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15 Mar, 2019 09:58

Baltic states are guided by Washington – 1st Latvian FM

The Baltic states have been on high alert in recent years, calling for more NATO troops to keep perceived Russian aggression at bay. Is the Moscow boogeyman image completely bogus? We ask Janis Jurkans, Latvia’s first foreign minister.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Janis Jurkans, Latvia’s former foreign minister, welcome to the show, it's great to have you with us today. Latvia's president Mr. Vejonis says that the European Union needs an effective deterrence tool against a possible Russian attack. Does he want more NATO troops on borders with Russia? Will he feel more secure in that case?

Janis Jurkans: Well, first of all, this militarisation of society's conscience is heating very high wave. Is it grounded? I don't know, I think it is not. I think this demonisation of Russia and Putin is just not a policy. As Kissinger said, it's a lack of policy. So how long will it take place? How long it will last? I don't know. But I think both sides are sick and tired of this impasse. What should happen to finish this policy against Russia? I don't know. That is a very good question because we live in a very complicated world. We don't know what will happen tomorrow and so on.

SS: So on the other hand the truth is that more NATO troops on the border will inevitably be seen as a threat to Moscow. That's like two plus two is four. What is Latvia trying to do in this case? Latvia's president - does he want to provoke Russia or make it more insecure? What is he going for? What do you think? 

JJ: Well, first all, Latvia is not a policy maker. We are policy takers - whatever common European Union's foreign policy is put forward, Latvia will follow. Will it be friendly towards Russia? No. And while as to these military issues then, of course, it's NATO's issue. And, well, Latvia to provoke Russia militarily is inconceivable. 

SS: So the Eastern EU members like the Baltic states and Poland, which have a heavy history with Russia, are the ones that are crying foul over the perceived Russian threat - meanwhile, the Western states have little beef with Moscow. Will the insecurities and historical grievances of some members of the EU be enough to pull the union into a confrontation it really doesn’t want? 

JJ: EU doesn't have military force. Germany is speaking about creating one EU army but that's not going to work. This will not work and Americans don't like it. Americans have their own vision of Europe's security. They have started creating military base in Poland, air base in Romania, Americans will not support this EU army and whatever military actions EU you will think about. I don't believe that someone in the West is seriously thinking and believing in Russia's military threat. You have to know Russia to understand that Russia doesn't need new conflicts, new wars especially with the former allies - Warsaw Pact countries and Baltic states. I'm convinced that this is just a narrative of those who are involved in military services and military guys. Yes, they have to justify the money they receive from the state budget and so on and so forth, but those who seriously analyse Russia’s economic situation and Russia's foreign policy, they realise that Russia doesn't need the war with EU countries or with NATO countries. 

SS: So you have mentioned the European army. While the Baltics are preoccupied with the Russian threat, they aren’t too happy with the idea of a European Army that’s pushed in Berlin and Paris. Why’s that, wouldn’t that be the deterrent that President called for? 

JJ: No, you know what - I think the Baltic countries and former or Eastern European countries they are looking towards Washington, and we are trying to please America Washington in all respects - in military respect, also in economic respect. When our president was in Washington he promised President Trump that we’ll start buying American gas. All these things, economic things are being politicised, and what would that mean to the country, to the Latvian economy - nobody knows today. But you know all these issues. The fact is we are looking towards Washington, not towards Brussels because we believe that Brussels is breaking up and we don't have any idea how EU will look like in a year or two in forthcoming future. 

SS: So are you saying that Latvia is more guided by Washington and Brussels? Or controlled, if you want? 

JJ: Yes, I am. Yes. It is so because if you look what weapons we have, what military advisers we have in Latvia, you will realise that we try to rely on Washington without understanding that Washington is slowly but leaving NATO and moving towards the Pacific Ocean - America's main military and economic interests lie to here, not in Europe. Trump considers that we in Europe are four times bigger population-wise than Russia. We spend in Europe four times more money on military needs than Russia does. Why should Americans be here and defend Europe which doesn't have its own character? What is Europe? 

