July-August 2022 Articles

Shaping Democracy in the Shadow of the Past

H.E. Māris Selga
Ambassador of the Republic of Latvia to the United States of America

The modern history of Latvia can be told in the story of two flags – the flag of independent Latvia first officially adopted on November 18, 1918, when the Versailles Treaties ending World War I recognized the independence of the Baltic states from Russia, and the flag of the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic a fully integrated component of the Soviet Union from 1944-1990.  Though representing essentially the same territory, the two flags represent dramatically different conceptions of the nature of the Latvian state.

The flag of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Latvia represented both the political and the geostrategic position of the Latvian SSR.  The upper portion of the of the flag was a stylized version of the flag of the Soviet Union showing the hammer and sickle – symbols of workers and farmers – and the Red Star denoting the central role of the Communist Party.  In essence the imagery was intended to underscore the reality that Latvia was an integral part of the Soviet Union.  The lower portion of the flag was a stylized image of blue water and white waves.  That imagery represented Latvia's rivers and its Baltic Sea coast, none too subtle reminders that Latvia provided a critical point of access for the USSR to the open sea.

By contrast, the flag of the independent Latvian Republic adopted in 1918, suppressed during the period of Soviet rule, and then restored on February 27, 1990 in the throes of the Soviet Union's collapse has deep roots in the history and mythos of the Latvian people.  First mentioned in the Rhymed Chronicle of Livonia in 1279 and among the oldest flags in the world, the flag design has a carmine red (a brownish almost purple red) field bisected by a narrower white band.  Legend has it that the design of the flag resulted from the blood of a fallen leader staining the white shroud on which his wounded body was laid.   In popular belief the flag has come to symbolize the resolve of the Latvian people to defend their democracy to the point of laying down their lives in that cause.

Ambassador Selga's remembrance brings that vision to life. "During the 1980s and early 1990s," he recalls, "the whole Latvian nation was trying to regain sovereignty and statehood.   Our country has chosen to be free, and our government will do anything to help that country protect itself and its independence.  Latvia's struggle for independence is an experience that cannot be forgotten."

Reflecting further, he adds, "Democracy in Latvia is probably the best result of all the goals we have fought for.  Renewed independence was our initial goal, but beyond that it was critical to us to develop, nurture and protect a democratic system of government that aligned itself with the other liberal democratic states of Europe."

But, Ambassador Selga observes, young people do not have the emotional scars resulting from Soviet dominance that their parents and grandparents bear.  "The younger generations have been born in a Latvia that is politically a free country.  They can see the photos of our independence movement and visit museums that tell that story.  Their grandparents can recount their memories of that time.  It is good that the younger generation honors history, but it is also important that they focus on sustaining Latvia's way forward toward democracy."

His career reflects that commitment.  Immediately prior to being posted to Washington, Ambassador Selga served as Latvia's Ambassador to the People's Republic of China.  Earlier he served as Latvia's first resident Ambassador in the Arab Republic of Egypt with concurrent appointments as non-resident Ambassador to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan and to the United Arab Emirates.  He has also served as Observer in the League of Arab States and the African Union and served in Latvia's embassies in Denmark and the United States.  His experiences within Latvia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs range from serving as Counselor at the Policy Planning Group and as Counselor for Security Issues to Heading the America's Division to Director General of the Counselor and Diplomatic Facilities Directorate.

This year (2022), Latvia and the United States celebrate one hundred years of diplomatic relations, an unbroken continuity made possible by the fact that the United States never recognized the legitimacy of the forcible incorporation of Latvia into the Soviet Union early in World War II.  Under this formula diplomatic relations between the United States and Latvia were never severed and representatives of the interwar Latvian republic remained in the U.S. with diplomatic status throughout the Cold War decades.

This Centennial celebration has become especially noteworthy in the face of the Russian Federation's invasion of Ukraine and the potential threat of similar incursions into Latvia and the other Baltic states.  These events have forced a reexamination of European security issues and heightened the importance of strengthening transatlantic relations.  What the calendar marks as an anniversary has become a regional security necessity.

Ambassador Selga was kind enough to make time to reflect with Diplomatic Connections on his career, his country's foreign policy concerns and relationships with major powers, and the future of Europe's security architecture.

Diplomatic Connections:   The Baltic states – Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania – are small states that have played an important symbolic role in Cold War history and the evolving diplomacy of the post-Soviet world.  Your country moved from independence post-World War I, to "captive nation" status under Soviet occupation, to renewed independence and emergent democracy following the implosion of the Soviet system in 1991.  How does Latvia seek to move from a symbolic diplomatic player to a more active role in regional and global diplomacy?

