Articles - November 2018


A Conversation with Ambassador Andris Teikmanis
By Roland Flamini

They know a thing or two about fake news in Latvia, the small Baltic state where a continuous media war is being waged between Russia’s state-controlled press and Latvian news outlets. The Russians keep up a barrage of propaganda to which the Latvians respond with denials, corrections, and the true facts. Favorite Moscow subjects include Latvia’s membership of the European Union – a fatal error, according to the Russians, that has ruined Latvia’s economy – Latvian mistaken membership of NATO, when only Russia can offer real protection, and Latvia’s misguided alignment with the West. Latvia freed itself from nearly half a century of Soviet control in 1988, but still has the largest ethnic Russian minority in the Baltic (a quarter of the 2 million total population). Most of them were forced to settle there by the Soviet regime. However, Latvian Ambassador Andris Teikmanis told Diplomatic Connections in an interview that Russians in Latvia know they are materially better off than they would be under Moscow’s control, and show no signs of unrest.

Like Estonians and Lithuanians, Latvians have put their faith in membership of both NATO and the European Union to protect them from their Russian neighbor. For what it’s worth, Russia has formally denied that it would ever attack a NATO country. In April 2018, the presidents of the three Baltic states marked their 100th year as independent states with a visit to Washington and a summit meeting with President Trump and other top administration officials. The trio were warmly received at the White House in part because all three countries are among the handful of NATO member countries in compliance with Trump’s insistence that all countries in the Atlantic alliance meet the recommended goal of spending 2 percent of their GDP on defense. Ambassador Teikmanis said the Baltic states had received assurances of the U.S. commitment to Article 5 of the NATO treaty which guarantees that the alliance will support any member state that is under attack. He pointed out that under its Enhanced Forward Presence program, NATO deploys a battalion-size multi-national battle group in each of the Baltic states and in Poland.

Diplomatic Connections: What is your assessment of the Baltic summit in Washington in April 2018, where your president and his counterparts from Lithuania and Estonia met with President Trump and other members of the administration?

Ambassador Teikmanis: For the Baltic states the summit was the political event of the year. It had a symbolic meaning: it took place in the year of centennial, and it reiterated the long-lasting relationship between the Baltic states and the United States. A hundred years ago, the U.S. offered quite extensive help to the young Baltic states. At the summit, we spent quite some time preparing a common declaration, which stressed the cooperation between the United States and the Baltic states in security policy, but also put an emphasis on economic cooperation, educational programs, and media projects. What was unique in this summit was the cooperation of the Baltic nations, and that’s what we are doing quite regularly – doing things together. This started thirty years ago with the independence movement in 1988, and it has proved a really serious and efficient cooperation.

Diplomatic Connections: In the run-up to the summit, President Vejonis of Latvia said that the Baltic states “expected a very strong political message from the U.S. expressing support for strengthening Baltic security, and expressing once again support for the independence of the Baltic states.” In your view, did the Baltic states get what they wanted?

Ambassador Teikmanis: They did. The common declaration is being implemented, and this year the U.S. Congress endorsed $170 million in additional funding for Baltic security and defense issues, which is quite an amount. Cooperation is closer. Latvia is purchasing a few more (Sikorsky UH60) Black Hawk helicopters.

Diplomatic Connections: There is a certain amount of skepticism elsewhere in Europe about the current administration’s commitment to Article 5 of the NATO treaty, which guarantees support to any NATO nation that comes under attack. You don’t share that skepticism?

Ambassador Teikmanis: We’ve had many discussions about the role of NATO, before the American elections and after. But aside from the discussions, NATO has also made some recent decisions. The alliance has been very consistent in its decisions to strengthen European security, efficiency, chain of command, and cooperation between NATO countries, and carrying out programs like the Enhanced Forward Presence. It was a solid NATO decision that deployed NATO troops in the Baltic states. In Latvia, the leading country is Canada; in Estonia, it’s the UK; in Poland, it’s the U.S.; in Lithuania, Germany is the leading country. And that’s something real: NATO boots on the ground is a real guarantee of regional security for the Baltic states, and a proper response to all the challenges coming from Russia.

Diplomatic Connections: The Enhanced Forward Presence is a combined force, is it not?

Ambassador Teikmanis: Besides Canada, there are forces from seven NATO countries represented, including Spanish, Italian, Slovak, Polish and Hungarian.

