Riding the waves of foreign affairs

  • 2004-05-13

Maris Riekstins
- Born April 8, 1963
- Graduated from Latvian Sports Institute, 1985
- Graduated from University of Latvia's law school, 1993
- State secretary of Foreign Ministry since 1993
- Married, two children

The last 13 years in Latvia have shown that when it comes to foreign policy, there's never a dull moment. Maris Riekstins, who began with the Foreign Ministry just weeks after the country regained its independence, has seen Latvia go from relative obscurity to a full-fledged member of numerous major international organizations, including NATO and the European Union.On the country's foreign-policy challenges and relations with Russia, the ministry's state secretary spoke with Gary Peach last week.

How do you think the ministry's work will change now that Latvia is a part of the European Union? Will it be easier, more difficult?
I don't think the work of the Foreign Ministry will change dramatically because we have been active observers for more than one year. We have been contributing our ideas and participating in all working forums and debates on important subjects. The change will be mainly related to the formal, legal participation and membership. Now we have formal rights of vote. That means more possibilities and more responsibilities.
What I can add is the big, immediate challenges for all the European Union, including Latvia: the constitutional treaty, which will restart this month, and the next big debate, one which will be new for us, will be the financial framework - the EU's budget.

Speaking of the constitution, there's a push in Europe to somehow unify foreign policy, to draft a common approach to European foreign policy, so to speak. How do you see that affecting the work of Latvia's Foreign Ministry?
Actually we believe that foreign policy is a field where every country should maintain its own policy, and policy should be conducted on the principle of consensus. But once that consensus is reached, then all EU countries - and smaller ones - should follow that line. Unfortunately, we have seen in the last couple of years that that is not the case. There are countries that have their own agendas, own interests, and sometimes we have seen politicians take positions which are not exactly of the European Union.
It is in our interest that the EU is able to speak in the same voice on international policy issues. But at the same time every country should have a veto right on those issues.

Will Latvia try to solve some of the thornier issues with Russia via the European Union?
We will still have issues on our bilateral agenda with the Russian Federation. And then there might be issues where we will seek a common EU approach.
The issues where we see the possibility in attracting other European countries to deal with Russia - for instance, the environmental situation in the Baltic Sea, the question of single-hull tankers, whether they should be accepted in any port in the Baltic Sea. Right now the case is that all EU countries are following the rules, but Russia is still accepting those single-hull tankers.
But we have other areas where bilateral dialogue will be needed, for example, our cultural, different economic projects, fighting organized crime, dealing with smuggling [of contraband].

How would you characterize this recent spike in tension with Russia to those of previous years? Judging by the amount of propaganda on Russian TV, this one is particularly intense.
I think that we have to be very clear that we are having a dialogue with Russia where this dialogue is developing in a very constructive and pragmatic way. At the same time we have issues that come from our common history.
If you are speaking of tension, then maybe we can only use this word in the sense of rhetoric, public relations. Yes, I can admit that we now are in an active exchange of statements. But if we look back over the last 10 years, then we have witnessed a number of waves of public rhetoric. The first wave was in 1994 when we finalized for the troop withdrawal from Latvia. The second one was in 1998 when Prime Minister [Yevgeny] Primakov and Moscow Mayor [Yuri] Luzhkov started an active campaign against Latvia, comparing the situation in Latvia with the situation in Cambodia, with the Pol Pot regime, by [introducing] economic sanctions. And now we are in the third wave of such an exchange of views. And we will see ups and downs in the years to come.
As far as when that process will end, you will have to look for the answer in Moscow because they have chosen that rhetoric, and we have stated our willingness to enter into pragmatic dialogue with them and accepting the complexity of problems we have inherited from the Soviet past.
I think [the border treaty] is one of the issues where we are waiting for Russia's answer. We initialized that agreement in 1997, and still we are waiting for a person in Moscow willing and able to sign that agreement. Without that agreement, OK, the border of the European Union will function, the customs will function, the question is why that big country to the East is not willing to sign. What does that mean? Do they have a hidden agenda? Do they have territorial claims?

Do you get the sense, or have any evidence, that Russia is provoking the schoolchildren demonstrations in Riga?
I don't have evidence that financial funds arrived from Russia supporting this. But at the same time we see there are a number of Russian politicians very actively expressing their support for these public activities. We see there is some assistance to the [ethnic] Russian parliamentarians who are actively involved in organizing these protests. In that sense, yes, I can say we see a certain amount of support coming from Russia.

Why did the Foreign Ministry bar Russian parliamentarian Dmitry Rogozin from entering the country? Why not let him in but ignore him, keep him out of official dialogue?
That decision to bar Rogozin from Latvia was based purely on his behavior during the last months in public appearances, in an extremely unfriendly manner to the democratically elected government and leaders of this country. I think this is the right, the obligation, of every sovereign country to decide who they would like see visiting them.

What worried you most about Vladimir Zhirinovsky's statement to destroy Latvia, to send squads of suicide bombers here?
Those were extremely irresponsible statements. One can say, "Everyone knows Zhirinovsky, his style, etc.?" Yes, we know his style, but what is lacking is a very clear condemnation of such kind of statements from Russian authorities. But without such condemnation a misleading signal is given to the Russian public, that the politician has the right to make these kind of statements, or invitations to join a squad of suicide bombers, and there will be no public reaction. Can you imagine something like this happening in every democratic country, that the leading parliamentarians make similar statements and no one comments?

Will Latvia keep its troops in Iraq?
We have our troops there with a mandate that expires in October. I am not going to speak about what will happen then. I think that now we have to focus on the current situation and challenges, and then let's see what happens until September, when this issue - what to do with our troops - will be on the agenda in our Parliament. It will depend upon the situation on the ground.