Ambassador Selga:  The Baltic states are small but exceptional countries, not just because of our long-term struggle for independence but also because as the Soviet Union crumbled during the 1980s and 1990s we reclaimed our sovereignty and worked to reestablish a place for ourselves in the international system and in Europe.  
Latvia has used the tools of diplomacy, both political and economic, to pursue three goals:  establish and maintain our national security and territorial integrity; grow our national economy in ways that are both sustainable and suited for the 21st century; and build effective political space within the European region and its coordinating institutions, notably the European Union and NATO.  We are also members of the United Nations, and we seek to play an active role in nurturing the rule of law and in translating the core elements of the UN Charter into our work.

Diplomatic Connections:   What was the impact of growing up as a student and citizen in the Soviet Socialist Republic of Latvia on your education?   What was your personal experience of Latvia's transition to political independence and the transition to democracy?

Ambassador Selga:  I finished high school and started university in a Latvia that was part of the Soviet Union.  Despite all the negative aspects of Soviet governance, it is nevertheless true that it was possible for students to receive high quality education.  Inevitably, some aspects of that education were filtered through Russian historical lenses and Communist ideology.  What we were lacking during the Soviet period was freedom of choice.  It was required that students should follow the Soviet prescribed curriculum for their course of study, and courses dealing with party political ideology were required of all students regardless of their specific field of study.  There were no chances to study abroad or do international internships.
Once Latvia regained independence, there was still a great deal of work to be done to establish a government, restore our constitution, and put a system of governing on a day-to-day basis. Latvians can be proud of the way the members of the international community backed our country in these efforts and the way in which Latvia has taken its place in the international community.

Diplomatic Connections:   What factors drew you to a career in diplomacy?  You entered Latvia's foreign service in 1994 as your country wrestled with its transition to independence and redefining its relationship with Russia.  How did those factors (and others) shape your diplomatic training?

Ambassador Selga:  In many ways a diplomatic career was not in my plans.  I started my career in a completely different field.  I am a historian by education.  But, I started my career as a public servant in the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Environmental Protection and Regional Development.   I was dealing with foreign affairs issues while working on agricultural issues, environmental questions and economic development programs.  I received the invitation to enter the foreign service and accepted it in 1994.
With regard to diplomatic training in Latvia, we had the opportunity to attend various types of training outside the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  The United States, Austria, Germany, for example, all invited our diplomats to attend training courses at their dedicated diplomatic training institutes.  In many ways Latvia's diplomatic corps has been trained on-the-job more than in formal classrooms settings.  There is no diplomatic academy in Latvia, so we base our knowledge of diplomacy on education, mid-career training opportunities, and practical experience. 
We are very young as a state, and we are learning by doing.  No matter how much formal academic training is done, the world always looks different in practice.  It is also true that the world changes dramatically in the course of a career.  The issues we are dealing with today – the environment, global pandemics, cybersecurity, a new focus on the Arctic, sustainable energy – are quite different from the issues that were at the forefront of Latvian diplomacy when my career began.

Diplomatic Connections:   What were the most important learning experiences early in your career?

Ambassador Selga:  When I joined the foreign service in the early 1990s it was an interesting time because we were speaking quite intensely with Russia about the withdrawal of Russia's forces from Latvia.  That was one of my first tasks working at the Foreign Ministry.
Perhaps my most important learning experience was opening the first Latvian embassy in Cairo, Egypt.  The staff and I had to start from scratch by learning everything we could on the ground – about the country, about the leadership, about the priorities that had been set for the country by its leaders, about the economy, about their national security concerns, about their relations with neighboring countries.  That taught me how to gather, process, assimilate and apply vast amounts of information quickly.  Those skills have served me well throughout my career.

Diplomatic Connections:   In recent weeks Latvia's Prime Minister has said that Russia must lose in Ukraine.  Recent weeks have seen renewed Russian attacks across a widening area of Ukraine.  How far should the United States, the EU and NATO go to resist Putin's armed attacks – often on civilian targets – in Ukraine?  Growing amounts of equipment are being sent to Ukraine.  Should consideration be given to sending troops? Would that risk expanding a regional war into a more internationalized conflict?

Ambassador Selga:  We must recognize that Ukraine is fighting for its independence and at the same time Ukraine is fighting for the values of liberal democracy and for the peace and security of all of Europe.  There is a great deal at stake in Ukraine and the potential threat presented by a Russian "victory" there, however that might be defined, presents a real and present danger to the Baltic states, which share a lengthy border with Russia.  That same threat confronts the states of Central Europe that were once a part of the Soviet sphere of influence.
We also have all the global consequences that are caused by Russia's war, notably energy and food shortages that have spillover effects around the world.  Only "winning" the war against Russia in Ukraine will allow us to solve these problems completely.  The question that confronts NATO is how to help Ukraine survive the war, win the war and rebuild its infrastructure as well as its economy.  All of that presents a tremendous drain on resources for states large and small alike.