SS: So Latvia and Estonia do not have enough military capability to defend themselves against any kind of an adversary, to be honest. Now there are alliances, treaties and such in place, but are the Baltic states really sure that the English or the French or the Americans will go to war over Riga or Tallinn? Especially in light of Trump’s treatment of NATO’s Article 5 - the clause that states attack on one is an attack on all? 

JJ: I don't think that anyone seriously believes in a possible war between NATO and Russia. I repeat myself, this is the narrative of those involved in a military sphere. But normally people realise that Russia is not about to start new conflicts in the former Soviet Union countries or Eastern bloc countries. This is just propaganda and nothing more. 

SS: So Russians comprise around a quarter of the population of Latvia, but their language has no official status and education in Russian is hard to come by - not a situation you’d expect from an EU state (isn’t it about diversity after all...) So if Latvia wants to minimise the Russian threat, why doesn’t it change the way it treats its Russian minority, to deny Moscow any kind of a pretext for any aggression? 

JJ: It's a very long story about our failure to integrate Russian speaking people into our political life. As you know we have around 300000 Russians who do not have political rights. And this is a big and serious problem. I think we have started realising that this is a problem but it's too late. I think those who have been mistreated, let's put it this way, for those almost 30 years, they treat Latvia as a stepmother because Latvia treats them as a stepmother. So I don't think that any change of policy in the nearest future could bring serious changes. 

SS: But the Russian minority is seen as potentially dangerous by Latvian government. So why not reach out to it than instead of alienating those people to make sure that they will be on your side if push comes to shove? 

JJ: Well, for this you need to understand the global situation and the situation in Russia. You have to understand more of the world, what our world will look like in a year or two. And we don't have this vision. Those people who are making politics they are just trying sort of revenge and blame the Russians calling names as occupants and strangers and, yes, many of them during all those years have become strangers to the country. But this is a lack of policy. This is a lack of understanding that we need a harmonious society to achieve prosperity and serious economic goals. Also, the country which so divided as we are is very easy to occupy if someone would want to do that. 

SS: Let's look at the besieged Nord Stream II gas pipeline, a joint venture launched by Russia and Germany. Now, the Baltics stand against it, but won’t the peace it will bring, since nobody really wants to blow up a money-making pipeline, be beneficial to the Baltic states, ensure that Russia nor EU will ever endanger this profitable project? 

JJ: Well, during all those 29 years of our independence, we have never had a shortage of gas, which we buy from Russia. Why should we be afraid that one day Russia will cut those supplies, and we’ll stay without gas? This is, again, a politicized issue because of Americans. Americans are the biggest producers of gas today, and tomorrow they will start selling their gas, and so they are interested in disrupting this project. And will they succeed? I don't know. I'm afraid they might, because Europe today, being so divided, and with all this Brexit, and all of the problems they have inside Brussels and inside the EU... Well, maybe, they might even succeed, which would be a very, very serious blow to European economy. Imagine Germany, who is selling 50% of what they produce, they're selling... It means that their products will become much more expensive, and, well, but again, this is a big story, and it's not for me to speculate on on these issues, but, of course, this again, this is a very politicized issue, and this belongs to this demonization of Russia, Putin, and this is, you know, this false understanding of the situation. They think, well, okay, Putin will not have money and he will be just kicked out of the Kremlin, and someone will come and will be very Western-friendly, and all such nonsense. Putin was friendly towards the West when he came to power in 2000, but the West didn't want to to be friendly and engage Russia in the big politics. So… 

SS: We actually have a couple of questions about that a bit later, but talking about the Nord Stream II, the Baltic states, when you think about it, except it's being under the influence of the United States, also stand to lose transit business with Russia because of the new pipeline. So... All those words about geostrategic threat, is it also really based on lost revenue? 

