By Jānis Mažeiks, Ambassador, Permanent Representative of the Republic of Latvia to the United Nations in New York.
Europe is not always inspirational; it is often bureaucratic. The issues that European Union deals with are important for the people’s lives but not all of them necessarily exciting.
Yet, EU is much more than bureaucracy. European Union was built upon common values and these values are no less important than the day to day business of the EU. As the Treaty on European Union states in Article 2 and Article 3 “The Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities….The Union's aim is to promote peace, its values and the well-being of its peoples. The Union shall offer its citizens an area of freedom, security and justice without internal frontiers, in which the free movement of persons is ensured in conjunction with appropriate measures with respect to external border controls, asylum, immigration and the prevention and combating of crime. … It shall respect its rich cultural and linguistic diversity, and shall ensure that Europe's cultural heritage is safeguarded and enhanced.”
Latvia is currently presiding over the Council of the European Union. This means much more intense cooperation with our international partners who interact with the Latvian Presidency. So you might be interested - what makes the Latvian Presidency tick?
Currently in our Mission to the EU in Brussels there are 185 diplomats and experts. Their profile is as follows. Their average age is 35 years. Two thirds of them are women. They speak on average 3,6 languages, 81% have sung in a choir at a certain moment in their lives and 59% have been in at least one of the EU Eastern Partnership countries.
This profile mostly fits my own – with the exceptions of gender, slightly older age and slightly more languages - so I hope I can in a way personify the Latvian presidency and tells our collective story.
I had not seen my national flag or heard my national anthem until the age of 15. This was not because of a disability but because I was born in an occupied country. The independent Latvia was occupied by the Soviet Union in 1940, then by Nazi Germany in 1941, and by the Soviet Union again in 1944. This lasted for 50 years during which thousands of Latvian citizens were deported from Latvia or shot, it was a period when any notion of democratic governance or political rights had been reduced to a joke. And you had to be careful with the jokes too, as the wrong kind of joke could attract the attention of the KGB.
Then something amazing happened. The new Soviet leader M.Gorbachev decided that it was necessary to somewhat liberalize the Soviet system – providing for some elements of freedom in the totalitarian system.
The Latvians like Estonians and Lithuanians immediately grabbed the chance. It started with small things. At our school we wanted to get rid of the Soviet uniforms – and we succeeded. We wanted to get rid of the Soviet military education class – and we did it. This was a grassroot movement that was getting bigger and bigger so many started to call it a revolution. I was 16 and I was part of a revolution – which I thought was as cool as it gets. It was a peaceful and non-violent revolution - eventually it went down in history as the Singing Revolution – as at all demonstrations the Latvians were singing. So it is no accident that most of our diplomats sing, too.
There were two fundamental ideas behind the revolution. The first one was that Latvia had the right to regain its freedom that it had lost 50 years ago. The second one was the idea of “return to Europe”. This may not make much sense geographically as Latvia was and is part of the European continent, but it was about values – that it is the place of Latvia to be among the other democratic nations of Europe, that we shared the same history, the same culture, - and that we did not belong behind the Iron Curtain.
Initially the Soviet authorities tolerated the protest movement. After all, all we did was sing and move on with our demands. We did not throw stones; we did not know how to make Molotov cocktails. However, gradually after the series of small and then increasingly bigger victories of the independence movement, the Soviet authorities realized that this was a serious threat to the existence of the Soviet system. Threats were made to crush the freedom movement. We did not back down. In January 1991 we built barricades in the capital Riga.
If we had an unusual revolution, our barricades were unusual, too. We did not build them around military installations – after all, we had none. The barricades were built around the symbols of the nascent democracy – around the Parliament building, around the Government building, around the National Radio building and around the TV station. The men and women who had come to protect them were simple workers and farmers from all over Latvia, ready to give their lives for the country that was being reborn. They were unarmed - and they were singing in the cold January nights around huge bonfires.
The Soviet military said that the barricades made no sense and that they could be overrun easily. They were wrong. For one thing, the armies of the world are trained to shoot – but they are trained to shoot at other armies that shoot back, not at farmers, elderly ladies and young guys who sing. For the other, they did not realize that we had a powerful anti-tank weapon – a peaceful one. No army wants to use tanks against unarmed civilians when the world is watching.
The world was indeed watching. All of a sudden, Latvian Parliament was home to hundreds of Western journalists reporting from the barricades. That was the reason why I and my friends volunteered at the Press Center of the Latvian Parliament to help the Western journalists because we thought that the best guarantee to prevent bloodshed was to have Western media covering the barricades as well as they can.
Of course, we were afraid to die. But it was a moment when one cannot stay on the sidelines of events and still consider oneself an honest person. Our strategy worked. The Soviet Army did not storm the barricades. Eight men lost their lives from Soviet bullets – but this loss of life was incomparably less than the human cost that Ukraine is currently paying for its freedom.
Half a year later the Soviet Union collapsed. Latvia was free again. We had the chance to build a new country. We had no experience in state-building but we knew one thing. We wanted to do things differently from what we had lived through. We wanted to build a country that is built upon the principles of democracy, human rights and rule of law. We wanted to build a market economy. In short, we wanted to return to Europe.
This path was long for us but short in historical terms. In less than 15 years we turned a country from non-existent to an EU Member and NATO member. The accession process to the EU was technical – about different European standards, - but it was also political. We had to give up some of our illusions, some preconceptions and perhaps some of our values that would not fit in the model of European values that we were aspiring to.
Our accession and EU membership came with a price. Free movement of labour was a particularly painful for the society as no less than 10% of the population used this right to move to higher wages elsewhere in Europe. But we also saw that we had not paid this price of integration in vain. In our hour of need when Latvia was hit by economic crisis in 2008, the EU partners lent us a hand – and we have not only recovered from the crisis but are once again among the fastest growing EU members.
We do want to be a rich boring European country; we are working on that. Some of this perhaps can be seen in Latvian EU Presidency priorities – Competitive Europe, Digital Europe, and Engaged Europe. Yet at the same time we believe in the ideals that EU was built on and we work to share them beyond EU – to countries that want to share these values. It is also no accident that so many of our diplomats have been in the Eastern Partnership countries (Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia). These are countries with which we share history, who see us as a role model for their own movement towards closer cooperation with the EU. That is one reason why one of the Latvian Presidency priorities is advancing the Eastern Partnership, in particular through a Summit in Riga in May. And of course we work to support the free choice of the Ukrainian people in favor of European values.
Likewise, we strive to advance EU cooperation with the countries of Central Asia that are eager to develop closer cooperation with the European Union.
Here at the United Nations in New York we put a particular emphasis on advancing gender equality within our EU Presidency. This is a natural choice for a country with two thirds women among its diplomats, a country that has gotten used to paying less and less attention to the gender of the President, Prime Minister or the Speaker of the Parliament – as we have had or currently have women in all these positions.
If I had to summarize the Latvian perspective on Europe, it would be perhaps as follows. First, Europe is more than bureaucracy. Second, don’t take for granted the freedoms that you have – many do not have the luxury of unappreciated freedom. Third, sometimes it is worth being ready to die for your values – but better still, live for them.