Diplomatic Connections:  How then should NATO move further to assist Ukraine in resisting revanchist claims and Putin's apparent vision of reestablishing a renewed Russian sphere of influence?

Ambassador Selga:  The Russian war on Ukraine with its indiscriminate attacks on civilian targets and its treatment of the Ukrainian population also confronts the international community with the reality of serious violations of human rights and possible war crimes.  Evidence of Russia's actions in Ukraine is being gathered and specific events documented.  The principles involved are detailed in the documents of the international community, notably in the covenants on human rights, but the question will be whether international institutions can stand-up to this onslaught of violations, determine responsibility and hold those responsible accountable. 
We have to be able to help the Ukrainian people.  We have to think about how to bring this war to an end.  We have to protect Ukraine's future security. And, we have to prepare for the reconstruction of the country.  As my Prime Minister said: we need Russia to lose.  Or, perhaps much better to say: we need Ukraine to win.  It is a dilemma in which we are all involved.

Diplomatic Connections:  Russia's invasion of Ukraine has dramatically changed the shape of European diplomacy.  How have these events reshaped Latvia's relationship with Russia?  What might a "new" European Security architecture look like?

Ambassador Selga:  It would be in the interests of Latvia to have a strong and democratic Russia as our neighbor. Before the 2014 invasion of Crimea, our economic and trade relations with Russia were at an all-time high. Unfortunately, Putin does not wish to see a free and democratic Russia. Before the war in Ukraine, Latvia had a very realistic outlook about Putin's intentions and the threat he poses, but this outlook was not shared by many of our European allies. Right now, all of Europe sees that we were right. Unfortunately, "I told you so" does not hold satisfaction when we are faced with the suffering of Ukrainian people. We must continue to do everything in our power to support Ukraine, including by providing weapons.

Diplomatic Connections:   You undertook your role as Ambassador to the United States in September 2019 and much has changed in the intervening years – the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Covid-19 pandemic, and severe challenges to global supply chains.  What do you see as the most important issues in Latvia's relationship with the United States?

Ambassador Selga:  The task of the embassy is always to help to promote bilateral relations between two countries, and that process may take many different forms.  The core mission of the Latvian embassy can be summed up in one word said three times – security, Security and SECURITY.  Our cooperation with the United States and NATO in terms of our own security and that of the Baltic region is vital.  Investments, especially foreign investment in Latvia, are another priority.  Investors seek a safe place to base their business.  They seek not safety in a physical sense but also safety in predictable policies that will stabilize on-going business conditions and provide a solid return on investment.
When Latvia drafted its first foreign policy back in 1995 we thought in two terms: the security of our nation and its people, which meant joining NATO; and, economic security, which meant joining the European Union and the OECD.  It was important to create a stable market that could provide the goods and services the Latvian people needed, offer good working conditions and stable incomes to our workers, encourage foreign investment to help fuel growth, and underwrite a social security system that could provide both medical care and a social safety net to our people.

Diplomatic Connections:  Latvia currently hosts a NATO "Enhanced Forward Presence Battle Group" and has repeatedly requested a greater and more permanent presence of U.S. troops on the ground in Latvia.  What is the importance of such troops being based in Latvia?  What would their presence gain for your country?

Ambassador Selga:  Permanent presence of U.S. troops on the ground in Latvia would send a clear message to Russia that not an inch of NATO territory will be ceded. The U.S. flag is the one Russia fears the most, and we believe deterrence is the best approach. Permanent U.S. presence would be the best deterrent.

Diplomatic Connections:  Prior to assuming your duties in Washington, D.C. you served as Latvia's Ambassador to China.  How would you describe the diplomatic relationship between Latvia and China?  How do you see China's evolving role on the world stage, especially its relationship with the other two great powers – Russia and the United States?

Ambassador Selga:  For a small country, like Latvia, dealing with a very large power like China we had an exceptionally solid relationship.  On an economic basis we had strong trade relations despite the dramatic difference in the relative size of the two economies.  On a political basis regarding human rights and other issues the two countries had differences, but these were balanced against a strong trade relationship between the business communities on both sides.
When I left in the summer of 2019 the situation was different from what it is today.  Latvia is a participant in China's Belt and Road Initiative, and there has been Chinese interest in Riga as a transportation hub giving access to Scandinavia, primarily by rail but also potentially with a rail/sea link.  Now, we have to consider security issues regarding technical aspects of 5G telecommunications systems as well as questions of China's relationship with Russia.  There are also Covid-19 issues related to China regarding the economic impact of its zero Covid and related shut down policies as they impact both global trade and China's domestic economy.
A significant topic for Latvia and China right now is cultural exchanges and people-to-people relationships.  There certainly is an interest from both sides on building and sustaining links between the two countries.  We hope, of course, that the Chinese government will make the best possible decisions regarding Ukraine's return to full sovereignty and territorial integrity. This would follow China's own policies that regard statehood and sovereignty as critical to maintaining peace and security.

