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By Sarah McPhee
On April 22, the Latvian Ambassador to the United States, Andris Razāns, was the guest of honor at a talk for Baltic Studies students at the University of Washington. His presentation, Latvia — From Captive Nation to President of the European Union, was a story of reunion and reintegration.
Ambassador Razāns began his talk by describing the position of his country in 1939, when it fell under the dictatorship of the USSR. Through 50 years of Soviet occupation, Latvia was effectively erased from the political map. Ambassador Razāns also recounted his own parallel life story, explaining that he never aspired to become a diplomat but rather had expected to have a career in academia. But following the collapse of the Soviet Union, there had been a need to ban former Communist officials from political and military offices, rendering only younger people available to run the country, much as in Estonia. Only 23 years old at the time, Razāns heeded the call to public service but imagined he would remain in the Latvian diplomatic service for a year at most. Two decades later, he now finds himself Ambassador to the United States.
In his talk on Latvia and its place in the world, Ambassador Razāns acknowledged that there is some misunderstanding concerning the identity of the Latvian people, with many foreigners considering Latvians as Eastern or perhaps Central European. Razāns dismissed both contexts and instead argued that Latvia should be understood as belonging to Northern Europe. Although Latvians are not Scandinavians, they share many commonalities and historical intersections with northerners. Indeed, as a result of Swedish expansionism, Latvia was under Swedish rule for centuries until Peter the Great defeated Charles XII in 1709 and created his “Window to the West” on the Baltic Sea. Two centuries of Russian rule followed, but Latvia’s essentially Northern European character endured, the Ambassador explained.
A student of history, Ambassador Razāns noted that Latvia was under Swedish rule for approximately the same length of time as it existed under the Russian tsars, lending further credence to his argument for Latvia’s northern European identity. Indeed, Razāns observed, in addition to Scandinavian and Slavic influence, the Baltic region was long characterized by a sizeable and powerful German minority, even before the arrival of Russian rule. Upon his conquest of the Baltic region, Peter the Great agreed to permit the Baltic Germans to keep their language and Protestant religion in exchange for their loyalty. These Baltic Germans would go on to play an important leadership role in Latvia and elsewhere in the Russian Empire for centuries to come until the collapse of the Tsarist regime and Latvia’s emergence as an independent state. Thus, Latvia always retained a distinctly European and Baltic identity even as it was under Russian rule.
Ambassador Razāns explained that Latvians enjoyed 20 years of complete independence between the world wars, but ultimately “World War II destroyed everything.” As a direct consequence of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, Latvia was swallowed by the Soviet Union and would exist for the next fifty years as the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic, a constituent republic of the USSR. These were dark times for the Latvian nation, Ambassador Razāns explained, but the spirit of Latvian independence was never extinguished, and the Latvian embassy even continued to operate in Washington, DC.
The Baltic Neighborhood
Pivotal to Latvian success in the 21st century was the strategic business involvement of Nordic countries in the Baltics in the late 1980s, as well as the establishment of their consular offices within Latvia. Ambasador Razāns insisted that Baltic independence mattered for the security of Nordic States, and therefore the Nordic countries actively engaged with the Baltic states and helped establish strong civil institutions when the Soviet Union collapsed. It was from these northern neighbors that Latvians learned about open democratic societies.
Ambassador Razāns concluded by noting that the United States never recognized the Soviet occupation of Latvia, and the Latvian people have never forgotten this. With the support of its allies and neighbors, Latvia has progressed from an occupied country to the leadership of the European Union and is now, “in charge of 90% of the business the EU is doing.” He reminded the audience that the EU is the biggest trading bloc in the world, and the greatest partner to the United States.
When asked by Jackson School NATO expert Dr. Chris Jones about the contemporary relevance of the 2008 NATO nominations of Georgia and Ukraine as well as the 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia, Ambassador Razāns was very clear on his personal position and the Latvian stance on the armed conflict in Ukraine:
“We were among very few allies that supported Georgia and Ukraine’s membership in NATO. There were many members of the alliance who were against NATO membership for both Georgia and Ukraine in that year. I believe that was a mistake. What was done, we still believe it was a mistake. What is happening in Ukraine is nothing new for us. We have been the most skeptical, or most realistic, members of the alliance in assessing what was happening. So the Russian invasion of Crimea — and it’s invasion, it’s not civil war, it’s aggression – didn’t come as a surprise to us.”
He continued by insisting that “Russia learned after Georgia that it can get away with invading its neighbors, it can get away with keeping good relations with the West. These things the West does not take seriously. [Russia] can do as it pleases.” He reminded the audience that “our boys, Georgian boys, American boys, British boys, were all fighting together in Afghanistan at this time,” and he repeated that it was a mistake to do nothing [about the armed conflict in Ukraine] simply because of “some sensitivities in Moscow.”
Ambassador Razāns asserted that the Russian success in Georgia came at great cost to the Russian military, and following that operation, “the remilitarization of Russia began.” He cited the increasing number of military exercises near the borders of the Baltic States and the many recent incidents of Russian military pilots turning their transponders off in international airspace and thereby “threatening civilian aircraft.” He insisted that all of this military activity, “what we are facing today,” is a consequence of the inaction over Georgia in 2008.