RIGA - The North Atlantic Treaty Organization will host its first summit in the former Soviet Union next November in Riga, President Vaira Vike-Freiberga announced at a press conference on Dec. 7. Head of the security alliance, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, confirmed the decision during a meeting of NATO Foreign Ministers the following day in Brussels. Security precautions are a main priority as a number of top European and American officials will travel to Latvia for the summit.
The decision is "proof of Latvia's full maturity and political weight," President Vaira Vike-Freiberga said.
All in all, the cost is expected to exceed 15 million lats (22 mln euros). A task force made up of the president's office, the state chancellery and a number of ministries has been created to plan the two-day event.
Speculation about a Riga summit had been rife in local media, and in the final days it boiled down to a race between Brussels and Riga. (Portugal had also reportedly submitted a bid to host the event but later withdrew.) Some countries in the 26-member security bloc were reportedly concerned that hosting the summit in Riga would anger Moscow, which still bristles at the idea of the Baltic states being members of NATO.
Shortly afterwards, the Foreign Ministry said they would also like to see Russia participate in the summit meeting, as President Vladimir Putin did not attend the 2004 conference in Istanbul, reportedly due to disgruntlement over Baltic membership in the alliance.
Next year's summit is expected to focus on the transformation of NATO from its origins as a bulwark against communism to a global security player.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, NATO has continued to expand, performing missions far outside Europe. Most recently the alliance was active in Afghanistan and is now involved with humanitarian relief in Pakistan after a devastating earthquake.
"It will give us another opportunity together with our partners 's Estonia, Lithuania and the other NATO member states 's to use Riga as a venue of debates about the very essence of NATO, about the improvement of its work and about the future prospects of NATO as an Alliance," Vike-Freiberga said.
The summit "will allow our heads of state and government to give new momentum to the political and military transformation of the alliance," NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said during his meeting with NATO foreign ministers in Brussels.
Russian Ambassador to Latvia Viktor Kaluzhny told the Baltic News Service that Riga was chosen "for lack of a better option," and that the summit is not very important anyway.
Atis Lejins, head of the Latvian Foreign Policy Institute, disagreed. "The main point is that this summit will be held in the former Soviet space," he said, adding that this would have been hard to imagine just a short while ago.
Culture Minister Helena Demakova said her ministry would plan a cultural event for the summit.
The Daile Theater is one venue that may be renovated to house NATO leaders during the summit.
The following summit in 2008 will likely encapsulate the bloc's continued expansion, possibly including Albania, Croatia, and Macedonia. The previous two NATO summits took place in Istanbul (2004) and Prague (2002). The recent move to a former Soviet Union country, however, has some worried.