Central Europe Review: politics, society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 2, No 5
7 February 2000

Ambassador Ojars Kalnins T H E   A M B E R   C O A S T:
A Chat with Latvia's Image-maker
Mel Huang

Central Europe Review was privileged to be able to chat with Ambassador Ojārs Kalniņš, the new director of the Latvian Institute. The long-time Latvian ambassador to the United States brings his vast experience in diplomacy and public relations to his new post and home in Riga, with the ultimate goal of promoting Latvia's image abroad.

Central Europe Review (CER): Ambassador Kalniņš, as you can see from the press, Latvia's reputation often takes a beating internationally - especially when the complicated history of Latvia is involved. With the current interest in the Konrāds Kalējs case [see this author's article from 10 January 2000], tell us how Latvia can improve its international reputation - especially with respect to these historical cases.

Ambassador Ojārs Kalniņš (OK): The Kalējs case reminds us that in any European country that was part of the Holocaust, there are two issues that must be dealt with. The first is legal and is the responsibility of the current government and judicial system of that country. If an individual is suspected of having committed crimes against humanity, and a country has evidence that can bring that person to justice, it must do so. The second is historical, and it is the responsibility of society as a whole to deal with this history openly and honestly.

Latvia is doing both. Over the last nine years, the Latvian government has worked closely with the US Justice Department's Office of Special Investigations to gather information about Holocaust-related crimes that occurred on Latvian soil. President Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga and the Latvian Prosecutor [General] have invited prosecutors from various countries to attend a conference in Riga in February to pool information about the Kalējs case.

In terms of history, former President Guntis Ulmanis initiated the creation of a History Commission in 1998, and President Vīķe-Freiberga is continuing this work. This commission includes historians from Latvia, Germany, Israel, the United States and other countries. It is hoped that the work of this commission will help set the record straight on what happened in Latvia during the Nazi Occupation, when over 90,000 Jews were murdered.

I think the Latvian government can do several things to improve Latvia's reputation on Holocaust-related issues. It can provide more funding to the Historical Commission so that it can do its job properly. It can also use the results of this commission's work to ensure that the Latvian educational system (courses, textbooks) properly reflects the facts and circumstances of the Holocaust. I also believe that the Latvian government should directly support the Jews in Latvia museum in Riga. This is an important part of our national heritage and should be given the resources, funding and respect it deserves.

CER: As the Latvian Institute is geared to promote Latvia's image, what initial steps have you taken as the new director? On which areas will you focus your attention?

OK: ...Our goal is to create a comprehensive database of information about Latvia, which can be made available to as many people in as many languages as possible. Unfortunately our staff is small and we were given only one-third of our requested budget. Thus, part of my job is to build support and awareness of the Institute within Latvia, so that we can increase our funding base. I need to develop a long-term strategic plan. If I can demonstrate to the government, Parliament, private sector and society at large what the Institute is capable of doing, and can convince them why it is necessary, we will get the funding and resources we need to make it happen.

Second, until we get those resources we must make use of the Internet and other aspects of the new information technology to get maximum "bang for the buck."

Third, we must establish a network of contacts, experts and partners both inside and outside Latvia, who can help us both create and disseminate this information.

...Before I start introducing new ideas, I need to do my homework. That means talking to as many people as possible, visiting all the cities and regions of Latvia and learning what is being done and determining how it can be done better.

CER: The image of Latvia in the West is very important for PR purposes, as well as for integration into the EU and NATO. However, it seems that very little emphasis has been placed on improving Latvia's image eastward. Do you think Latvia's image can be improved in Russia, despite the occasional threats of sanctions and more?

OK: This image can be improved, but it is a much more complex task because of history. Misperceptions about Latvia in the West are largely due to a lack of information. That is something we can change from Latvia by doing a better job of presenting ourselves, our culture, our history and our values. Misperceptions about Latvia in Russia [however] are often the result of deliberate Russian politics. Latvia has made every effort to present itself to Russia as a friendly and cooperative neighbor and will continue to do so. I believe that the Russian people would welcome closer ties to Latvia if the political leadership in Moscow encouraged it.

