of crisis we have been, let’s say, robbed a lot, losing almost 50 percent of our defense budget. In the last two years we are slowly starting to recover. My definition for the budget 2014 was a moderate growth budget. We did not reach all those targets which we wanted, but that’s somewhat normal for every ministry, but we could start with new programs, with new challenges, and I would like to mention two of them, major ones, one is the mechanization of our infantry brigade, the issue which was postponed for many years as a number of ministers had started to do this, but did not bring to the end. It seems like we have [now] done this. [Though] we have not yet signed all the papers, it will be very difficult to turn back... And I’d also say there should be added value for our economy, as I’d also like to think in economic terms. I believe there will also be more opportunities for small but still growing defense industry in my country. And the second biggest challenge in which we’ve succeeded is the [confirmation] that we need here, and NATO needs here in Riga, is a center for excellence of strategic communications. These are the two major issues that I’d like to put on the table.
Tell us about this new Center of Excellence that’s being built in Riga. Why is it essential for Latvia to have such a center?
First of all it’s essential for NATO. Because already in the summit of 2009 NATO agreed that there are problems with communication, there are problems of being too late, once we come to some crisis, some challenges, and in the modern age of technology everyone already knows these movements with their mobile phone. Technologies are playing a big role. We frequently lose, in mass communications systems, in media, when we’re speaking of some crisis, Libya, Syria, Afghanistan, or somewhere else, so we know now that we have to learn more how to communicate, to communicate better, timely communications, set communication strategies. In Latvia’s case I think it would be a good challenge for us because we are also experiencing lately, challenges of soft power, of neighboring countries covering our region. We can say it’s not easy for democratic countries, which are small in size, to defend their opinions publicly. Our media is free, our media is frequently critical, and then we can see media that is coming from other countries which, let’s say, is ruled by some political authorities, or governments. It’s very difficult to compete for the minds of the people.
Can we talk about the new government? Mr. Pabriks, you were widely expected to be the next prime minister. Suddenly, with talks going on, it seems you have no new role in the new government. What are your thoughts on that process?
You see, politics is not always a reflection of the public views, and there is the logic of party discussions and coalition-building by itself. And from that perspective, I wasn’t totally surprised that I was not appointed, or I was not named by our president as prime minister of the new government, despite the fact that there were a lot of quite strong indications that I could have a majority in the parliament if I were named. There are probably a number of reasons, some of them are not open and public, because they have not been given full answers from the presidential side. But there have been some differences in our strategic thinking between me and the president’s office as far as our integration process, NATO and the European Union. I don’t want to comment more at this stage, but I want to tell all the readers and listeners that I have been in my politics always a strong supporter of Europe, of the necessity to increase our defense budget, to be an active NATO member, and no matter what position I will be in after the new government is appointed, this situation will not change, as far as my political [aspirations]. I will remain in politics.
I wanted to ask you that. There has been talk of you going into the European Parliament. Can you confirm that that’s true?
I can confirm that I’m planning on being on the list. To be on the list in a country where you have only eight places in the European Parliament still doesn’t mean that you will gain this place. So, basically, to speak honestly, my plans are 50-50; I’m ready to make an active position if I’m elected in the European Parliament. I have been more than three years minister of foreign affairs, I have been more than three years minister of defense, and I have nothing against a change of profile in politics. But if I’m not successful in these elections, I will go with full force with national elections in the autumn.
Does that mean we could see you as the next prime minister? Are you interested in that role still?
Well, after the latest attempt, I think that usually for politicians appetites are always growing. So, I will never say no now.
Mr. Dombrovskis in one of his final addresses this weekend said that the new government won’t have any time to warm up. He also listed a few things that the new government should really start focusing on. It really felt like corruption was one of the biggest issues he was touching on. Would you agree with his comments?
Warming up I would hope; since I am familiar with sports, there will be no traumas if you warm up [before] starting to perform immediately. There will be a number of new ministers and we want to see how things will be continued in these areas. As far as the major challenges, I would rather say that one of the major challenges is still to keep, on the one hand, the same economic course given by the old government, but at the same time I would also like to mention that the priority that I was setting when I was a candidate for prime minister, was the work to decrease inequality, and to decrease the number of poor people in the country. Because one of the dark side effects of the crisis in Latvia was the increase in the Gini index, and it was already quite high before, and also the increased poverty among some parts of the population. So we have to show that we can change this, and if we change this, if we get a stronger middle class, then we will have many more possibilities to prosper as a nation, to show bigger trust to the government, and I think corruption will also decrease. Despite popular views, I don’t think my country is so corrupt as sociologists sometimes show; I think that this situation has been improving from year to year. I think this is one of the side effects of economic development, political development.
Do you believe that the current situation in Latvia, the talk about the new government, that that followed from the disaster of Maxima, which as we know was the biggest disaster since Latvian independence, where 54 people died, international media picked it up all over the world. Suddenly corruption really came to the forefront of discussions. Mr. Dombrovskis also said at the weekend that his stepping down was almost necessary following that. Do you believe he made the right decision?
