Last week I spoke on a number of panels at a conference in Riga Latvia regarding the future of Iraq and how to fully defeat Daesh (also known as ISIS); while there I also got to see first-hand on what it’s like to be on the front lines of NATO and what the effects of the Kremlin’s push in Ukraine are doing to the people of Eastern Europe.
The Russian invasion and the annexation of Crimea has heightened concerns and worry – of Kremlin interference and threats to many of the countries in Eastern Europe, and not least the Baltic states (who were formally part of the Soviet Union until just 25 years ago).
Since its independence in 1991, Latvia has transferred itself into a liberal democracy, joined NATO and is a member of the European Union. In fact the first six months of 2015 see’s Latvia holding the EU’s presidency.
While economic growth took off after liberation from the Soviet Union, the global financial collapse and recession has had a heavy toll on the country, with estimates of over a 25% reduction in GDP and a large spike in unemployment (similar to Greece). But economic fundamentals remain strong.
There are many concerns confronting the country, which U.S. policy makers should take into account, below are just some of key issues …..
Although seemly stable, Latvia has around 400,000 people living in the country that are “non-citizens” – almost 18% of the population. Most of them are from Russian dissent, they have no political rights and are excluded from many jobs.
Eastern provinces of the country have high, if not a majority ethnic-Russian population, with a sole-state language law (Latvian) couple with the about non-citizenship issues, this could be ripe for Kremlin interference.
There has been a vast uptake of Kremlin financed or Kremlin supported propaganda all over the country (and in fact all over Eastern Europe). This is seen by many as a destabilization force in itself.
The financial collapse has had a large impact on civil society, with many groups shrinking or disappearing, this in turn as led to many of the accountability programs on the government and other institution closing. This too has been coupled with a shrink in the independent media. Although corruption is not a serous problem right now, without these check and balances it could grown into a serious issue.
Over the last few years, right-wing groups have taken a foothold in the political system, this could be exploited by outside forces to become a destabilization force.
The Latvian energy situation is complicated. While it seems that Russia can play energy-spoilers for the country as, like its other Baltic neighbors still relies on most of its electric supply via the old soviet grid system, and so is anchored in Russia; plus all if its oil and natural gas also comes from Russia. The supply of oil, gas and electricity for St Petersburg all go through Latvia.
The country has also been interested in building its own LNG import terminal, or sharing such resources with its Baltic neighbors.
Since the invasion and occupation of Ukraine, Latvia as with its former Soviet or Warsaw Pack neighbors have become very cornered over the Kremlin’s use of force to get its way.
Though is a full NATO member, and should have its security guaranteed by Article 5 (mutual defense) of the NATO treaty, there is still though concern if, when push actually come to shove, would there be unanimity to invoke Article 5 in the NATO Council, if Russia or more importantly its supporters, try to destabilizes the country or in fact use military force.
The United States though has stepped up to these concerns, have reassured the Latvian Government and people that the alliance remains strong and united, it has also stationed a number of US military personal in the country as a concrete statement and action of this resolve to the collective defense of all NATO members.
Latvia, like its Baltic brothers, is both a European Union nation and a member of NATO. Both these facts should not be ignored.
For the United States further support for Latvia will be required. This should include:
- Detailed examination if a small, but permanent, U.S. / international military base should be built and maintained in the country.
- The U.S. Embassy should be strengthened, including an increase in funds to support civil society and public diplomacy.
- The United States should work with the Latvian government to help integrate the so-called “non-citizens” into wider Latvian political and social society.
- The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) should encouraged and be seen as a geopolitical tool tying the United States with all countries in the EU – this would have the added effect of creating economic growth and opportunities in Latvia and other front line states.
- Most importantly we should not waiver for our support for the independence of Latvia or any of the Baltic states.