Written for the July 2002 NATO Candidate’s Summit in Riga.

Since restoring independence in 1991 Latvia has had three parliamentary elections and nine governments, all of whom have pursued the same foreign policy objectives. Two of these objectives, membership in NATO and the EU, were logical steps in Latvia’s goal of re-integration into Europe. The third, establishing normal relations with Russia, appeared  more elusive, especially in light of Moscow’s long-standing objection to NATO enlargement.

As the November 2002 NATO Summit in Prague approaches, however, indications are that Latvia may at last be able to reconcile the heretofore conflicting elements in its foreign policy priorities. The prospects of getting an invitation to the join the Transatlantic Alliance have never been better, and Russia’s objections, while still formally in place, have receded against the backdrop of a growing co-operation between an expanding NATO and a pragmatic Russia. Informed diplomats are saying that Moscow has all but conceded that the Baltic countries of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia will become NATO members.

While at first glance, Latvia’s membership in NATO may appear to be a foreign policy defeat for Russia, it could in fact turn into a political and economic advantage. Latvia’s bustling ports and growing international trade and financial centre in Riga have always attracted Russian businessmen seeking broader contacts with the West. Peter the Great absorbed Latvia’s strategic coastal territory on the Baltic Sea in the 18th century in order to provide the Russian empire with a ‘Window to the West’. Under Soviet rule, Latvia was one of the most Western oriented Soviet-ruled republics and a major outlet for Soviet exports to the West. The strategic Latvian port of Ventspils, now the busiest in the Baltic Sea, was developed by Moscow to serve as the end point of Russia’s northern oil pipeline, and still delivers up to 11% of Russia’s oil exports to the West.

Many believe that  Russia’s strained political relations with Latvia since 1991 were in part the result of a policy designed to keep Latvia out of NATO and within the Russian sphere of political and economic influence. Latvia’s steady move toward EU membership, close ties with the United States and vigorous campaign to join NATO may force Moscow to finally adjust its policy from confrontation to co-operation. Ironically, Latvia’s membership in NATO and the EU may in fact improve Latvia’s relationship with Russia and allow it to finally achieve all three of its foreign policy goals.

Russia has always been concerned with its security, especially along its eastern border with China and southern borders with predominantly Islamic states. As Russia develops a partnership with NATO, NATO countries become Russia’s friendliest and most predictable neighbours. With Latvia and Estonia joining Norway as Russia’s NATO border countries to the West, Russia’s ‘Window to the West’(including neutral Finland) becomes a reliable region of  political stability, economic prosperity and cross-border co-operation.

Preparation for NATO membership has benefited Latvia in ways that reach beyond military factors. Implementing NATO standardisation and interoperability requirements, as well as learning a common language, procedures and tactics, has enabled Latvia to actively participate in multinational exercises, peacekeeping and Partnership for Peace programs. Latvian forces have participated in peacekeeping operations in Bosnia and Kosovo, and are developing specialised forces that are tailored for NATO’s activities in regional conflict resolution and anti-terrorism.

As Latvia’s economy grows and trade relations expand with Europe and Russia, Latvia’s role as the ‘Baltic middleman’ between East and West gives NATO membership a new meaning. Latvia’s active part in an integrated campaign against international terrorism becomes essential since Riga’s growing international profile means Latvia shares risks as well a opportunities with other EU members. Within NATO, Latvia will be better positioned to share intelligence, exchange information and participate in co-ordinated security enhancing programs.

Latvia’s commitment to defence and security has grown with its economy. The costings of Latvia’s Force Structure are resource based and the Latvian Government has raised defence spending by over 60%, to 1.75% of the GDP in 2002. This figure will reach 2% in 2003. Military interoperability with the Alliance has been the main priority – in particular, the Baltic Air Surveillance System (BALTNET), which places Latvia at the centre of NATO air surveillance systems in the Baltic Sea region.

Latvia’s new position atop the list of candidate states makes it an ideal setting for the last NATO candidates’ summit scheduled for this July 5 and 6 in Riga. Nine prime ministers and three presidents will participate in the ‘Riga 2002’ Summit, aptly named, ‘The Bridge to Prague.’