Security of Latvia: Historical Parallels and Current And Future Challenges

Foreign Minister of Latvia Dr.Valdis Birkavs


I would like to give the Latvian point of view on the regional security landscape during a period when the most important determinants of the regional security equation, namely NATO, the European Union, and Russia, are in the process of redefining their future roles and missions. I will begin by sharing some learning experiences from our recent history, then outline our vision of the challenges of the regional European security landscape, and finally discuss Latvia's contribution to collective security and our current and future responsibilities.


We have all been so impressed by the changes of the last five years that we have forgotten that one thing has not changed: we remain prisoners of geography. Located on the border between the East and the West, Latvia has always sought to be part of the West while being pressed to be part of the East or a transitional zone. Though at the convergence point of two different cultures and systems of order, Latvia and the other Baltic States clearly realize that they are and always have been part of Europe.

At the crossroads of Eastern and Western interests, Latvia has witnessed numerous wars on our land. We have also seen two very different worlds face each other on our borders: worlds that encompass Western democracy and Eastern authoritarianism, European rationalism and Byzantine mysticism, market economy and communism, German cultural heritage and Slavic tradition. These conflicting concepts explain much of Latvia's history. Now, in the new world order, we no longer wish to be caught in a turmoil of contradictions or to act as a buffer zone. As always, we seek to be an integral part of the West, as well as a friendly partner with our Eastern neighbors in their efforts to build a solid relationship with the West.

It is only natural that Latvia join NATO and the European Union since we share the values, legal system, religion, democracy, and culture of the member-nations. We are ready to take on the full risks, costs, and responsibilities of membership. Yet it has been more difficult for Latvia to return to the European fold than it was to leave it in 1940. During critical periods of history, the economic, political, and security interests of major powers have prevailed in certain security decisions over the sense of shared values.

During 1918 and again in 1991, the Baltic people triumphed through self-determination efforts. But in 1939 and 1945, decisions concerning our future were made without our participation. All four dates show, however, that we were and are an essential part of the European security strategy because these dates were times when the European map was redrawn. At Yalta, the Great Powers decided the fate of the Baltics and Central Europe without taking into account the wishes of these countries and their people. Indeed, at Yalta, the Baltic States seem not to have been specifically mentioned. Our fate was decided through omission, not commission. For Baltic and Central European states, our ability to decide our own future was destroyed.

Now, as we make new post-Cold War determinations, Latvia prays, "Make no decisions about us without us, without our participation and our consent." We welcome the West's statement that the new security construction, the work of its architects and carpenters, will be transparent and known to all. No blueprint will be kept confidential. Yet, we must be actively involved in European security dialogue and participate in this dialogue as an integral part of the Western community.

Another experience we have learned from is the past lack of Baltic-wide cooperation. During the inter-war years, jealousy and pride often stood in the way of close cooperation among the Baltic States. But now we have learned that this is to our detriment. Security and defense are the fields in which Baltic cooperation is currently most visible. Coordination between the nascent defense forces began even before our return to independence in 1991 and has developed steadily ever since. All three states now have the same foreign and security policy objectives and all three Presidents recently reaffirmed that the Baltic countries will take the required steps toward joining NATO and the EU not in competition with each other but together. We now strive for Partnership for integration instead of unhealthy competition.


With the new European security environment, direct large-scale military threats have been replaced by more complex challenges. While Latvia faces no immediate military confrontation, we still must deal with the legacy of the Soviet Empire in our security environment. In Latvia there is crime and corruption. There is an illicit flow of funds, not necessarily to the Baltics but through the Baltics. In the immediate vicinity of our borders there is also the possibility of political insecurity and economic instability. Eastern natural or man-made disasters Chernobyl can cause refugee flows to move westward toward us.

To counter these problems, we intend to make the Baltic area secure in cooperation with our neighbors. We will participate Baltic crisis management, air space control, and information and intelligence sharing. We will also make a very strong and concerted effort to establish safe borders in concert with an intense fight against crime. Latvia and the other Baltic States will place themselves in a position where they cannot be accused of being exporters of trouble.

Security can no longer be viewed as an exclusively military matter, and it will not be achieved by pointing guns at each other. Of course, the military component of security will remain and we will not ignore it. But we believe that security is no longer gained by confrontation, threat, or the use of military force.

Security must be posited on three essential elements: democracy and human rights; a free market economy; and a defense-oriented military capability. Our security concept is stability-oriented, not threat-oriented, as is our aspiration to be integrated with the Atlantic Alliance.

Integration with NATO and EU

The most acute security problem Latvia now faces is being left out of the real--not theoretical--NATO enlargement process. Such a development could create a serious potential for destabilization in Northern Europe. The main arguments against inviting Baltic States to join the Alliance are connected with or derived from the strong Russian opposition to enlargement and to Russia's sensitivities regarding the so-called Near Abroad.

This opposition is based on the assumption that NATO enlargement is directed against Russia, though NATO has continually stated that enlargement is not directed against any country.

