Leadership from Latvia: Interview with Latvian Foreign Minister

Edgars Rinkēvičs has been the Minister of Foreign Affairs for the Republic of Latvia since 2011. In the interview, he shares his insights on disinformation, cybersecurity, human rights, and energy resiliency.

For decades, Latvia has been a target of Russian disinformation. How has that disinformation evolved during the COVID-19 pandemic? What strategies have been most effective in combating foreign propaganda? Does your strategy change against non-state actor propaganda?

Let me start with the last part of your question. The pandemic exacerbated a problem governments and online platforms already knew but failed to address: falsehoods and purposeful disinformation are rampant online. Punitive measures and censorship are not the solutions. The Latvian approach is to foster stronger pluralistic independent media, promote media literacy, raise public awareness of disinformation, and modernize government communications. Overall, it is working.

Some governments have used the COVID-related disinformation as a cover for influence operations, seeking to improve their own image and to destabilize democratic nations. Some countries, notably Russia, have not even shied away from promoting malicious falsehoods about COVID-19 vaccines. An effective response to such behavior needs to go beyond building resilience. That’s why the EU is considering ways to impose costs on foreign state actors engaging in disinformation campaigns and influence operations.

All democratic countries should work together to promote an approach to digital governance based on respect for human dignity, rights, and freedom. This should include laying down accountability and transparency norms for how online platforms should tackle disinformation while protecting freedom of expression.

Latvia has been targeted frequently by Russian cyberattacks. Broadly speaking, what can be done to deter aggression in cyberspace? Are retaliatory attacks a viable response? What role might international organizations like the UN and NATO have in mounting an effective multilateral response to cyber aggression?

I would like to emphasize that cyberspace is not a lawless area. International law fully applies to this domain. In this matter, it is essential therefore to hold perpetrators accountable for malicious and destabilizing cyber activities. Each response needs to be implemented on a case-by-case basis, it has to be proportionate, and in line with international law.

It is our responsibility to protect national infrastructures and networks. But, in addition to national cyber defense efforts, joint activities with international and regional organizations are paramount to boost resilience in the cyber domain. Close cooperation among allies and like-minded partners is the key for a joint response, and that contributes to better deterrence in cyberspace. Each organization has its own cyber-related focus and instruments which collectively strengthen security in cyberspace and deter further cyber-attacks. Promoting security and stability globally, including in cyberspace, at the UN, we have established a strategic framework for responsible state behavior in cyberspace, whereas NATO primarily defends NATO networks and enhances resilience across the Alliance. It is important to note that a significant cyberattack could trigger Article 5.

Latvia has expressed strong support for Tsikhanouskaya and the pro-democracy movement in Belarus. What specific actions has Latvia made in support of the people of Belarus, and what policies must the EU or the broader international community enact that they have not already?

The progress achieved by EU-Belarus dialogue in recent years was regretfully destroyed by falsified elections on August 9, 2020 and suppression of peaceful protests. The level of unprecedented police brutality and repressions against civic activists and independent media left no other choice but for the EU to react decisively. Sanctions were introduced and Alexander Lukashenko was not recognized as the legitimate president of Belarus. In August 2020, Latvia was one of the first countries that reacted by condemning the unprovoked violence by Belarusian security forces in the aftermath of fraudulent elections and expressed support to the people of Belarus. Latvia and other Baltic States were also among the first to introduce national restrictive measures against Lukashenko and other Belarusian officials. Currently 277 Belarusian officials are listed as persona non grata in Latvia. The latest group of 118 Belarusian officials was added on March 25, 2021. Latvia strongly supports the people of Belarus in their demand for respect of fundamental democratic rights through free and fair elections and is also an active supporter of EU sanctions against Belarusian officials, politicians, and supporters of Lukashenko including from the business community.

The EU and international community must continue to unwaveringly apply a non-recognition policy with respect to Lukashenko as well as prepare a next round of sanctions, including against economic actors. A comprehensive economic assistance plan must be prepared and offered to Belarus if it chooses to build its future on democratic foundations. However, the plan must contain strong conditionality and links to concrete steps in the reform process.

