Latvia: Today and Tomorrow
Introduction In this feature, Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga talks about the journey Latvia has taken since the collapse of the Iron Curtain: from being an impoverished, isolated outpost to its current position as a nation built upon the foundations of free elections, genuinely democratic political institutions, and a respect for private property and the free market. She emphasises her determination to return Latvia to the bosom of the extended family of European nations, with western democratic values and the concept of a civil society.
Latvia's current position, as well as its aspirations for the future, have been made possible by the end of the Cold War. The end of this protracted stand-off barely a decade ago was met with euphoria all across Europe. The Iron Curtain, which had been arbitrarily separating Latvia and the other central and eastern European nations from their western neighbours, was finally lifted.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the former communist bloc countries could resume their status as sovereign states and independent political entities. Given at last the opportunity to make their own choices, they have opted firmly in favour of western democratic values and the concept of a civil society. Armed with the determination to reassume their rightful place in an extended family of European nations, they have been working hard to rebuild their economies and to restructure their social systems.
The common values that our countries hold, rest on a solid core of immutable, fundamental principles: free elections and genuinely democratic political institutions; respect for private property and the existence of a free-market economy; respect for human rights, and the primacy of the rule of law. These principles are the foundation upon which we wish to build, in order to create a family of secure, stable and prosperous nations that will eventually encompass the entire European continent.
The realisation of such a monumental endeavour will require a high degree of integration on a European scale, and will involve a number of mutually reinforcing processes. These are the components of the European Union's future identity, the continuation of the European Union's enlargement and the expansion of Europe's stable space.
Yet in other aspects of our daily lives, it seems that Heraclitus' dictum Panta rhei or "Nothing endures but change," remains as appropriate a motto for our post-modern age as it was in pre-Socratic Greece. The need to be competitive on a global scale, along with the challenges posed by the influx of a large number of new member states, are among the external pressures that the EU will have to undergo in the twenty-first century. While these pressures have contributed to the need for change, the EU's own internal dynamics have reached a stage that requires new answers on the future of this international organisation.
Clearly, the EU we enter will differ from the one we know at present. Given the difficulties of arriving at a rapid agreement on some very fundamental issues, we believe that certain aspects of the EU's reform should be decided upon at a later stage. This would provide an opportunity for acceding member states to participate in shaping the future of the Union. In this respect, we strongly support Prime Minister Blair's proposal that the new EU member states participate in the next EU parliamentary elections in 2004, and that they obtain seats at the next Intergovernmental Conference. Latvia will be ready to assume its place among these countries.
Whatever model is chosen for the future EU, the equality of the Union's member states must be ensured, and the creation of a two-tiered Europe must be avoided. Greater flexibility and enhanced co-operation, based on openness and non-exclusion, are the key words for success in this respect. If positive change is to be implemented, then the citizens of all European countries must feel that their voices are being heard.
For the EU candidate countries, enlargement means more than fulfilling the accession criteria set up by the Union. It also means growth, development, prosperity and security. Each of the candidate countries has already implemented enormous political, economic and social changes over the past 10 years, in an effort to contribute to the welfare and stability of Europe as a whole. Sometimes these changes have come at a great social cost, but we see this as an investment in our common future.
We are ready, willing and able to proceed ahead at a rapid pace. Our aim is to conclude accession negotiations by the end of 2002 at the latest, when we will have adopted the Acquis communautaire and will be prepared to implement it fully. This date coincides with the EU's target date for accepting the first new member states. Latvia hopes to be among the first candidate countries to join the EU. There is only one precondition remaining in order for Latvia's accession negotiations to be concluded by the target date. All the remaining chapters of negotiation should be opened for discussion when Sweden assumes the presidency of the EU.
Stability and reconstruction
One important task and challenge is the stabilisation and reconstruction of south-eastern Europe, and its integration into the European mainstream. I am pleased that the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia has begun negotiations on a stabilisation and an Association Agreement with the EU. Croatia is about to start this process, and Albania has expressed its wish to do so. Bosnia and Herzegovina is on its way to becoming a member of the Council of Europe.
We recently witnessed an historic event--the people of Yugoslavia brought down Slobodan Milosevic's regime, thus making very clear their choice for democracy and freedom. We hope that a comprehensive democratisation process will take hold in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, eventually leading to that country's close relationship with the European and transatlantic communities. We should all provide every possible form of assistance to facilitate Yugoslavia's entry into the European community of democratic and free nation nations.