CER: Some also argue that Latvia's international image is too focused on Riga. Do you also see the potential of promoting the various regions of Latvia?

OK: Absolutely. One of my goals as LI director is to visit all the cities and regions of Latvia and establish close working relationships with them... The regions outside of Riga are the cradle of our ancient culture. This is where our traditions, values, songs, festivals and folklore began and where they continue to thrive today. We need to promote tourism and investment in these regions, but we also must be careful to preserve the qualities that make them so unique.

CER: You succeed Vaira Vike-Freiberga as the director of the Latvian Institute. Do you think you will succeed her again in the future (in her presidential post)? Do you even have a desire to enter politics, perhaps like your old colleague Toomas Hendrik Ilves in Estonia (former Estonian ambassador to Washington, currently foreign minister)?

OK: I have no desire whatsoever to enter politics. I believe I can be a greater value to Latvia in my present position... It allows me to work "above the fray" with various parties and politicians, as well as government and private institutions, in pursuing common national interests. I'd rather work behind the scenes than on center stage. It gives me greater flexibility and the freedom to work and think creatively. My goal is to make the Latvian Institute one of the most respected, influential and effective institutions in Latvia. To accomplish this, the Latvian Institute needs consistent, stable and long-term leadership. Latvia has a new generation of very talented young men and women who are eminently qualified to fill the political slots, and by the time there is a new parliamentary or presidential election, there will be many good candidates.

CER: Going briefly to your former post, you've recently completed your second consecutive term as Latvia's ambassador to the United States. Comparing the day you first took the office and the day you said goodbye to your staff, what are some of the biggest and most significant moments that you can recall? Any regrets?

OK: During my seven years as Latvia's ambassador to the US, I'd single out three events: 1) US support in guaranteeing the complete Russian troop withdrawal from Latvia (including the demolition of the Skrunda facility), 2) President Clinton's visit to Riga on 6 July 1994, and 3) the signing of the US-Baltic Partnership Charter in January 1998. My biggest regret is that we didn't do more to promote US investments in Latvia and Latvian exports to the US. (Aldaris beer began arriving in the United States just as I was leaving!)

CER: You have been a strong proponent of Baltic co-operation and unity. However, as Estonia seeks to link up with Finland and the Nordics and Lithuania moves towards Poland and Central Europe, where does Latvia go?

OK: If Estonia is closer to Finland and Lithuania is closer to Poland, Latvia must be closer to the rest of the world. Latvia, with its world-class capital of Riga and three major ports, is ideally suited to become a regional and international center for trade, commerce, finance and tourism. This has always been Latvia's historical role and it is one we must continue to develop in the 21st century.

CER: Then what happens to Baltic co-operation? Do you see a future in that, even if the EU's border temporarily splits the region into two?

OK: Good neighbors make good friends, and friends need to cooperate. Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia have separate national, cultural and political identities, as well as differing economic strategies, and it is natural that we pursue them. However, we do share common security and political interests (integration into Europe, membership in the EU and NATO, a joint "Partnership Charter" with the United States). Wherever possible we should combine resources to achieve these common goals.

In the United States and elsewhere, there is still a tendency to identify us as "Baltic states." This is a positive perception, and we should not squander it by announcing that this perception is no longer relevant. There are many areas where the joint efforts of our governments and the combined lobbying effect of our diplomats and nationals abroad (especially in the US) can be very effective. We fought for our independence together after the First World War, suffered through 50 years of occupation together and restored that independence together (there is yet to be anything in modern history to compare with the Baltic Way human chain in 1989). It is in our national interests to continue this cooperation wherever possible.

Interview conducted by Mel Huang between 30 and 31 January 2000.

Related Links:

The Latvian Institute

Embassy of Latvia, Washington

Latvian Foreign Ministry

Archive of Mel Huang's Amber Coast articles




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