Latvia is fully convinced that the international community should continue providing support to Belarusian civil society in its efforts to promote democratic values in Belarus. Our government has taken a number of decisions to politically support Belarusian civil society in the aftermath of the presidential elections. Our political support goes hand in hand with practical support to Belarussian civil society through the development aid programs and technical assistance. Last year, Latvia’s support to Belarusian civil society accounted for 250,000 euros (around US$294,000), and this year we have allocated an additional 120,000 euros (around US$141,000).

You called for the release of Alexei Navalny after he was detained and sentenced to 3.5 years in jail. How is Latvia working to secure Navalny’s release? What sanctions should be levied in response to his poisoning and imprisonment?

The overall human rights situation in Russia has been continuously deteriorating for years. The authorities respond with bans, restrictive laws, and persecution against the rising civic activism, independent voices, and opposition.

The attack against the prominent opposition politician, Alexei Navalny, and later his sentencing to prison are particularly sinister acts. However, it is just one of many cases that proves the necessity to call on Russia to comply with its international obligations. We could recall the cases of Anna Politkovskaya, Alexander Litvinenko, Sergei Magnitsky, Boris Nemtsov, Vladimir Kara-Murza Jr., and Sergei Skripal.

We agree with the recent findings of the prominent UN Special Rapporteurs “that the attack against Navalny falls within a wider trend, observed over several decades, of arbitrary killings and attempted killings of Russian citizens and the Government’s critics, both within Russia and extraterritorially.”

In our view, this case requires continuous attention and adequate response not only by the European Union, but the wider international community. Latvia will persistently raise the question of the release of Navalny, who has been unjustly imprisoned, and we will advocate for the need to conduct a fair investigation of his poisoning case, both bilaterally with our counterparts in Russia as well as at the relevant international organizations.

Energy dependence on Russia (particularly for natural gas imports) has been a hot-button issue in Europe, especially regarding Nord Stream 2. What would be your message to President Biden as he considers lifting some sanctions against the pipeline?

Latvia’s position concerning Nord Stream 2 has been firm, principles-based, and consistent over these years: for Russia, it is a project of a geopolitical character, which presents a security threat to the European Union due to the promotion of energy dependence on one supplier. Given our past experience of being an “energy island,” we have constantly raised our concerns within the EU. We would have wanted to find a solution at the EU level.

In a similar vein, how is Latvia pursuing a strategy for energy resilience? How do LNG and renewables play into the picture?

Latvia is pursuing its strategy towards energy resilience by ensuring the diversification of supply routes and sources. Latvia is also engaged in several regional projects that aim to enhance the security of supplies in the region: two notable examples include the synchronization project with continental Europe for electricity and the common regional gas market with Finland and Estonia. Although there are no terminals in Latvia, the regional gas market provides an opportunity for LNG supplies that could be taken up in the near future.

On the topic of renewable energy, from 2005 to 2019, the share of renewable energy in final consumption has increased by 10 percent in the electricity sector (reaching 59 percent in 2019) and by 15 percent in the heating sector (reaching 57 percent in 2019). It has substantially increased the overall resilience of the energy system, contributed to reaching climate goals, and reduced dependence on fossil fuel. Latvia will continue to increase the share of renewable energy in the electricity system by supporting wind energy development onshore and offshore. We also plan to achieve our goals by substituting natural gas with bioenergy and heat pumps in the heating sector as well as promoting electric vehicles and CNG vehicles using locally produced biomethane.

Finally, you’ve served as Latvia’s Foreign Minister for nearly a decade. What do you think is most misunderstood about Latvia’s foreign relations by the international media?

There are two things. First, that we are a former Soviet republic. We are not, Latvia was occupied by the Soviet Union and that was never recognized by the international community. We were a “captive nation” that regained independence in 1990. Second, we are not a one-issue country: Russia is not the only thing we care about in our foreign policy. Democracy, human rights, multilateralism, strong EU and transatlantic bonds as well issues like climate and digital transformation are among our priorities.

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