Allow me to disagree. I understand from the human side that he wanted to take responsibility and to also show some kind of political position after this tragedy. But I still think that for him personally, it would have been much better, and for our country, if he would not have stepped down, [but] would have stayed in his position. I think the country lost.
Let’s talk about another issue following on from that. A lot of people in Latvia were also focusing their attention on the mayor of Riga, Nils Usakovs; there was a huge rally in Old Town, for and against, people calling for his resignation. Should he stay, or go?
We are in different parties, with different positions, so we don’t have the most friendly relationship, but I would say that, in many cases in the Latvian environment, Riga is a big city, the capital, so you could say this is a large part of our society and country. Sometimes I have a feeling that if we are attacking some problems on the national level, then we cannot manage or solve these problems fully just because they do not have the right support from the Riga Council. So a lot of the responsibility lies with the Riga Council. Resignation again, this is an individual matter, so I will refrain from moralizing here.
Let’s talk about Russia-Baltic relations. Is there light at the end of the tunnel with regard to Russia-Baltic relations? I’m talking specifically about Russia’s move to ban Latvian products from their shelves. I believe it’s not the first time for such ban. What’s the solution?
We will not see the end so quickly. This is not a question between Latvia and Russia, or Latvia and the Baltic States. I think a large part of the answer lies in the internal domestic politics of Russia. And my feeling is that the Russian government is lately becoming more nervous about the prospect of stability and continuity of the course. And again, refraining from judgement of whether Putin’s government is good or bad, or it would be better with somebody else, I would say we should carefully look how Russia will develop in the following years, because we can expect that some kind of instability will [continue], and this is what is worrying us in the Baltics the most. There are lots of things that worry us about developments in Russia. Of course, these trade issues are just the small part of an iceberg on the top of the water, which simply shows that relationships are sometimes manipulated, because you cannot deal with Russia on economic terms without thinking about politics. With economics and politics, and media, this is all connected in Russia. So I think that if Russia would solve its domestic problems, in a more democratic way, or a more understandable way for Europeans, for trans-Atlantic society, it would also be easier for us. And of course the ambitions of Russia to recreate its greatness, are frequently done at the expense of nations which are very near Russia. Historically, Russia is seen as a great nation only by domination, or by acceptance by Western partners. At this moment, the economy is not so good in Russia, as a global power, despite certain successes in the Syria conflict and elsewhere, it’s still not in favor of Russia. China is rising. This makes me sometimes ask my Russian colleagues, do you really understand your challenges in central Asia, the challenges in the Far East? Why, for instance, are you stressing the necessity to increase you military presence in the West, because the West is not a challenge to Russia. Ukraine, of course.
You said the trade issues are just the tip of the iceberg. You talked about more internal issues that Latvia should be worried about. What are they?
I think the political environment in Russia, decision-making, is increasingly [heading] into more narrow circles, and I think the challenges which the Russian government might face will be very much connected with the dissatisfaction from the lower stratus, the public, and we never know how this challenge will be channeled into some kind of similar issues, like in Ukraine, and if some instability appears in Russia, or for instance in Belarus, as far as Latvia is concerned, it can very much affect our security.
Do you believe that what’s happening in Ukraine could be repeated in the Baltics?
No. We are totally different societies, in that sense. I don’t see a similarity between the Baltics and Ukraine. We understand Ukraine quite well, and we wish all the democratic forces all the best. We also think that Europe, and the European Union has to bear a certain responsibility for what is happening in Ukraine. We have not been vocal enough, timely enough to give our support to be interested in what’s happening in Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Caucasian countries, central Asia, so I think European politics, for a number of objective and subjective reasons have been always a step behind. And we should understand, that for Russia, Ukraine is very crucial. Europeans were not ready to invest in Ukrainian democratic forces the same amount of energy and political support that Russia was investing.
I remember when the NATO war games started. There was a lot of talk about ‘threats,’ with a lot of the media asking “should the Baltics be worried about threats from Russia?” Is that an issue?
We are not afraid of Russia because we still believe in the international order and the ability to preserve this. And, differently from countries such as Ukraine we are members of the EU and NATO, and this gives much more support to us. At the same time, if you are a member of NATO, then clearly, every member must know what to do in a moment of crisis. It’s very important that we exercise from time to time; it’s just like with firemen, if you don’t know what to do when the fire is breaking out, how can you guarantee security for the civilian population.
What is the solution here?
Many say, Russia is this huge country, and then you’ve got Europe. And it always seems to be Russia versus Europe. Others thinker, why don’t we unite these two forces, and create a much bigger force.
(with a smile) How would you unite them?
I wouldn’t know myself. Do you believe there is a solution to this Russia-Baltic issue?
