The Baltic state of Latvia features in the news early this year as it became the 18th state of the Euro-zone and Riga is the cultural capital of Europe. On this occasion, Diplomacy & Trade has recently carried this interview with Latvian ambassador Imants Liegis.
“I’m a Latvian born in England.” That is how the Latvian Ambassador to Hungary, Imants Liegis dissipates one’s surprise at his native English. “My parents were refugees from Latvia to England via Germany during World War II. I was very privileged to have an education in the United Kingdom.” There, after studying law at the university, he was active in the Latvian community of 10-12,000 people. “In fact, when I was working as a solicitor in England, in 1989, I was offered a part-time position by a Baltic organization based in the US that wanted a representative in Europe to lobby in Brussels and Strasbourg,” he adds.
In 1991, Latvia regained its independence and Imants Liegis went to Latvia and told the Foreign Minister he was prepared to serve the Ministry. He moved to Riga with his family in January 1992.
Ambassador to minister
He says he is very proud to have participated in building a new foreign service from scratch. After working in the Foreign Ministry in Riga and postings in London and Stockholm, Imants Liegis was given his first ambassadorial posting in 1997 in Brussels to the Benelux countries and NATO. Two years later, his ambassadorial position to NATO was extended until 2004 when he was “proud to see Latvia joining NATO”. After a spell in Riga, he was posted back to Brussels to deal with security and defense issues in the EU. His next ambassadorial term in Spain was cut short in 2009 as the Latvian Prime Minister invited Imants Liegis to join his government as Minister of Defense. After being elected to and serving in the Latvian Parliament, he returned to his diplomatic career and took up his present post in Budapest in September 2012.
His job of coordinating bilateral meetings began even before presenting his credentials in November when the Latvian Minister for Agriculture visited Hungary for the ‘Diplomat Vintage’ organized by the Hungarian Foreign Ministry. That visit was part of one of the most active aspects of bilateral relations as the two agricultural ministries have long had good cooperation in several areas including the ownership of land and its legislation within the EU.
Ambassador Liegis is of the view that political relations between Hungary and Latvia are excellent. “The Speaker of the Hungarian Parliament visited Latvia, a group of Latvian parliamentarians came to Hungary and the Hungarian Defense Minister visited Riga. The importance of the latter’s visit in January 2013 is that from 2015, Hungary will be participating in NATO’s policing of the airspace of the three Baltic NATO members, including Latvia, who do not have the capacity to carry out this activity,” he says.
Bilateral relations tend to proceed through EU and NATO as both countries are members of these organizations. The Ambassador points out that “in the negotiations for the new multiannual financial framework, the EU budget for the years 2014-2020, the two countries are on the same wavelength concerning several issues, like that of the cohesion funds direct payments to farmers. It was also important that Latvia received Hungary’s support for its application to the OECD and talks have already started in Riga on membership.”
The other main point of the Latvian government’s economic agenda has been joining the Euro-zone. This effort bore fruit as Latvia became the 18th country on January 1, 2014 to replace its national currency with the euro. Latvian Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis seems to have been right about insisting on the Maastricht criteria for the euro as this helped the country overcome the deep crisis. (In February 2009 the Latvian government asked the International Monetary Fund and the European Union for an emergency bailout loan of EUR 7.5 billion.)
Ambassador Liegis believes “there is a lot of scope in increasing the volume of bilateral trade. It is not significant (about EUR 150 million) and Hungary does not figure high on the list of Latvian trading partners. The main export items to Hungary are timber, timber products and mechanical goods. It is important, though, that we have direct air links between Riga and Budapest. Air Baltic is the Latvian national airline. In the summer of 2013, they also opened a route to the southwestern Hungarian spa town of Hévíz. I also encourage Hungarians to travel to Latvia, to Riga, especially given that in 2014, Riga is the European cultural capital. Hungarians will be surprised to discover the richness and diversity of Latvia’s culture.”
He has also seen encouraging cultural ties. “I spoke with the Budapest Music Center here and some of their colleagues are to visit Riga in the near future with a view to have a Latvian showcase of music in 2015 at the start of our Presidency of the European Union,” he adds.
Speaking of other cultural cooperation, “we welcomed a very talented Latvian pianist, Diane Zandberga at the celebration of our national day in 2013. We also discovered an earlier musical connection between Latvia and Hungary: a Latvian composer and conductor, Janis Medins visited Hungary in 1938 and actually conducted a radio orchestra here in Budapest. This was discovered though a pianist whose father had been the Hungarian honorary consul in Latvia before World War II. We hope very much that in 2015, there will be a focus on Latvian music: classical, jazz and folk music,” Ambassador Liegis concludes.
Riga – Europe’s Cultural Capital 2014
Riga is the Latvian capital and with its population of about 700,000 it is the biggest city in the Baltic region. It was founded in 1201 and the oldest part of the city with its distinctive medieval influence has been named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. The Central Market, in which old zeppelin hangars have been converted into covered markets, is one of the largest of its kind in Europe.
Riga’s application to be a European capital of culture was based on the three principles of creativity, border expansion and new forms of interaction. The motto for Riga’s initiative – and the bold theme of Riga’s year under the EU’s cultural spotlight – is the legal phrase ‘Force Majeure’. This is an expression of the desire to enhance the importance of culture as an instrument for improving cities and people’s lives. The central message of the program is that culture is a force for positive change – an extraordinary energy with the power to transform a city, perception, life.
As Ambassador Liegis points out, “Riga is a small city compared to Budapest but ithat makes it sort of more accessible. Like Budapest, it has a river, the Daugava, running through it. We also have wooden architecture. There is a beautiful seaside resort, Jurmala, very close to Riga, incorporated into the cultural capital celebrations as well as the town of Sigulda, a 40-minute drive from the capital. Riga is a very dynamic city and I think the richness of the city is reflected in its mixed ethnic composition of Latvians, Russians, Ukrainians, Poles, Byelorussians and Jews. I think that cultural mix is very interesting, we have something different to offer culturally.”
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