Diplomatic Connections: With reference to the security threat, isn’t 30 percent of the population of Latvia ethnic Russian?

Ambassador Teikmanis: Well, 25-26 percent is ethnic Russian, but we don’t consider this minority as a potential threat.

Diplomatic Connections: One thinks of Ukraine in a more or less similar situation with a large ethnic Russian minority…

Ambassador Teikmanis: Absolutely not similar. The situation is quite different.

Diplomatic Connections: How is it different?

Ambassador Teikmanis: First, we have a remarkable understanding between different ethnic groups in Latvia, and we’ve never had any kind of conflict situations with the Russian minority. We have quite a lot of minorities, and all the (religious) confessions, and they are living very, very peacefully together. The level of wealth (of ethnic Russians) is quite a bit higher than in Russia, and people know it. Pensions are higher than in Russia, and so are wages, and people have no wish to seek protection from Mr. Putin because they understand they can lose a lot. At the same time, they feel secure because Latvia is a member of NATO and of the European Union and is very distant from the Russian agenda.

Diplomatic Connections: So in what way does Russian pressure on Latvia manifest itself?

Ambassador Teikmanis: The pressure is continuous, and we are aware of all kinds of hybrid Russian activities, including through its traditional media. We know it, and we are prepared for it. It doesn’t get them anywhere. Newspapers, television, wide use of social media, different kinds of bots – they are all used to spreading disinformation, fake news. They use news agencies located in Latvia and receive direct instructions from Moscow on what kind of narrative to put out. One familiar theme is that the Baltic states are failed countries; the decision to join the European Union was the biggest mistake and their economies are in a free fall. The decision to join NATO was another error because only Russia can defend and give security to the Baltic states. Our own journalists are doing a remarkable job of uncovering the mechanism – how the news is being prepared and disseminated, who are the sources. With the October elections, the Russian activity increased. We have good contacts with FaceBook and other social media to be able to react quickly to Russian fake news. Our experience shows the importance of critical thinking and education.

Diplomatic Connections: In other words, there’s a continued media war being raged between the Latvian media and Russian propaganda.

Ambassador Teikmanis: Yes, and it’s really ongoing. But in terms of security, we are safe. We are safe for our development, we are safe for investment, we are safe for doing business, because we’re NATO members and we know that Russia respects borderlines separating NATO territory and Russian territory. Every meter of our common border with Russia is very clearly marked, and it’s safe.

Diplomatic Connections: Given that the Russians bombard you with propaganda, what is the state of bi-lateral relations with Moscow?

Ambassador Teikmanis: Relations with Russia go up and down; they have been warmer, and not so warm. The Russians have regular surveys to determine who are Russia’s enemies, and the Baltic neighbors are constantly near the top of the list. The countries keep changing, you can be a friend, and then an enemy. Ukraine is now one of the biggest Russian enemies. The United States is permanently among the top places. When I was Latvian ambassador to Moscow, there was a survey in which 49 percent of Russians believed Latvia was an enemy, but now it’s about 33 percent. I don’t think this reflects real public sentiment; people may be influenced by Russian media, particularly Russian television, depending on what is happening or not happening at the time. But otherwise, we are very much interested to maintain and develop a relationship with Russia, and it depends on Russian policy, on security issues. At the same time, we’re trying to maintain an economic relationship, but that’s influenced by sanctions and counter-sanction regimes. The sanctions regime has had an impact on our trade with Russia, but it’s about 8 percent of foreign trade. Our imports from Russia are basically oil and gas.

Diplomatic Connections: You depend on Russia for oil and gas?

Ambassador Teikmanis: Not so much on oil. Our oil imports are more market oriented. For many decades Russia has been the single natural gas supplier, but now that’s over. We’re working together with our Baltic neighbors on gas pipeline projects with Estonia and Finland, and with Poland, there’s an LNG terminal in Lithuania. So Russia is not our only supplier. And that’s what the European Union’s energy policy means – more inter-connection, more diversity, more market orientation.

Diplomatic Connections: Crossing the Atlantic, how would you characterize Latvia's bi-lateral relationship with the United States?

