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Flag of NATO-the North Atlantic Treaty Organization

When visiting Latvia, it is hard not to feel the effect of the war in Ukraine. A blue and yellow Ukrainian flag is hoisted on every corner, often next to the Latvian flag. The building across from the Russian embassy, located in the center of the capital Riga, is filled with signs, flags, and colorful graffiti. 

Like the rest of Europe and the West, Latvia is fully on Ukraine’s side. But unlike in the case of the others, for Latvia – and fellow Baltic states Lithuania and Estonia – the Ukraine war is not a political matter, but an existential one. The fear that they will be the ones Russian President Vladimir Putin will turn to next is ever-present. 


Although all three countries are members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, a military alliance that assures protection if any member is attacked, they follow the developments of the war with great concern. 

As such, Latvian President Egils Levits has been strengthening ties with like-minded nations, including Israel. He arrived in Israel this week with a delegation of senior officials and business people not only to speak of the war but to encourage Israeli investments.

“We need to strengthen relations with countries that think like us but are not members of the European Union,” Levits said in an interview in Israel Hayom. “It is not healthy to depend on supply chains that are influenced by autocratic regimes, and Israel is the only democracy in the region. This is the correct geopolitical economic strategy for Europe, and of course for my country.”

Q: Are you talking about energy? 

“First and foremost. I have always argued that dependence on Russia and China is not good for us. But the understanding is that large companies were looking for easy profits and did not think about the strategic, geopolitical aspect, and now we see that it is necessary. Israel is a very developed country in this respect, and we are interested in cooperating on certain issues in the field of technology.”

Levits also stressed the importance of democratic countries strengthening ties against the backdrop of the struggle against non-democratic states. He referred to Russia and China, which he defines as “aggressive regimes that are dangerous to the world.” During the interview, he also often referred to the reality in Europe before World War II and agrees that Putin is a war criminal. 

History of Jews in Latvia

Riga is enchanting. The city center is small, filled with hundreds of years old buildings that reflect the different periods during which the area was under the control of Sweden, Germany, and the Soviet Union. The same goes for the churches: Catholic, Orthodox, and Lutheran. 

The streets in the old city are mostly pathways that were originally built with a width that allowed for a horse-drawn carriage to pass through. They are dotted with small and beautiful restaurants and shops, although there is a lack of tourists as Riga is still recovering from the coronavirus pandemic. 

COVID also left its mark on the economy: the double-digit inflation and the relatively low salaries – compared to the rest of Europe – prompted the young generation to take advantage of their European Union passports and seek their fortune elsewhere on the continent. Until Brexit, Britain was the most popular option, and today it is Sweden, Norway, and Germany.

But the economic situation also provides opportunities for business people and investors. Emmanuil Grinshpun is a Jewish American-Moldovan businessman, who has been involved in bank and real estate projects in Latvia, including the Riga Port City Project, which will be built in the coming years and will include hotels, residential and commercial areas, and shopping centers. 

“Latvia is an excellent place to invest in,” Grinshpun said. “Real estate and manpower are cheap, and this is an excellent gateway to Europe.” Investors, he added, also receive support and grants from the Latvian government, the EU, and local banks. 

Such investments are another point on Levits’s agenda while in Israel: to convince Israeli technology companies to establish such centers in Riga.

“It is a country where it is very convenient to do business, and the locals are excellent partners: decent, efficient, punctual, and reliable,” he said. “And Latvia is also relatively close to Israel, including direct flights between Riga and Tel Aviv.”

Until the pandemic, there were quite a few Israelis – mostly of Latvian origin – who used to come to the country, mainly for summer vacation. Some of them also owned apartments there. This is an interesting investment, and not only from an economic point of view: those who purchase property in Latvia for 250,000 euros ($263,000) or more receive a residence permit in the country, which automatically makes them an EU resident as well (provided they do not sell the property).

With Israel and Latvia about to bolster their ties, Israelis of Latvian origin might even be allowed to hold dual citizenship soon. Many Jews fled Latvia before the war, but tens of thousands were murdered, often with the help of locals. The most well-known case is the Rumbula massacre, which is the biggest two-day Holocaust atrocity after Babi Yar. 

The outgoing government in Latvia, which is in political chaos, this year approved a law for the restitution of Jewish property in the country. In the coming years, it intends to grant about 40 million euros ($42 million) for the renovation of Jewish buildings and cultural institutions, as well as for education – especially for the locals, who know very little about the Holocaust – and the glorious history of the Jewish community in the country, which at its peak numbered about 200,000 people. Today, about 8,000 Jews live in Latvia, mostly in the capital. 

Staying alert

Last Friday, Latvia celebrated its 104th independence day. Despite the cold (-6°C, or 21.2 °F), the streets were filled with crowds. The spectacular art nouveau district was filled with thousands of revelers flooding the restaurants. One of the most popular of them is the “Falafel” restaurant whose menu is very similar to Israeli cuisine.

Latvia is cheaper compared to Western Europe. Prices at the local indoor market, the size of a football field, are quite decent, which is why it attracts locals as well as tourists. Popular foods are dairy, smoked fish, and even alcohol, such as the famous Riga Black Balsam.

Very few Israelis live in Riga, most of them for business, but Israel-Latvia ties are warm, including cultural, medical, and diplomatic. During Levits’ upcoming trip to Israel as many as four cooperation agreements are expected to be signed between Latvian and Israeli medical institutions. As for diplomacy, Latvia is committed to the European Union but makes sure to remain relatively neutral. It also has no BDS organizations in the country and heeds Israel’s concerns over the Iranian threat.