I would say it’s sometimes too easy to say this is a ‘Baltic-Russia’ issue. I would rather say that the Baltics is a litmus test to Russian attitudes towards Europe, and the West in general. So, it’s not ‘Baltics-Russia,’ it’s ‘Russia-Europe,’ ‘Russia-West,’ and the Baltics are just the best example of how it works. We don’t want to show ourselves as some kind of trouble-makers, or ring a bell and say ‘look at what the Russians are doing.’ Not at all. We simply have very pure, realistic and clear view of these things. We don’t want to live in illusions. And I sometimes think there are some politicians in Europe who still do not follow the advice of Nicholai Machiavelli - actually his picture’s hanging there [points to the wall behind him] - that politicians should not have wishful thinking. They should be realistic. And I think we should be realistic about Russia. It has nothing to do with good or bad, it’s simply to be realistic, what we can do with this country, how we can deal with it, and what is the best way to deal with it. From that perspective Europe pretty much needs to listen to the Baltic voice.
Latvia has just joined the eurozone, there was a lot of celebration on January 1, Latvia has integrated more fully in Europe. It means more prosperity. This is what we’re hearing. Latvia is a country of just 2 million people, dealing with countries like Germany, France, and the UK who have been in the game for much longer. How does a small country like Latvia assert itself more fully in Europe?
Well, I think that we have one of the most beautiful euro coins in the eurozone, among 18 countries. But I think, for the Baltics, for Latvia, joining the eurozone is some kind of a new confirmation, after 2004 when we joined [the EU]. It’s a confirmation that we are steadily, and more deeply integrating in this European community. We have been cut away for 50 years after the Second World War from Europe, forcefully, and I think the euro is not just a financial tool. It’s something that cannot be just assessed economically. It’s a geopolitical tool. That yes, we are also a country that is using a European currency. And my personal understanding is, and I don’t want to argue with bankers and financiers to know how many millions we will get additionally since we joined the euro, and how easy it will be to make transactions. For me, it’s just a very sober approach that if there is someplace in the European Union where we have to sit at a common table and decide, my country should be there.
On your political aspirations, you mentioned that you are not moving away from politics. Rather, you’re going into the European Parliament race, and if that doesn’t succeed, we can see you on the national level again. Can you reaffirm that?
If the people will be willing to stand behind me in national politics, then I’ll be here. Because in a democracy we can be in politics only so long as we have public support. At this moment I can say I’m very lucky and am thankful to all my [staff] because, despite not being confirmed as prime minister, I still get increasing public support. On the other hand, I’m also an international politician. I very much like international politics, security, NATO, EU issues, so if I’m able to do something, not only for my country, but for our Union, I’d be very happy about that.
And that would be in the role of prime minister.
One more thing, and I know it’s a controversial issue. When President Berzins turned you down, you came out and said, ‘perhaps I’m too patriotic, perhaps I’m too defense-minded.’ Is that the case, do you believe that it is one of the main reasons that you didn’t get the role?
I don’t know if it was the main reason, but it’s definitely one of the reasons. Once you are the minister of defense, again, you can’t live in the world of illusions. You have to show, very straightforward, what are the possible dangers. I would be very happy if I would be 99 percent wrong, but I cannot afford to take a risk and to not speak about the 1 percent, because if something happens, we all will bear the responsibility. And we have certain differences, as far as our age, political orientation, our political education, and that obviously makes us to assess certain things differently.
Were you disappointed when you heard the outcome of Mr. Berzins’ decision?
My family was definitely happy. My wife never wanted me to be prime minister. This is too much away from the family. But it was one of the expectations.
This means more time for your family? Do you feel you can put your feet up, so to speak, and take a little rest, or does it mean more work for you now?
I think at this moment I would probably have a few weeks of more time, I think it’s important because it’s very difficult to work in politics if you do not have a family, and I think people frequently do not understand or do not want to understand that the political environment is a very harsh environment. It’s not an easy labor work. It’s now a tradition to criticize politicians, they are doing bad, but I have always answered to people: if you can do these things better, please don’t sit at home. Just come, join and do it better. But if you can’t do this, then at least in your criticism try to be constructive. And I think one of the biggest problems in Latvia society is still that we are a young democracy, we don’t fully understand how we can use democracy, and I very much also hope that Latvians could have enough knowledge to understand how important is the European Union in their lives. We are now going through very difficult times in Europe, and the questions and criticism of the European Union are all around. It’s very easy to deconstruct what was constructed for 50 years after the Second World War. The question is, what will we get as an alternative? For Britain, there is maybe some kind of alternative. I’m afraid, for the Baltic countries, the only alternative if the European Union fails is to go eastwards, and this is not what I can afford to support.
It looks like Raimonds Vejonis will be the new defense minister. That’s who the Greens and Farmers have put forward. Do you know Mr. Vejonis? Could you give an assessment on whether he will be a good defense minister for Latvia?
It depends on many factors. I know him quite well, and I had a short talk with him about the future of our defense and our Defense Ministry. Let’s put it like this, I hope he will be open to my suggestions and if there is a need I will be ready to support him.