The Baltic Times
Talis Saule Archdeacon, RIGA
In what is regarded as a tit-for-tat move, the Russian Foreign Ministry announced on Jan. 25 that it had expelled a prominent Latvian diplomat, giving the official until Jan. 27 to leave the country. The diplomat”s identity was later revealed to be Latvian Embassy Vice-Consul Peteris Podvinskis.
Russian authorities said Podvinskis was asked to leave for “operations incompatible with his status as a diplomat and damaging to Russia”s security interests.” The move, however, is widely seen as retaliation for Latvia”s recent expulsion of Alexander Rogozhin, second secretary of the Russian Embassy in Riga, who Latvian officials said was buying state secrets.
The Latvian Foreign Ministry categorically denied that Podvinskis had acted in an inappropriate manner while on duty in Russia.
“The decision by the Russian Federation to expel Peteris Podvinskis bears no relation to his activities as a diplomat,” the ministry said in a Jan. 28 press release.
The twin expulsions are unlikely to seriously dampen Russian-Latvian relations, which have begun warming in recent months with the enactment of a long-awaited border treaty between the two countries.
“Looking at relations between the two countries, this episode has ended. The spy has been caught and expelled, and Russia has made its response steps. Russia has adequately expelled a diplomat of the same rank. It is finished,” President Valdis Zatlers said during a Jan. 28 interview with the popular television news program “900 seconds.
Russian Ambassador to Latvia Viktor Kalyuzny likewise told the press on Jan. 24 that common sense should prevent the incident from damaging overall relations.
The Latvian Foreign Ministry has announced that it will redeploy Podvinskis to another country, promising him a position in line with his extensive diplomatic experience.
Though the incident has largely petered out on an international scale, there will still be significant domestic consequences surrounding the expulsion of Rogozhin.
On Jan. 28, Interior Minister Mareks Seglins told journalists that the diplomat was expelled for buying state secrets from a number of government employees. He said the security services knew the names of the civil servants involved and they would soon be brought to justice.
Seglins said the ministry would show no leniency to government workers caught collaborating with the expelled diplomat, but that he would not make any rushed decisions before receiving a full report on the incident.
Kalyuzny insisted that the diplomat had not been involved in spying, and that Russia did not even need to conduct espionage operations within NATO countries.
“NATO knows everything about Russia, and Russia also knows about NATO,” he said. The ambassador went on to say that he is very cautious with the term “spying.”
During his television interview, however, Zatlers said the incident should serve as a clear sign to Latvian counter-espionage forces that the nation is an “attractive” place for spies.
“Riga has always been regarded as a city attractive to foreign spies, both during the period of the first independence and now, and we have to take this into account. It means that our secret services will always have a lot of work to do, and they must work very carefully and professionally,” he said.
It was the second time that Latvia has expelled a diplomat since regaining independence. The first was in 2004, when the country expelled Pyotr Urzhumov, the Russian Embassy”s first secretary, for allegedly attempting to spy on NATO institutions. Russia expelled Juris Poikans, first secretary of the Latvian embassy, in response.