Diplomatic Connections:  Russia is reducing or cutting off energy supplies to key areas of Europe.  As a result many European states are now seeking to reduce their dependence on Russian energy supplies.  Latvia is now in the process of exploring the possibility to develop an LNG import capability within its borders.  Lithuania and Estonia have similar facilities.  Can the Baltic countries achieve the needed diversification of energy supplies?

Ambassador Selga:  Latvia has been importing gas from Russia, but our government has taken the decision to stop natural gas imports from Russia with the goal of energy independence by 2033.  That means that Latvia is looking for ways to diversify supplies.  Part of the difficulty is dealing with the different modes of transportation involved.  Natural gas pipelines are most convenient, but LNG is shipped in specialized tankers.  Latvia has underground storage for natural gas which can be refilled during the summer months and drawn down during the colder months. 
Many of the European countries have also taken the decision to distance themselves from Russian suppliers.  But, energy diversification is a long term project.  It cannot happen overnight in response to immediate political situations.  We are seeing something approaching the weaponization of energy supplies as Russia uses the Nordstream pipelines as a lever of power in hopes of weakening support for Ukraine while Europe and the United States are seeking to reduce their dependence on Russian energy.
Interestingly, a relatively new word has made its way into the vocabulary of energy and other resources.  Rather than energy independence or economic self-sufficiency countries are talking about developing energy resilience, meaning the ability to incur shortages in one area of the supply chain but have enough "resilience" to bounce back and fill the resource gaps from other areas of supply.  In essence we are talking about the need to develop redundant sources of supply that are fungible, interchangeable.

Diplomatic Connections:  How is Latvia dealing with the situation of the Latgale region near the eastern border with Russia?  Roughly 25% of the population there is of ethnic Russian heritage and there is also a strong presence of the Orthodox Church.  Is there a concern that Putin might play a "Latgale card" by coming to the aid of ethnic Russians in your county - a tactic he has already employed in Ukraine?

Ambassador Selga:  Russia has always tried to use disinformation and propaganda to influence public opinion, especially among people who understand the Russian language. In response to this, we invest heavily in media literacy campaigns and efforts to combat disinformation.  Latvian citizens, no matter what their ethnicity may be, all enjoy the benefits of living in a free and democratic European country – this is something that Putin cannot provide to his own citizens, much less the citizens of other countries.
At the end of the day, people will choose freedom and democracy over oppression. Finally, Putin may try to use disinformation to say that some part of Latvia's population needs Russia to "come to their aid," but the security provided by NATO and U.S. presence will serve as the deterrent.

Diplomatic Connections:  Should there be a war crimes tribunal established to deal with the range of alleged war crimes that have been committed during the war in Ukraine?  Could international law be effectively applied in this case?

Ambassador Selga:  The blatant use of force by Russia against a sovereign state in violation of international law is an unprecedented threat to the rules-based international system. Latvia has already engaged in several legal mechanisms to address the mass atrocities committed by Russia in Ukraine. We collect and analyze evidence of the crimes committed. Latvia supports the work of the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, which investigates war crimes and crimes against humanity in Ukraine. A legal gap remains to ensure that crimes of aggression are properly investigated and that aggressors are prosecuted. It's important for the global community to work together to bridge this gap and find new solutions

Diplomatic Connections:   Imagine that, based on your years of diplomatic experience, you are asked to address the new entering class of Latvian diplomats beginning their professional training.  What insights would you offer them?

Ambassador Selga:  I would remind them that diplomats must always be learning.  It is important to learn the basics during training, but the deepest learning occurs when a diplomat actually begins to carry out diplomacy, even at the most basic level.
It is necessary to keep in mind that these young diplomats are already very well educated.  They need practice in acting diplomatically.  First, it is vital to understand that you are representing your country, in this case Latvia, not yourself.  Your country has interests and it is those interests that must shape diplomatic interactions.  There is certainly room for analysis and insight, but those ideas are to be shared with your foreign ministry in conversations that shape policy direction.  They are not generally the stuff of communication between diplomats representing other countries.
Practical communication between countries is not always easy because countries have different and often competing, even conflicting interests.  It is necessary for young diplomats to learn how to deliver a message.  And, often enough, the substance of that message can be uncomfortable.
The cornerstone of a diplomat's career-long training is to be persistently curious and to keep learning from experience – your own direct experience and the experience of other's hard learned lessons.  Sharing the knowledge gained with other diplomats is the reciprocal dimension of that persistent curiosity.

Diplomatic Connections:   Thank you Ambassador Selga for sharing your country's point of view and for offering the acuity of your wide-ranging diplomatic experience.

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