New foreign minister: Latvia to step up contributions to NATO, EU

  • 2002-11-14
  • Nick Coleman

Latvia's new foreign minister has vowed to increase Latvia's ability to contribute to NATO as it prepares to join the alliance and to work on improving relations with Russia.

Winning over those in Latvia who are skeptical about EU membership is another key task, said Sandra Kalniete, who on Oct. 7 became foreign minister in the center-right coalition of Prime Minister Einars Repse after elections last month.

Kalniete has the benefit of considerable popularity as she was a founder of Latvia's independence movement and has chronicled her experience of growing up in Siberia, to which her family was deported in the Stalin era.

"More than any other government minister she's going to come in with an advance of good will," said political analyst Karlis Streips.

"Joining NATO doesn't mean that's the end of our work, it's a very important first step," said Kalniete.

"We've already demonstrated we're able to contribute to NATO operations in the Balkans, and we're discussing how we can actively engage in the fight against terrorism," she said.

Latvia, which has already contributed to NATO-led peace support in the Balkans in the form of specialiasts such as medics and unexploded ordinance experts, hopes to receive a membership invitation from NATO leaders who meet in Prague on Nov. 21-22, and to conclude accession negotiations with the European Union this year.

Further reform demanded by both the EU and NATO, such as combating corruption and integrating Russian-speaking Soviet era settlers, remains a priority, said Kalniete.

"We are fully aware reforms have to be continued, we will pass all the important tests," she said.

Recent agreements at local and regional levels suggest the possibility of improving relations with Moscow, which have been strained since the end of Soviet rule in 1991, said Kaliniete, who has stepped down as Latvia's ambassador to France and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).

"There are signs that the basis for expansion of substantial political dialogue are in place. The next step would be to start real political dialogue," said Kalniete.

Regarding sensitive negotiations still to be completed on the extension of EU agricultural policies to new members, particularly on the setting of production quotas, Latvia "has had very positive messages that our situation is understandable (from the EU)," said Kalniete.

But Kalniete cannot hope to have much personal influence on the vexed relations between Latvia and Russia, which continue to be dominated by Russian misgivings about Latvia's NATO membership bid and conditions for Russian speaking minorities, said Pauls Raudseps, an editor for the leading daily Diena.

"The relationship with Russia is not based on personalities. In the places where Russia wants good relations there will be good relations, and where it doesn't there won't," said Raudseps.