A return to medical roots in Europe's capital

  • 2004-10-13
  • By Gary Peach
The name of Georgs Andrejevs is synonymous with Latvian diplomacy. He played a key role in negotiating the removal of Russian troops a decade ago and has been instrumental in bringing Latvia to Europe and North America. Most importantly, he helped lay the groundwork for accession to the EU and NATO. By way of thanks, Andrejevs was given the top spot on the candidate list of Latvia's Way, the liberal party of which he has long been a member. Now he is a member of the European Parliament. The Baltic Times caught up with Andrejevs in Brussels, where he shared his thoughts on the new position, the Caucasus and Latvia's Way.

So what do you think of the new job?

Well, it's too early to answer that - we're still adapting. It's an absolutely new style of work for me, even after having been a parliamentarian in the fifth Saeima (Latvia's Parliament, 1993 - 1995). It's completely different from many points of view. But I think it's a good place to return to my roots in medicine. I didn't know from the beginning that most legislative work comes out of Parliament directly from the committee of environment, public heath and food safety.

As vice chairman of the committee, and as a representative of Latvia, what will you try to bring to this committee?

First of all, we have to look at the work that has already been done by the previous Parliament, because many readings are not complete, and we have to see how they will influence Latvia. For example, there are some new regulations on pediatric medicine in the pipeline, which is very important for Latvia. So we must act like a bridge between [Brussels] and Latvia and see what we can change - or join those who want to change, because the possibilities are limited. We [the Group of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe] are a small group, and I'm the only one from Latvia. Inside the liberal group there are different opinions, but the party rules are rather strict. I was rather surprised. Sometimes you are given a list for voting and nobody asks whether you agree with it or not.

What about genetically modified foods?

That's not such a big problem. The European Union has already agreed that genetically modified foods must be labeled with information for the consumer. I remember when I was ambassador to Canada the same discussion took place, and I was surprised by how much pressure the big companies - supermarkets and so on - put on the government, which in the end refused [to pass a similar labeling law]. Everyone was demanding, "At least let us know what we eat!" But it didn't work.

You are also a member of the committee for the countries of the south Caucasus, a region that right now is very volatile. What are you trying to do on this committee?

Well, I should tell you why I chose this committee. From the very beginning I thought that one of my main interests, one of my priorities, could be [Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia] just for one reason: We spent a lot of time working on this area while at the Council of Europe. During Latvia's chairmanship at the Council of Europe, where I was the chairman of the ministers' deputies, [former Prime Minister Andris] Berzins and I visited this region - Baku, Yerevan and Tbilisi - several times. During our chairmanship, Armenia and Azerbaijan were accepted as full-fledged members of the Council of Europe.

So we know the governments, and we know the opposition parties. We have met them several times. It is much easier for us than for someone who comes from Western Europe without a knowledge of the Russian language.

We must help [these countries]. They look at the Baltics as an example - how we proceeded, how we achieved what we did over the years. And now they want to do the same.

In a way, it's surprising that you were able to become a member of this Parliament. The party you represent, Latvia's Way, lost in the October 2002 elections, but managed to cross the 5 percent threshold in the Europarliament elections. What did the party do to turn around its fortunes?

Nothing extraordinary. Our election campaign was very cheap. It was rather active, but no thanks to me - I was still ambassador [to Canada]. I think one of the reasons was that Latvia's Way has a very good youth organization. Young people were so active - I was surprised. They lived for weeks in tents; they provided [party material] in far away regional places. They were paid nothing but were real enthusiasts. We will thank them by inviting them to Brussels.

The second thing is that - thank God - people have not forgotten me, even though I was out of Latvia for nine years. I didn't agree [to leading the party list] immediately. (Smiles) Why spoil one's career at the very end? I could have retired and started my memoirs.

But it was a challenge as well. I was not afraid to meet people and tell them, "Look, you may criticize Latvia's Way for many things - I don't care, I don't know what happened with privatization, with this and that." What I can assure [people] is that the foreign policy that made the bridge to the European Union and to NATO possible was our plan in 1993 - when I first mentioned it in Copenhagen - when we still had more than 30,000 Russian troops on Latvian soil.

What has been achieved was not the result of [the current Latvian] government. They just ate the cake; they were not the bakers - not at all.

Does liberalism have a future in the Baltics?

I think liberalism has a place, like here in the European Parliament, but being between two different groups - the [European] People's Party and the Social Democrats - Liberals can play an active role.

I'm not completely liberal myself, but I think that rational liberalism is rather good.

Looking back over the past 14 years, is there one thing you would have liked Latvia to do differently, whether it be in foreign policy, domestic economic policy, or maybe even integration policy?

Of course now everyone is wise enough to see the mistakes of the past. There weren't any big mistakes in foreign policy - in fact, least of all in foreign policy. If I could change something - and I tried to do this - we would have never agreed to the additional protocol of leaving military pensioners in Latvia. I was against it, and everyone knew that. And it was why I didn't sign the agreement in Moscow. They didn't even invite me, and I had to resign.

As far as integration, we lost [ethnic] Russian support, which was an absolute shame. We had so many supporters in the early '90s, but we didn't involve them in Latvian parties. Even Estonia managed to do that - they have Russian people in their national parties, and they don't have problems working together. Our society is split into two. We are creating not only an opposition, but an old enemy.