Levits’ visit marked 30 years of diplomatic ties between Israel and Latvia. Israel established an embassy in Riga immediately after Latvia declared independence in 1992, and Latvia opened an embassy in Israel in 1995.

Israeli Ambassador to Latvia Sharon Rappaport Palgi explained, “This is a small country, which, unlike Israel, does not have many embassies in the world. The fact that they have an embassy in Israel indicates the importance they see in relations between the countries. They greatly appreciate our capabilities, especially in the areas of security and technology.”

As such, Latvia is looking to acquire air defense technology from Israel, which will not happen both due to fear of information leakage and reluctance to confront Russia. But such interest on behalf of Latvia will perhaps open other avenues. The Latvian government has already announced that it will – along with the European Union – will invest 2.5% of its GDP in security, with the plan to go up as high as 3%. Having learned from the Ukraine war, Latvia also plans to declare mandatory one-year military service for men.

Levits is, of course, very concerned about the war in Ukraine. He said, “This is the first time since World War II that such aggression has occurred in Europe. Aggression against a sovereign state with the aim of destroying it. The last time this happened was in 1939 when Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia and then Poland, and now it’s happening again. This is a very blatant violation of international law.”

Q: Are you worried that Latvia – as well as Estonia and Lithuania – are next in line? 

“The Baltic states rely on the NATO alliance, which is the strongest defense alliance in the world. I participate in the discussions at the NATO summit and in the decision-making process in the organization, and I see the clear commitment to protect every centimeter of the alliance’s territory.”

Q: And are you sure that such protection will in fact be provided? Because we see a lack of desire on President Joe Biden’s part to engage in conflict.

“I trust NATO completely, but the best defense is sufficient military power because the enemy will not attack if he knows he will lose. NATO has a clear advantage in every parameter, but we must stay alert. We are well aware of the imperialist ideology of the Russians. It was not so clear to the western part of Europe, but it is clear as day today.”

Q: What is that ideology exactly? To establish a modern Soviet Union? 

“This is the imperialist ideology of the 19th century. Their greatness as a country is measured by size, by conquest. They want to rule Europe like in the days of Alexander I.”

Q: In your opinion, what is the solution to the Ukraine war? What could bring about peace?

“Peace is only possible when there is justice in it. A ceasefire is not peace. In this case, peace means the full restoration of Ukraine’s sovereignty over its entire territory. I think this is a realistic scenario.

Q: Europe too is concerned about the war, especially in the context of energy and food.

“There are two main problems with this approach: first, there is no guarantee that energy will be cheap if Russia conquers Ukraine because it is not good to depend on an autocratic regime. And second, it is a problem politically, because it will appear that democracies are weak.”

Q: Would you say that democracy in Europe is in danger, given the developments in Hungary and Poland, for example?

“I see dangerous populist forces that are a problem for democracies, which also happened in the 1920s and 1930s.

Q: Are you saying you can see some similarities?

“Analogies, yes. Populism aims to act against rationality, logic, and against the core of democratic principles: majority rule, the rule of the law that limits the tyranny of the majority – the populists believe that the law must not limit the rule of the majority – and the protection of human rights.”

Q: Speaking of analogies, would you say Putin is the new Hitler?

“I wouldn’t say that one person is responsible for it all.”

Q: But would you say you consider Putin and his government officials war criminals?

“As a judge, I would not say anything on the matter before there is a verdict. But as a citizen, I say that it is completely evident. Hitler was never tried and did not stand before a court, but we understand that he was a war criminal.”

Q: How scared are you of the possibility of a third world war?

‘A third world war can be prevented if NATO remains strong because the alliance’s military power is the basis for peace. The way to stop Russia is through deterrence because they understand this language in Moscow – the language of power.”

Q: Surely you are also aware of Iran’s involvement in the war.

“This only highlights my claim that authoritarian regimes are becoming more aggressive because they understand that the West may be weak and they must be taught that this is not the case.”

Q: Does Latvia support Israel in its quest to stop Iran’s nuclear ambitions?

“Yes, of course. A nuclear capability in the hands of an autocratic regime is very dangerous, and we need to prevent an aggressive regime from getting its hands on such a capability. If this is possible through diplomatic means – good, and if not, there are other means.”

Personal and societal remembrance

While in Israel, Levits was also expected to travel to Ramallah to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. He did so as part of the European Union’s ongoing commitment to meet with both sides. This is also the reason why Latvia does not plan to move its embassy to Jerusalem.

“Our policy on the issue is coordinated with the official position of the EU, and we will not make unilateral moves,” Levits said.

Levits visited Israel already in 2009, with his daughter, but this was his first official visit to the Jewish state. The Latvian president’s father was Jewish, the only member of his family who survived the Holocaust.

“Like many who have experienced tragedies, he didn’t tend to talk about it. I know very little about his family,” Levits said of his father, adding that he was a student in Germany, where he moved with his wife – Levits’ mother – before returning to Latvia after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Q: And is Latvia willing to face its history of cooperating with the Germans during the war?

“History in Latvia is clear. There were those who collaborated with the Nazis. Society recognizes this, and it is well documented in our history. The Holocaust and our part in the Holocaust are very present in Latvian consciousness. Most of the Jewish community in Latvia perished in the Holocaust, about 80,000 people, and only about a thousand survived. We conduct Holocaust memorial activities. In Latvia, we have a government program to preserve the memory of the Holocaust in our society, which is taught in schools.”

{Reposted from IsraelHayom}


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