JJ: No, I don't think anyone thinks in those terms. Again, this is the policy that whatever comes from Russia is bad, and we have to cut all possible ties with Russia and keep standing with our back towards Russia.  So instead of using our geography as one of our main assets, we are doing the contrary, but no one has taken a paper and just started calculating what would that mean to our economy. This is not an issue today. And all those who know something about gas prices, they realize that the gas from United States, imported from from America will be much, much more expensive. What would that do to our economy? Nobody thinks about that. We want to please Americans, that's it. 

SS: So one of Baltic states intel chiefs said that Russia, and that's a quote, is highly likely to intervene in the European parliamentary elections in May. How fair is it to accuse Russia of meddling before the elections have even taken place? 

JJ: Those who claim this, do they have any proof? 

SS: I mean, how can they have proof if the elections haven’t even taken place? 

JJ: No, no, no, I mean, about elections in America and… Just all this, all this is just continuation of demonization of Russia. Whatever is going to happen, Russia will be blamed. And when will it stop, I don't know. How to stop it? I don't know. And so, this is just... You know, I'm mad over this, because this is so unfair, and this is not politically wise to aggravate situation which has not yet been aggravated. Or even if Russia wants to do that, it will do it. Russia has these capabilities. Just if you are afraid, go to Moscow and talk to Putin, say: look, please don't do that, we want to make business with you, we want to improve our relations, but stop demonizing the Russians. You will be very sorry if they turn into demons. Then we'll scream. 

SS: So one of Russia's alleged subversion weapons in the run-up to the elections are, of course, the dreaded fake news, and the EU is cracking down on those. But there are reports that some EU states make no distinction between fighting fake news and fighting Euro-sceptics. Does that mean that fake news is basically any news that you don't like? 

JJ: I don't know. It depends who is reading or listening to these news. Ok, you can believe in fake news, and you can be very sceptical about all news, and this is political life. Politicians have always been faking the truth, in all times, in all centuries, so it's just your personal problem, you believe or you don't believe, and this is it. 

SS: So you've been saying that you've been ostracized by the Latvian political circle after your meeting with Vladimir Putin in 2002 and over your frequent visits to Russia. Now, judging by your own experience, how risky is this today for a European politician to express a view that is not anti-Russian? I'm not even saying pro-Russian, but not anti-Russian. I mean, why do people who do this immediately become political outcasts?

JJ: Well again, I think this is a lack of understanding that Russia is not an ideological scarecrow, Russia is real neighbour with whom we'll have to live always, being in NATO, EU or wherever. And it's in our interests to go to Russia, to talk to Russians, and to understand them, and talk to them, and tell them what we are doing, what we are afraid of, and start normalizing relations. Let's... I would ask politicians: ok, we could have a plan on paper what we want Russia to do to improve relations, and Russia has its own shopping list. So let's start with this shopping list, and let's start improving our relations, because what would we do if EU breaks up? Ok, now we are saying, we have common European foreign policy, which is not a policy at all, so what will happen then? And I think irrespective of our membership, our diplomats have to improve dialogue and understanding between the Russians and us. There is no other way. I repeat, we will always be neighbours. And plus, you mentioned before, we have around half a million Russians living here. That should be kept in mind as well. 

SS:Well, that, and also the fact that Latvia has lost about 20% of its population after joining the European Union. And for some reason, so much focus is given to the Russian threat, when this issue could be Latvia's actual undoing. 

JJ: Yes, this is existential problem. Why people leave Latvia, it's not a political issue, it's an economic one. Because our economy lacks serious investments, and our investment... Latvia is not as investment-friendly as it should be. Latvia is slow with improving our infrastructure, and, of course, now, when there are no borders, people are free to go wherever they are paid better for the work they do. But this is, as I said at the beginning, this is an existential truth, because when we became independent in 1991, we had more than 2 million, 2.5 million inhabitants in Latvia. Now we are scarcely two million. And all these demographic figures are very, how to say it, they are very serious and scary.

SS: Alright, thank you very much for this insight and for your interview, we really appreciate you being on our show. We were talking to Janis Jurkans, Latvia’s former foreign minister, discussing the frictions between Russia and the Baltic states, and the European politics.