In 1999, Latvia welcomed the Helsinki Council decision to grant Turkey the status of an EU candidate country. We look forward to Turkey's progress in the European integration process. No less important is the EU's relationship with Russia, a major co-operation partner in the Baltic Sea region. Dialogue, co-operation and engagement are imperative. We welcome the EU's constructive approach through the development of a Common EU Strategy towards Russia. Simultaneously, we look forward to Russia's commitment to European values in deeds as well as words.
Latvia sees accession to both the EU and NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) as its highest priorities. These should be viewed as parallel processes, or as flip sides of a single coin. We see membership in these two organisations as being mutually complementary, and as the best means for ensuring our full involvement in European and transatlantic affairs. We have been realistic in setting targets, dates and in ensuring the necessary human and financial resources to achieve them.
Latvia, along with its neighbours Estonia and Lithuania, has taken advantage of its relatively small size, as well as the fact that the three Baltic States did not inherit Soviet-style military forces and equipment. This meant, of course, that we had to start from zero and build from the ground up. But this allowed us to achieve quick progress, and today the three Baltic countries can serve as a positive example of transformation and co-operation. Together, we have implemented common Baltic defence projects, participated in NATO-led peace operations, and educated a large number of soldiers and officers with a good command of English.
We are steadily increasing our defence expenditures from year to year, with the firm commitment to reaching 2 percent of the GDP (Gross Domestic Product) by the year 2003. This is the average level of defence spending among the current NATO member states. This is the level that will help us to attain the necessary NATO interoperability requirements and self-defence capabilities.
The leading role played by the UK and France in the establishment of a European military force, and in ensuring better crisis-management capacities, is undisputed. There is no doubt that Europe must be able to act quickly in order to deal with crises on the continent. Latvia supports the EU's Headline Goal and is ready to contribute in a concrete and operational manner to the EU's crisis-management capabilities. At the same time, it is evident that we cannot afford either duplication or misuse of resources. In Latvia's case, our contribution will consist mainly of units assigned to NATO-led peacekeeping operations. We believe that closer co-operation among the Baltic and Nordic countries to attain the EU's Headline Goal could prove as useful as has been the case with NATO-led operations.
We are also
convinced that the transatlantic link should be strengthened simultaneously
with the development of a greater European ability to take care of itself.
Europe should continue working together with the United States and Canada
to address and solve security challenges. As Prime Minister Blair has
correctly pointed out, the UK's excellent military relations with the
US can serve to the benefit of Europe as a whole.
This branch in Latvia, as well as in neighbouring Estonia and Lithuania, is developing quickly due to an educational system strong in the sciences and in mathematics. More than 120,000 qualified information-technology experts are working in the Baltics. The largest IT development company in Central and Eastern Europe, with more than 450 full-time software developers, is Latvian. Another company founded on Latvian scientific and hi-tech know-how is exporting all of its optic fibres for use in sophisticated laser equipment.
The transit trade is another profitable and promising branch of activity. Latvia's advantageous geographical location and fully developed infrastructure have made transit one of the most attractive sectors for investment. Within the field of natural resources, wood production and processing is proving to be a major income earner. In addition to its vast forests of high-grade timber, Latvia is endowed with a highly qualified and relatively inexpensive labour force. Latvian wood exports to the UK make up 10 percent of the entire British wood market.
Against the background of Latvia's successful economic development, we are fully aware that social concerns, such as the promotion of common values, cultural pluralism and diversity must not be neglected. Our government has undertaken a major project--the elaboration of a national programme for the integration of society in Latvia.
At present, state-financed secondary education in Latvia is available in eight minority languages--Estonian, Lithuanian, Polish, Hebrew, Roma, Ukrainian, Russian and Belarussian. Our national integration programme has been subject to broad public debate. This debate has mobilised a number of NGOs (Non-Governmental Organisations) and ultimately strengthened the role of civil society in Latvia's decision-making processes.
Latvia is ready to share the lessons it has learned in its transition process with other countries undergoing similar changes. Although there are no universal solutions or quick-fix recipes, we are sure that our lessons might be of use to other countries. We are already sharing our European-integration experience with Ukraine, and are preparing to do so with Georgia. We have gained a great deal from our friends and partners in Europe, and are ready to share in our accumulated experience with others. All Europeans wish to attain stability and prosperity, and we can pool our efforts to achieve these goals.
Europe--our common home--is a unique place, where so many nations with different cultural and political traditions and historical experience are learning to live together peacefully. Enlarging the fold should not be seen as endangering the advantages of what the EU members have managed to build up and achieve. Enlargement will be a source of mutual enrichment, with the cultural diversity of the European countries as a major asset for the future of the continent.
Perhaps no one has said it better than John Donne, my favourite metaphysical poet: