#21   Mr. Ambassador

In 1937 a 26-year old Latvian diplomat named Anatols Dinbergs went to New York to serve as Vice Consul. When the Soviets occupied Latvia in 1940, Dinbergs, like most Latvian diplomats abroad, refused to return. Since the United States did not recognize the Soviet annexation of Latvia, but did recognize the Republic of Latvia that Anatols Dinbergs represented, he retained his diplomatic status in the U.S.

Dinbergs represented Latvia in the U.S. for the next 51 years. In the 1941 he joined other Latvian diplomats-in-exile at the Latvian Legation in Washington, D.C.  They all enjoyed the same diplomatic privileges and immunity that other Washington diplomats were granted, were invited to White House receptions and met with U.S. presidents. In the next 5 decades Dinbergs would meet with Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush and Clinton.

In 1970 Dinbergs became head of the Latvian Legation in Washington. Although he was similar to an ambassador, he was not called ambassador because you needed to have an embassy to have an ambassador. Since Latvia was under Soviet occupation and did not have a legal government, it could not upgrade the Legation to an Embassy. Thus, for 21 years, Dinbergs was called ‘Charges d’affaires of Latvia’ , although in practical terms, he was treated like any other ambassador in Washington.

When Latvia’s new Prime Minister Ivars Godmanis came to Washington D.C. and met with Anatols Dinbergs in July 1990, only Dinbergs represented the legal Republic of Latvia. Godmanis was head of a Soviet Latvian government still under Moscow’s de facto control. They worked together, although diplomatically they had to stand apart. On July 30th, 1990, I was with Prime Minister Ivars Godmanis and Foreign Minister Janis Jurkans when they met with President George H.W. Bush in the Oval Office of the White House. Dinbergs could not be present, because he represented one Republic of Latvia, while Godmanis represented another.

Those two republics came together a year later, on August 21, 1991, when the USSR collapsed and Latvia fully restored its independence and sovereignty. On September 2, 1991 I joined Dr. Anatol Dinbergs and crowd of TV and press reporters in his Legation office to watch President George H.W. Bush make an historic announcement from his vacation home in Kennebunkport, Maine. Bush formally recognized Latvia’s independence and restored full diplomatic ties with the new Latvian government in Riga.

Bush’s announcement effectively turned the Latvian Legation into the Latvian Embassy, and made Anatol Dinbergs an Ambassador. After 50 years of dutifully serving his state in exile, Envoy Dinbergs became Ambassador Dinbergs, Latvia’s first Ambassador to the United States.

Although Ambassador Dinbergs died in 1993, he had lived to see Latvia restore its independence, and after a 51 year interruption, was able to serve his government in Riga again. The truth is, regardless of his diplomatic status, Anatol Dinbergs had served Latvia all his life.

#22   The state of being Baltic

Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia have been known as the Baltic States for 90 years. Each of our countries has a language, culture and history of its own, yet in the world at large we are usually grouped together. We have ourselves to blame for that, because we tend to experience major historical events around the same time. We all founded our republics in 1918, we were occupied by the Soviets in 1940, restored our independence in 1991 and joined NATO and the EU in 2004.  In headlines announcing all these events, we were always identified as the Baltic States, and only later as separate countries.

In the United States, where I once lived, many people who knew nothing about Latvia, Lithuania or Estonia, knew a little bit about the Baltic States. At least they knew that they existed, somewhere up north by the Baltic Sea. Some knew we were occupied by the USSR, others knew we had singing revolutions to bring about independence.

When I began traveling around Europe after we became independent in 1991, I discovered that most Europeans knew as little about Latvia as Americans did. Europeans, like the Americans, had heard of the Baltic States, but few knew the difference between Latvia and Lithuania.  If they had heard of Riga, the probably thought it was in Estonia.

In the last 17 years since independence, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonian have become better known. We win Eurovision contests and medals in the Olympics, produce internet telephones and high tech microphones, but I suspect that a majority of people in the world still can’t tell us apart. When the Lithuanian football team played in Prague recently, the Latvian national anthem was played to welcome them. Ooops!

Latvians want to be known as Latvians, just as our neighbors want to be known as Lithuanians and Estonians, but like it or not, the world is going to keep on calling us the Baltic States. That’s what you get for making a name for yourself on the Baltic Sea.

#23   Being Latvian

Earlier this summer I was visited by a young Latvian-American man who was about to graduate from West Point. Graduating from West Point is an exclusive and prestigious accomplishment for any American, but it is especially rare for a Latvian.

Technically he’s a Latvian-American because he was born in the US, and his parents are second generation Latvian-Americans whose parents were refugees from the Second World War.  But like many of us who grew up outside of Latvia, his parents taught him the language, traditions and customs, and instilled him with a deep respect for his Latvian identity.

He was visiting me because he was doing a summer research project for the Bank of Latvia about the impact NATO has had on Latvia’s economy and society. Not much has been done on this subject, and the findings of an American-educated, West Point cadet should prove interesting.

When he graduates from West Point he will be a lieutenant in the US Army and during his next 5 years of active duty, will probably spend time in Iraq or Afghanistan. If he goes to Afghanistan he might chance to meet some soldiers in the Latvian army who are also serving in the peacekeeping forces there.  The uniforms may differ and the chain of command may lead to different capitals, but they will all be Latvians and can probably sing the same folk songs.

His interest in and respect for Latvia goes far beyond just politeness to his parents and I got the impression that years from now he would be returning to Latvia in a new role, serving in some new capacity. I hope so, because Latvia needs young men like this.  The place you were born isn’t half as important as the place you hold in your heart. From what I could tell, his heart was in the right place.