Foreign Relations

Latvia Table of Contents

Establishing Foreign Relations

Prior to the declaration of renewal of Latvia's independence on May 4, 1990, several individuals were responsible for foreign affairs. Their presence in this field was wholly symbolic, however, because all decisions on foreign policy were made by government administrators and party officials in Moscow. After the May 4 declaration, a new Ministry of Foreign Affairs was established, headed by Janis Jurkans, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Popular Front of Latvia. Initially, the entire ministry, composed of a few dozen workers, was squeezed into a single house in the medieval center of Riga and had antiquated amenities and limited space.

The ministry had to start from the very beginning. Some of its personnel were sent abroad to learn the essentials of diplomatic protocol. Even the most prosaic of office equipment had to be scavenged. Initially, Jurkans was forced to deal with some holdover personnel with links to the KGB, but several of them were eased out of their jobs for incompetence and other overt transgressions. On June 19, 1990, the KGB created a furor in the republic when it arrested and expelled from Latvia (presumably with Moscow's blessing) a young Latvian-American volunteer who had provided English-language translations and other services for the ministry in dealing with foreign countries.

During this period of transition, Latvia received much help from the Latvian embassy in Washington. This embassy had been maintained as an independent outpost representing free Latvia throughout the years of Soviet occupation. It had been financed from the investments and gold deposited in the United States by the government of independent Latvia before World War II. Similar offices throughout the world offered advice and contacts with local governments. Indeed, the embassy in Washington was able to provide Minister Jurkans with about US$60,000 to further the cause of Latvia's independence, which was then the main thrust of Latvian foreign policy.

Until August 21, 1991, and the end of the Moscow putsch, Latvia was not able to convince any Western country to locate an embassy in the republic. The countries feared offending the Soviet Union and could not answer the logistical question of how to settle in Riga when all border guards at the airports and seaports were still under Soviet command. Most Western countries had not abrogated the de jure status of independent Latvia; the issue concerned purely de facto recognition. Several countries, such as Denmark, opened cultural offices in Riga, and, more important, many countries invited Minister Jurkans and Prime Minister Ivars Godmanis abroad to meet their heads of state and government and to present their arguments for Latvia's independence. Several meetings with President George H.W. Bush and other world dignitaries received wide media coverage.

An invaluable diplomat during this period of transition was the highly respected Latvian poet Janis Peters, who had been sent to Moscow to represent Latvia's interests. Peters also had many contacts and was highly regarded by the Russian intelligentsia. He was based in the prewar Latvian embassy, which had already been returned to Latvia several years earlier. A modern hotel, the Talava, had been built within its compound by Latvian communist dignitaries seeking trouble-free accommodations on their various sojourns in Moscow. The embassy building and the hotel became convenient locations for a multitude of contacts by economic, cultural, and political emissaries from Latvia.

Before August 21, 1991, Latvia's attempts to join international organizations were unsuccessful in spite of efforts by France and other countries to allow it to participate as an observer. Only at the regional level was some success achieved with the signing by Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania of the Baltic Agreement on Economic Cooperation in April 1990 and the renewal in May 1990 of the 1934 Baltic Treaty on Unity and Cooperation. At the bilateral level, Latvia and Russia under Boris N. Yeltsin signed a treaty of mutual recognition in January 1991, but this treaty was not ratified by the Russian Supreme Soviet.

After the failed Moscow putsch, Latvian independence was recognized by the Soviet Union and most countries of the world, and Latvia became a member of the UN. These events were exhilarating for Latvians, who had been under Moscow's domination for almost half a century. However, new responsibilities of representation entailed a totally new set of problems. Setting up new embassies and consulates in major Western countries required the choosing of suitable personnel from among people without previous diplomatic experience. A considerable number of ambassadors were selected from diaspora Latvians in the United States, Britain, Denmark, France, and Germany.

Financing was another major constraint. Initiatives were taken to reclaim the embassy buildings that had once belonged to independent Latvia but had been appropriated by the Soviet Union or by host governments. In some instances, cash settlements and building exchanges became the only solution.

Problems were also experienced in the opposite direction. Foreign countries wanting to establish embassies in Riga often had to scramble for suitable sites at a time when ownership and jurisdictional questions over property presented an interminable maze of inconsistent decrees and agreements. At times the Latvian cabinet had to step in to provide locations. Some of the major Western countries were able to settle into their prewar buildings. Others found new quarters or set up their offices in temporary shelters in hotels and other buildings. A great controversy erupted over the restitution of the prewar Russian embassy building, which for decades had been used for Latvian cultural and educational purposes.

Minister Jurkans spent much time traveling abroad. His distinctly liberal ideology ingratiated him with his Western hosts. In the process of representing Latvia, however, many Latvians began to feel that he was becoming too independent and did not reflect Latvia's real demands. After Jurkans's resignation in the spring of 1993, his replacement as interim minister was Georgs Andrejevs, a surgeon of Russian descent. Andrejevs joined the Latvia's Way movement and was reappointed minister of foreign affairs after the June 1993 elections. According to polling data, Andrejevs became one of the most popular politicians among ethnic Latvians, but ironically he did not find much resonance among non-Latvians living in the republic.

In June 1993, the Latvian Ministry of Foreign Affairs employed 160 people, a relatively low number, reflecting the limitations of government financing. Prewar Latvia had had 700 employees in the same ministry, and countries comparable in size to Latvia employ about 1,000 people on average.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress