When I was lobbying for Latviaâ€™s independence in the late 1980â€™s, I used to tell Washington politicians that the Soviet and Nazi occupations of Latvia were just a brief 50-year interruption in the history of the Latvian Republic. When Latviaâ€™s independence was restored in 1991, I had the honour of joining one Latvian state institution that had indeed continued to function uninterrupted since 1918. A new exhibit at the Latvian Foreign Ministry shows just how this Ministry both survived and renewed itself when Latvia restored its independence 20 years ago.
This 92-year long track record was made possible during the years of occupation by Latviaâ€™s diplomats in exile, most notably Dr. Anatols Dinbergs, who maintained Latviaâ€™s de jure status in London and Washington, D.C., for half a century. That is a story in and of itself. But the Foreign Ministryâ€™s new exhibit focuses on the years of 1990 â€“ 1991, when a new generation of inexperienced but decidedly determined diplomats in RÄ«ga began to rebuild Latviaâ€™s diplomatic corps and re-establish Latviaâ€™s foreign relations with the rest of the world.
Actually, the re-establishment of the independent Republic of Latviaâ€™s Ministry of Foreign Affairs began in May 1990, 15 months before Latviaâ€™s independence was â€œre-recognizedâ€ internationally. Following the May 4, 1990 Supreme Council vote to restore independence, a new government was formed under the leadership of Prime Minister Ivars Godmanis. With the choice of JÄnis JurkÄns as the new Foreign Minister, the â€œoldâ€ Foreign Ministry began to reconstitute itself.
The young men and women who assumed diplomatic duties at the small but eclectically elegant building at Pils street 11 in RÄ«gaâ€™s Old Town had no formal training and no ties to the former Soviet regime that had previously occupied the building. They had a few old typewriters, some telephones of questionable reliability and a telex machine that enabled them to make limited contact with the outside world. What they didnâ€™t lack was dedication, patriotism and a fierce commitment to learn the nuts and bolts of their newly assumed diplomatic craft.
The exhibit in the vestibule of the Foreign Ministry displays some of those phones, as well as other seemingly ancient artefacts from 20 years ago, including passports, diplomatic notes, photographs and other ministry memorabilia. You can see the Ministryâ€™s first â€œmobileâ€ phone, a bulky Panasonic that was the size of a small toolbox and weighed several kilos.
The remarkable thing is that while the glass cases reveal the stuff of the past, many of the people who used that stuff are still with the Ministry today. In fact, Latviaâ€™s last two Foreign Ministers, Aivis Ronis and MÄris RiekstiÅ†Å¡, both began their careers in those early years. So did Latviaâ€™s present Defence Minister Imants LieÄ£is.
Fresh-faced foreign service officers like MÄrtiÅ†Å¡ Virsis, Ints Upmacis, Ivars Pundurs, Alberts Sarkanis, Argita Daudze, Normans Penke, Aivars Vovers, and Atis SjanÄ«tis, who were opening embassies and establishing diplomatic contacts in the early 90â€™s, are today experienced elder statesmen with ambassador rank in Latviaâ€™s diplomatic corps. If it seems like Anita Prince, BonifÄcijs DaukÅ¡ts, KlÄvs Sniedze and IrÄ“na PutniÅ†a have been with the Foreign Ministry forever, youâ€™re probably right. (For anyone under the age of 20 today, that is forever.)
Sandra Kalniete was the Ministryâ€™s first Chief of Protocol, went on to become Ambassador, Foreign Minister, and EU Commissioner, and today serves as a member of the European Parliament.
One of the glass cases displays Foreign Minister JurkÄnsâ€™ first diplomatic passport with the number 00003 (Number 00001 was given to Popular Front leader Dainis ÄªvÄns, 00002 to the Chairman of the Supreme Council Anatolijs Gorbunovs, and 00004 to Prime Minister Ivars Godmanis). The blanks for these original diplomatic passports had to be shipped to RÄ«ga from the Latvian Legation in Washington, D.C., where they had been safeguarded for half a century.
In his recollections as the first Foreign Minister of the renewed ministry, JÄnis JurkÄns also gives generous credit to Latviaâ€™s leading exile organisation, the World Federation of Free Latvians, and its leaders, GunÄrs Meierovics, JÄnis Ritenis, and Egils Levits. They not only helped their RÄ«ga colleagues with the re-establishment of the diplomatic corps and sundry legal documents, but also went on to become ministers in ensuing Latvian governments. The stately conference room next to the Ministryâ€™s vestibule is named after GunÄrs Meierovicsâ€™ father, Latviaâ€™s first Foreign Minister ZigfrÄ«ds Anna Meierovics.
The exhibit includes a 52-minute documentary film called â€œThe Renewersâ€, which focuses on the recollections and life stories of 16 individuals who played key roles in re-establishing the work of the Foreign Ministry in 1990/1991. But thatâ€™s only a tribute to the last 20 years. The rest of the story, Iâ€™m happy to say, is to be continued.