But would not the exclusion of the Baltics during the first stage of enlargement be an indirect acknowledgment that NATO enlargement is--at least to some extent--directed against Russia? And would the Baltic governments be able to explain to their people that in one case NATO enlargement to Russia's borders is seen as an enlargement of the zone of stability in Europe but in another case a move that unnecessarily irritates or provokes Russia?

Our feeling is that in Western countries there is growing recognition that instability in the Baltic region could directly threaten the security of Europe as a whole. Provocation against the Baltic States would place NATO in an extremely difficult political situation.

We are therefore happy to see that an intensive process to find solutions to the Baltic security dilemma, of which this Workshop is a part, has started. Many ideas have already been discussed, including:

Some of these ideas have already been rejected, both in Baltic and Nordic countries. This is because the experience of recent years clearly proves that there is no consensus on security and defense issues among major European nations, there is no effective crisis management without NATO and the United States, and there is no surplus of security in Northern Europe, no financial resources, and no historical preconditions for a subregional security arrangement.

I would like to stress, however, that Nordic-Baltic security cooperation has been and remains extremely valuable. The Baltic Battalion could not have been established and trained without assistance from the Nordic countries; this assistance has enhanced regional security. Still, regional cooperation cannot be a substitute for full membership in NATO. Neither can membership in the European Union.

Although the process of integration into the EU leads to a certain increase in our security--let us call it deterrence through integration--the Union remains basically an economic community whose perspectives on security and defense policy remain unclear. We see our integration into both the EU and NATO as mutually reinforcing and complementing components of one process, and feel that uncertainties in one of these components could slow down the entire development.

There are indications that our friends in the West are coming to the conclusion that the only possible Baltic strategy is one aimed at full integration of the Baltic States into the Atlantic Alliance. Substituting or compensating for non-admission cannot be acceptable. And such a Baltic strategy should be elaborated before answering the questions of the who and when of NATO enlargement.

Postponement of such integration or a halfway solution would create a gray zone that could become an area of misunderstanding leading to conflict. Hesitation and vacillation will increase the scale of the Baltic problem. However, the Baltics should not be a part of the problem but part of the solution.

Relations with Russia

One of the most important factors in our security environment is Russia. Internal developments there as well as the dynamics of our bilateral relations are vitally important to stability in Latvia. Despite the fact that Latvia and Russia have quite different visions of the future European security architecture, we believe our relations with the present Russian government are developing in a really positive direction. We also believe that the results of the first round of Presidential elections are a hopeful sign that reforms in Russia will be continued and that they will lead not to restoration but to democracy.

I would like to strongly emphasize that we do not see our membership in NATO as a means to create a new Iron Curtain on our eastern border. We also do not consider it as a means to strengthen our position in any imaginable disputes with Russia. As a fully integrated member of the Europe-Atlantic community, Latvia, with its unique history and citizenry, will be a strong facilitator of East-West dialogue.


Latvia supports the premise that one should not enjoy--or consume--security without participating in producing it. Therefore we have begun to make a modest contribution to international peace. In Bosnia, a Latvian platoon has been integrated into the Danish Battalion within the U.S.-led 1st Armored Division. With an eye on future membership in NATO, our participation in IFOR will give our forces invaluable experience operating within an integrated NATO military structure.

Our most successful contribution to European security to date, which is also an example of Baltic cooperation, is the formation and training of the Baltic Peacekeeping Battalion (BALTBAT). Later this year we plan to have the Latvian BALTBAT company participate in IFOR within the Swedish Battalion.

During this year, Latvia also plans to participate in 8 Partnership for Peace exercises and 19 military study programs. In July we will host Baltic Challenge `96, the first field exercise on Latvian territory in which forces from a NATO country will participate. United States Marines and soldiers from the three Baltic countries will train together at the BALTBAT training area in Adazi. This undertaking not only demonstrates the United States' commitment to Baltic security, but also projects stability across the northeastern region of Europe. From the very beginning Latvia's participation in the PFP program has been aimed at developing the necessary conditions for our integration into NATO. In this context we attach great importance to participation in the PFP Planning and Review Process.

Now at the eve of answering the who and the when of enlargement, we also feel it is of crucial importance to develop new forms of PFP cooperation with Partner countries who have expressed their desire to join the Alliance. We are carefully considering proposals that emphasize cooperation between Partners and regional NATO commands and the establishment of PFP offices in Partner countries that are working toward Alliance membership. Such proposals would enhance PFP activities aimed at Partners' integration into NATO and help to focus on specific security needs in particular countries and regions. We also welcome Latvia's early integration into NATO planning.


The security concerns of Latvia and the Baltic region require a consistent, comprehensive strategy to resolve them. Latvia is ready to engage in the work that will create such a strategy. Given what is at stake, we are also ready to begin implementing the strategy--the sooner the better. With such a strategy in place, we will be able to look ahead to the future with optimism.

Go to top of page
Return to Warsaw '96
Return to Home Page