Defense in professional transition

  • 2004-01-22
Trained as a lawyer and engineer, Defense Minister Girts Valdis Kristovskis has been in charge of defense policy for Latvia since 1998 when he began overseeing the Baltic state's accession to NATO and participation in peacekeeping operations. The 42-year-old former javelin thrower belongs to the For Fatherland and Freedom Party, a member of the ruling coalition, and is routinely shown by surveys to be one of the most popular people in Latvia. The Ventspils-born minister spoke with Aaron Eglitis about NATO, the EU and his recent trip to Iraq.

How do you see Latvia's role in an enlarged NATO? What could be Latvia's specialty?
We can contribute to NATO in a number of different ways. One is to increase NATO's influence in Eastern Europe. At the Prague summit it was proposed that NATO create a rapid response unit, and NATO's enlargement process membership action plans, as well as Latvia's defense reorganization plan, were also discussed. All of this is related to the continuing development of our commitment to fulfilling NATO's common goals. We are willing to provide NATO with specific capabilities, such as infantry battalions if it is necessary, a platoon, human resources for command structures and logistic aspects or support elements. We are also willing to provide traditional elements, such as explosive disposal ordinances, medics, military police, divers, and other minor support. We cannot support NATO with a very large amount of specialties, especially large-scale units.

You were in Iraq last year. Did you feel that the situation was improving?
For me it's difficult to compare the situation in Iraq because this was only my first visit. Perhaps in the future there will be another opportunity to visit, and then we can compare how the situation has changed. At the time it was quite complex, there were increased anti-coalition activities, and it was also the time of Ramadan. I must say that the coalition was quite stable, active and motivated. I can only speak about our troops. I had no opportunity to visit other areas of Iraq or different forces. People understand that the environment is difficult and that they have the opportunity to stabilize the situation. It will take some time.

You were a public proponent for the invasion of Iraq on television shows such as "Kas Notiek Latvija" [What's Happening in Latvia]. The case for war was largely built on the threat of weapons of mass destruction. So far, the coalition has been unable to find any such weapons. Do you have any misgivings about Latvian participation in the war or do you still feel that it was the right thing to do?
It's impossible to answer this question correctly in a few sentences. Very simply, just in aspects of the coalition and support of partners, we made the right decision. We supported the partners who guarantee our security, who have backed us in preparing for participation in the collective defense of NATO and the enlargement process. Of course, it is disappointing because those arguments, which strengthened society's support for war with the threat of WMD, have not been found. This has helped raise doubts in the need for participation and has given an opportunity to destroy our soldiers' morale. I can't say that personally I was such a big supporter of the operation.
Of course, as minister of defense, in these situations it very often depends on my personal view. When I counted the "yes" and "no" arguments it seemed that we must support both the coalition and our partners. The best alternative, of course, is to live in peace and not send our people to these operations. We are not responsible for developing these problems. Latvia has never participated historically in this region, in [its] wars or [its] zones of interest, which several countries in Europe and the United States have done.

When you returned from Iraq you were hospitalized. What happened, and how is your health now?
This problem was not related with Iraq. It was just a problem of an overworked immune system because I was working a lot. And as the doctors said, my body was tired. Therefore some viruses were stronger than my immune system. It was necessary to recover, and that's why I was in the hospital. It was pneumonia, and perhaps under normal circumstances nothing would have happened.

There are over 100 Latvian soldiers in Iraq. Do you see future Latvian participation as peacekeepers in other missions such as EU ones?
We had a few people who participated in Macedonia under the EU. Now this mission is closed. Just last week we sent people to Denmark who will be in Kosovo serving in a task force. We sent one company as part of a Danish battalion but also nine people as a task force, five as military police and four as staff to Kosovo.

When will we see a professional army fully implemented in Latvia?
For a professional force it will take 3-4 years. We will end the current system in 2007, but it is not easy to say today because it might be easier to end the current arrangement earlier. It still has not passed Parliament. The process depends on the opportunities to prepare professional military people, something necessary to fill the positions.

Are you concerned about possible competition between NATO and a EU military force, through a duplication of security structures?
I am sure that duplication will not be allowed. And NATO is strong and developed enough that the EU cannot compete in these aspects with NATO. The EU can try to develop capabilities for some situations when it is possible to overcome threats with EU forces but not in a heavy conventional case. I think its impossible to even think the EU can be successful in such ways.

Do you have any communication with your Russian counterpart?
We have no communication at all because the main basic agreements between Russia and the other Baltic states have not been concluded. It's a problem to think seriously of cooperation and bilateral talks concerning defense and security matters. We will, of course, participate and use NATO to reach those goals for [the sake of] regional cooperation and stability.