Ambassador Teikmanis: It’s very strong, and I would predict that it will remain that way. We rely on the United States as our strongest partner in security policy, in defense policy. This embassy is working to increase our economic relationship - at the Baltic Summit, we also had a Baltic-U.S. business forum in Washington, and there will be a follow-up business forum at the end of November.

Diplomatic Connections: What are the numbers of U.S.-Latvian trade?

Ambassador Teikmanis: In goods and services close to $100 million, and I think we have room to grow. Investments are going in both directions: Americans are investing in Latvia, but Latvians are also investing in the United States. Two years ago, I visited quite a big production site of a Latvian print company in North Carolina, called Printful, with some 200 employees. It now has a second production site in California. I was also present at the inauguration of the Valmiera Glass Group’s new fiberglass factory in Dublin, Georgia, a Latvian company with U.S. space and aviation contracts.

Diplomatic Connections: And presumably there’s a Latvian diaspora with which you are in contact.

Ambassador Teikmanis: Very much so. They count around 100,000 Latvians in America, mostly post-war refugees who came to the U.S. in the late 1940s and the 1950s. They are centered here in Washington, in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago. They are well organized, very active and they maintain very strong links to Latvia as well.

Diplomatic Connections: If the 2003 referendum in Latvia to join the European Union were held today, what do you think would be the result – more people wanting to join the EU, or less?

Ambassador Teikmanis: It’s quite difficult to predict. I would definitely say that the majority would endorse EU membership, although Latvians are habitually very critical of everything, starting with their own government. They’re always critical of the European Union, but in the (2003) referendum two-thirds voted for membership. It’s really difficult to say whether there would be a higher percentage, or less. But with all the criticism and all the discussions about the developments within the EU, and the constant predictions of the end of the union, the deepening integration of the European Union has been ongoing. Latvia is also a signatory of the Schengen Agreement (removing border restrictions), so a whole generation of Latvians has grown up not having to take note of borders between European Union countries.

Diplomatic Connections: No Brexit effect in Latvia?

Ambassador Teikmanis: Well, Brexit is an issue for the European Union, although there are so many unanswered questions about the consequences of Brexit, and still a lot of opposition within the United Kingdom itself.

Diplomatic Connections: How is Brexit going to affect Latvia, both in terms of its bi-lateral relations with Britain, and its posture within the European Union?

Ambassador Teikmanis: It certainly has political implications. The United Kingdom has always been the strongest promoter within the European Union of free markets, open markets, (advocating) the abolishing of any kind of barriers and promoting trade with the rest of the world. The Brits were supporters of a common European security. Of course, they will remain NATO members, and European security is based on NATO. Today, we have discussions about a European army and European defense, but I think it’s impossible. At the same time, the European Union can do things that NATO cannot. For instance, the European Union can promote European military mobility: that’s what we don’t have today.

Diplomatic Connections: What’s different about Latvia from its Baltic neighbors?

Ambassador Teikmanis: There is a commonality of language with Lithuanians. With Estonians, we have common history: in medieval times were both part of Livonia. We have common traditions like song festivals: all three nations share a unique Baltic experience going back 150 years of holding huge song festivals. There are also a lot of common co-operation projects between all three nations. At the same time, we are separate countries and we are in permanent competition with each other, although there are some issues on which they should cooperate, such as tax issues. Why? If the taxation is more favorable in Estonia, then Latvian companies will move to Estonia, and vice-versa. We compete in soccer; we don’t compete in ice hockey. Only Latvians are scoring better and always in the finals against other nations. We compete very strongly in basketball.

Diplomatic Connections: Unusual for a career foreign ambassador, this is your first Washington posting. So what advice would you have for incoming ambassadors about how to operate in Washington, D.C.?

Ambassador Teikmanis: I would tell them U.S. government departments are very big, and that it’s much easier for a foreign ambassador in Latvia or Lithuania to approach a government minister than it is to approach a U.S. cabinet secretary. But we ambassadors have intensive contacts with the State Department, and our American colleagues in Washington are very professional and good at maintaining communication. Political thinking proliferates, and the density of top quality think tanks is probably the highest of any capital. And, of course, I will tell them that to know the country and its people, go out of the Beltway as many times as possible. Because Washington is not America, and doing business in America requires a lot of travel.

Diplomatic Connections: Mr. Ambassador, on behalf of Diplomatic Connections, thank you for your valuable time and thoughtful observations.

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