Alan L. Dessoff
May 20, 2008
Ninety years after its founding and 17 years after it was reborn as a free and independent country, the Republic of Latvia is proud of the advances it has made in the global community and the place it occupies in contemporary world affairs. After experiencing domination through much of the 20th century, first by Nazi Germany and then by the Soviet Union, and losing a third of its population, Latvia has reestablished itself as a modern and democratic nation that seeks to promote its political stability, economic opportunities and rich cultural traditions to the rest of the world.
The territory known today as Latvia has been inhabited since 9000 BC and became famous as a trading crossroads. The early Baltic peoples who arrived in the first half of 2000 BC are the forefathers of the Latvian people. Because of its strategic geographic location on the eastern shore of the Baltic Sea, Latvian territory frequently was invaded by neighboring nations, largely defining the fate of the land and its people even after Latvia initially proclaimed its independence in 1918.
Now, as a member of the United Nations and the easternmost member of NATO and the European Union, Latvia is presenting a new face to the world and is recognized as an important and strategic player in political and economic affairs in Europe and beyond.
The face of Latvia today is represented in the United States by Ambassador Andrejs Pildegovics, who began his career as a civil servant and advanced through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to become foreign policy advisor to the previous President, Vaira Vike-Freiberga, and then Chief of Staff in the Chancery of the President before being accredited in his current post in July 2007.
Pildegovics was educated in international affairs, at the University of St. Petersburg, where he studied Chinese history and language, then in Chinese language studies at the Beijing Foreign Languages Institute. He spent a year in diplomatic studies at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and two years in the foreign service program at Oxford University.
Now, at 36, Pildegovics represents Latvia in a world capital that is vitally important to his country’s continued development and international standing. That was demonstrated recently by the visit of Latvia’s new president Valdis Zatlers’ on his first official visit to the U.S. in April.
Zatlers met with President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and senior Congressional leaders. He held a news conference at the National Press Club, addressed the Heritage Foundation, visited Arlington National Cemetery and the Victims of Communism Memorial, and was honored at a reception that Pildegovics hosted at the Latvian Embassy. Zatlers concluded his week-long U.S. visit with a trip to Cleveland, Ohio, in a part of the country that is home to many Americans of Latvian heritage.
“It was an extremely important visit for,” Pildegovics says. “The history of the 20th century was not kind to my country. The United States has been of paramount importance in helping us restore our independence and preserve our freedom and democracy. We are proud to be allies and close partners of the United States and one reason for our President’s visit was to celebrate this partnership as we celebrate the 17th anniversary of our statehood.”
Another reason, he continues, was to forge further dialogue and cooperation between the two countries. “We don’t want to rest on the laurels of previous accomplishments. We have new priorities and challenges and we would like to address them together,” Pildegovics says.
One priority is to remove visa requirements for Latvia and other Baltic countries that Pildegovics characterizes as a “remnant from the past, the Cold War” and an “artificial barrier” to further contacts and visits between the two countries.
Another objective is to solidify economic interaction with the U.S. “in areas where we are compatible” like energy production and conservation. “We see the U.S. as a pioneer in technology and expertise and we wish to have as much collaboration as possible,” Pildegovics declares.
Tourism is a growing sector of Latvia’s economy and Latvia would like to welcome more visitors from the U.S. There currently is one direct flight between Riga and New York and “it is just a matter of time until we have more,” he says.
Latvia also presents attractive investment opportunities for U.S. and other foreign businesses, Pildegovics asserts. “The time is really ripe for quantitative and qualitative leaps forward in this respect in the most advanced areas of our service-oriented economy,” he says, citing banking in particular and noting that banking and other “significant U.S. business players” are already active in the Baltic region.
Other Latvian industries that present good investment opportunities include telecommunications — “the Baltics in general are quite advanced in this ”— as well as chemicals and forest products. “Half of our country is covered by forests and given the new technologies, we are anxious to do more on the value-added side of the production chain,” Pildegovics says.
“When I first arrived in the U.S. in 1995, most people I met didn’t now about the Baltic countries or Latvia specifically,” Pildegovics states. “Now it’s a different ball game. We are small players but we play in the big leagues. We are in NATO and the European Union and we are optimistic that with the attention of the U.S., there will be more growth and interaction in the Baltic region, which already is one of the most dynamic and prosperous parts of the world. “We hope that this model of development that has been so successful in Latvia will inspire other countries in the region to follow the same path. We have shown that small countries without significant deposits of gas and coal and gold can succeed and develop with significant economic growth rates.
“The democratic transformation has been remarkable and with establishment of the rule of law we have been able, to a large extent, to overcome the legacies of the totalitarian regimes, although we still are struggling in some sectors. But we have been able to create a society with active media and a vibrant NGO community and a dynamic political process with constant competition between the parties. These changes have resulted in substantial improvements in the well-being of a majority of the people, and they appreciate the changes and see the results of independence.”
Pildegovics acknowledges that Latvia’s accession to NATO and the EU “hasn’t been a free ride. It took difficult decisions.” But “we kept the goal very clear that this was the right way and we had to succeed, and now we feel very pleased that the Baltic Sea has become almost the internal EU Sea, and we are in the same boat, the same family, with our Scandinavian neighbors and Poland and Germany. Our membership in the EU and NATO has helped us, quite significantly, to develop dialogue with our neighbors and with Russia.”
Although Joseph Stalin “left a very tragic legacy in the region,” Latvia wants to develop “mutually respectful relations with the Russian people,” Pildegovics says.
He makes clear, “there is no place for complacency” in Latvia today.. “We lost too much time behind the Iron Curtain. We have to constantly modernize the foundations of our state.” He cites strengthening Latvia’s legal and education systems as internal priorities.
Notwithstanding everything Latvia is doing in its modern age, it also wants to retain its rich cultural and language traditions, Pildegovics says. A key one is music, including a national song festival; “Latvian Song Festival” first held in 1873 and featuring massed choir concerts. Even during the Soviet period, “when there was little room for expression of national identity,” Latvians managed to retain that tradition and “now we would like to pass it to our children,” Pildegovics says.
The summer of 2008 presents an opportunity to do that when the festival, which takes place every five years, and is held again in Riga, the capital. It will feature thousands of “ordinary citizens” joining together in singing songs both ancient and modern. “We are proud of this tradition and would like to showcase it to the world,” says Pildegovics, encouraging U.S. travelers to plan their vacations around the July 3-14 event.
He also hopes to bring “new bright stars” from Latvia to the U.S. in the years ahead, noting that Latvian athletes already play in the National Basketball Association and National Hockey League. Meanwhile, the Embassy displayed Latvian art at a “Passport DC” festival in May when EU countries opened their embassies to showcase their cultures.
With his wife and three children, Pildegovics is happy and comfortable in Washington. “To be ambassador here is a big privilege and absolute pleasure,” he says.. “I am enjoying every minute.”