The next great challenge: turning our attention eastward 0

The problem of how to deal with the strong-arm tactics of Russia’s oil-pipeline monopoly has lain bare the exceptionally soft underbelly of our nation’s foreign policy and is but a foreshadowing of the great reevaluation of priorities and policy that awaits us in the near future.

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Foto:G. Diezins

“To sell or not to sell?” That is the question. Or at least that is what our newspapers, with their almost daily coverage of the spat between Ventspils Nafta and Transneft, would have us believe. In truth, the questions and issues surrounding the current dilemma are legion and cut to the core of the identity of the Latvian State post-transition and post-integration. This situation represents a serious test of Latvia’s ability to accurately define its own national interest and then protect this interest as it deems necessary (in this instance, through the active support of its newly reaffirmed Western allies). As such, the problem of how to deal with the strong-arm tactics of Russia’s oil-pipeline monopoly has lain bare the exceptionally soft underbelly of our nation’s foreign policy and is but a foreshadowing of the great reevaluation of priorities and policy that awaits us in the near future.

At first, back in the fall, there seemed little consensus on even if, indeed, the precipitous decline in the amount of oil being shipped by Transneft through Ventspils constituted an issue worthy of government intervention. After more than a decade of hailing Latvia’s importance as a transport hub, the government claimed that our largest transport enterprise wasn’t really all that significant after all (the actual cost has recently been more accurately determined to be 200 million a year).

Everything changed with the announcement that Ventspils would not receive any oil exports for the first (and now the second) quarter of this year. Suddenly, securing the flow of oil through the Ventspils terminal was deemed a matter of national importance requiring the immediate attention of the government. The government’s response was anything but co-ordinated. In one corner of the Cabinet of Ministers, a fight broke out over who would get to negotiate with the Russians first, while from another corner a letter was hastily dispatched overseas calling on our Western benefactors for support in this, our time of need.

A threat to our nation’s interests has been identified and, for the first time, Latvia is in a position to call on those security guarantees it has spent a decade of intense labor cultivating. As one ebullient commentator put it, “A new day in Latvian diplomacy has dawned.” A new day has indeed dawned, but it is hardly the bright and secure future we had hoped for. In fact, it turns out that after more than a decade of independence, we are still dealing with the same issues of forced dependence on Russia that have plagued this land since time immemorial and have yet to find a satisfactory solution.

Yes, the support we have received from Western capitals has been compassionate and heart warming, but it is doubtful whether it will ever be more than rhetorical. In the game of oil power politics, Russia can afford to call the shots while Brussels and Washington will have to make their own utilitarian accommodations. Both the EU and the US have broad agendas with Russia that include numerous vital interests - from non-proliferation to diplomatic wrangling over the war in Iraq. In this context, it is hard to see precisely what Latvia might expect from its Western partners beyond short-term moral support. It is highly unlikely that either Western party would really be willing to expend the long-term diplomatic and political capital necessary to ensure continued Latvian ownership of Ventspils Nafta. It just isn’t in the cards.

What this present wrangling over Ventspils Nafta resoundingly demonstrates is that the Latvian State has no effective dialogue with Russia. The very absence of any such dialogue limits the set of policy options available to us in times of stress such as these and, as a result, is the single greatest immediate threat to the stability of our state. This, then, is the task facing us in the coming decade. We must strive to build a viable modus vivendi with Russia for the sake of our nation and its enduring prosperity.

Opening such a dialogue will most certainly not be easy and, ultimately, it will require the active engagement and support of both sides. As Ainars Slesers said recently, “In order to move forward, both sides must be interested in a dialogue. The government of Latvia is interested in better relations with Russia.”[1]

This should not mean, however, that we can be content to sit back and wait for a change in the prevailing winds from the east. Such apathy and lassitude are traits a state as small as ours can ill afford. Instead, we must seek to redouble our efforts and develop creative and compelling means to engage with our neighbor. This entails more than simply reciting tired old rhetoric about our interest in more friendly relations. It is time to find ways to support these words with deeds.

The growing regional cooperation between Moscow and Latvia is one good example of future possibilities. It is clear that our two countries share many economic interests and there is no doubt that the realization of these interests would serve as a suitable basis for future co-operation.

Yet, it is unlikely that any amount of economic synergy would suffice to melt the currently ice-cold line of communication between Rigas Pils and the Kremlin or their respective foreign ministries. The recent flurry of diplomatic bickering over President Freiberga’s interview with Liesma, a regional paper from Valmiera, in which she expressed the hope that Russia would “come to its senses” once Latvia joins the EU, only served to once again highlight the extreme nature of the discord between our two governments.[2]

This is one area where our partners to the West might be able to provide assistance. If it really is so difficult for our two respective governments to sit face-to-face across the table, perhaps Brussels and Washington might lend a hand. In the end, the success or failure of any initiative would depend on the two principal parties concerned, but outside mediation might be appropriate in this instance.

For over a decade, Latvia has demonstrated exceptional ability and clarity of purpose in its approach to relations with the West. The resulting success will forever stand as a testament to the intense labor of this country and its government. It is precisely this proven ability that gives hope for the future and optimism that we will triumph over the challenges ahead. If we can devote even a fraction of the attention to our relations with Russia that we have shown to those with the West, then our future will indeed be bright.

[1] “Na peregovori so Shlesersom yedet Potchinok,” Roman Goluyev, Biznes & Baltiya, March 13, 2003.

[2] “Krievijā asi reaģē uz Vīķes-Freibergas teikto par ‘nākšanu pie prāta’”, BNS, March 22, 2003.

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