Fresh Ideas: Latvia: Behind the eight ball

Whenever I visit my aunt in Michigan, I read the Latvian newspaper Laiks (Time) which is published in the U.S. but has subscribers throughout the world. It began publishing back in the days after World War II, in the American zone refugee camp of Esslingen, Germany.

In those years, and later after everyone emigrated to America, Canada, Australia and elsewhere, Latvians felt alone, isolated, and invisible. My parents were not the only ones lamenting the fact no one knew or cared about Latvia, so they and every Latvian they knew subscribed to Laiks. Those Latvians who didn’t manage to flee Latvia and became part of the Soviet Union didn’t know Laiks existed, but today, as an independent republic, Latvians can subscribe (if they can afford it, that is).

Laiks was the newspaper one turned to to find out what really was going on in the world, especially as it related to Latvia and to Latvians worldwide. Today, as might be expected, it keeps a close eye on Russia, too.

Recently, Russia has taken action against Latvian imports, refusing to allow 20 tons of powdered milk to cross the border into Russia on grounds of “not meeting microbiological standards,” which is also the reason given for holding hostage 15.5 tons of canned sardines in a temporary storage facility in Pskov, Russia (about 55 miles from my home town). A rail shipment of 55.5 tons of fish products from Latvia and Iceland were halted at the Russian border and sent back to both countries. I assume this refusal is payback for Latvia’s support of sanctions against Russia since these complaints are new.

Latvia (and Estonia and Lithuania) have been on edge ever since President Putin annexed Crimea. Latvia, with its large ethnic Russian population , feels especially vulnerable to any aggressive action against its sovereignty. Since March and April Russian planes have flown close to the Baltic coast; there has been movement on the Baltic Sea; and a Russian helicopter base about 50 miles from the Latvian border has seen constant activity. Latvia wishes it had technology warning it of low flying aircraft, but its military budget can’t afford it.

The Latvian Minister of Defense will propose the Latvian legislature increase the military budget to ensure a constant NATO presence, and also because currently Latvia only pays 1 percent of the 2 percent NATO asks each member nation to pay of its GDP. Since there are ethnic Russians in the Latvian legislature who do NOT feel threatened by Russia, passage of a bill to increase the military budget is not a sure thing.

Although Latvia does have a small armed forces and national guard, it’s not capable of patrolling and protecting its air space. It and Estonia and Lithuania rely on NATO to do that.

The Baltic States’ and Poland’s immediate concern is Russia’s 1.2 billion Euro purchase of two (and option to buy two more) French built Mistral amphibious combat ships, each capable of carrying 16 to 20 heavy combat helicopters, 4 crafts for landing troops ashore, 13 battle tanks, 60 armored vehicles, 450 to 900 combat ground troops, a hospital for 69, plus operational command and control center. France has been under pressure to cancel the deal, but it can’t afford to, though it did say it would consider it if the EU went to level three sanctions against Russia. But no one expects that to happen.

Putin’s reply to Latvia’s concern about the Mistral: “I’ll do with it whatever I want.”

Ursula Carlson, Ph.D., is professor emerita at Western Nevada College.


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