Latvian army readies for NATO nod

  • 2002-07-04
  • Nick Coleman, ADAZI
After embedding what looks like a large gun next to an unexploded missile, Staff Sgt. Zane Silina lumbers back in her heavy body armor and takes cover as with a large boom a projectile shears off the missile's fuse, rendering it harmless.

Latvia's tiny army may not cut a dash on the world stage, but with the deft tread of its bomb disposal experts the country hopes to make a real contribution to NATO if it is invited to join the alliance later this year.

NATO enlargement looks more and more certain to go forward this year as Russian objections have softened, but the leaders of the 10 countries striving to join the alliance who will gather in Riga July 5-6 will be looking to answer criticism in the West that they bring little but problems to the table.

The leaders of Albania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Rumania, Slovakia and Slovenia will hold a two-day summit in Riga, their last chance to give enlargement a boost before NATO leaders meet in November in the Czech capital, Prague, to decide the issue.

The Riga summit will also include five U.S. senators, including the powerful Republican leader Trent Lott, the three Baltic presidents, Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski and defense and foreign ministers from around Europe.

One Latvian Foreign Ministry official called the meeting "the largest concentration of foreign dignitaries ever to be in Riga."

Candidate country leaders will be pointing to units like Silina's to show they have specialist skills in great demand by NATO, said Colonel Raimonds Graube, chief of Latvia's armed forces.

"It's the best way for a small country to contribute. Our explosive ordinance disposal special experience could be a huge way of contributing, especially after Sept. 11. Right now we're developing a specialized nuclear, biological and chemical unit," Graube said.

A team of Latvian bomb disposal experts which is now heading for Kosovo to join the NATO-led KFOR stabilization force has a wealth of experience behind it, especially in clearing the Russian-style bombs which Serbian forces used in Kosovo, said Lt. Colonel Guntis Aizporietis, head of the armed forces' engineering division.

While Silina and her colleagues were practicing with duds, Latvia's military has disposed of more than 50,000 explosive items since 1993.

Not only did the country see major battles in two world wars, but its fields and even cemeteries were extensively used for target practice by Soviet forces until their withdrawal from the Baltic states in the early 1990s.

"It's different from U.S. training. We don't learn everything from books and data bases," said Aizporietis.

And while work continues - unexploded ordinance still causes one or two civilian injuries or deaths per year - attention is now turning to passing on this expertise.

At the Adazi army camp some 20 kilometers east of Riga, the final coat of paint is already being applied to what will be a NATO-accredited school to train soldiers from NATO and partner countries in disposing of explosive ordinance.

To avoid having prospective members waste scarce funds, NATO has been encouraging candidate countries to specialize.

"When talking about these little states, niche contributions are not platitudes. All contributions that states like Latvia give have been extraordinarily welcome," said a Riga-based Western defense attachï.

Latvia is among many candidates which have been regularly contributing to international peacekeeping missions, in the process learning to operate with other forces.

"The fact that they've been doing it before being asked is good ticks in the box," said the defense attache.