2015 Latvian Presidency – Will Latvia secure a détente with Russia?
As part of the Government Gazette’s extended feature on the 2015 Latvian Presidency of the Council of the EU, Karolina Borońska-Hryniewiecka and Kinga Dudzińska analyse the significance of the Latvian Presidency for the EU’s relations with Russia.
Latvia has taken over the rotating presidency of the EU Council at a turbulent time, marked by intensified terrorist threats and disturbances to territorial integrity on the continent. The exacerbating Ukrainian conflict and aggressive Russian policy in the region pose a direct threat to the stability of the Eastern flank of the EU and will be a test for Latvia’s pragmatic approach towards Russia. In the current geopolitical circumstances, the aim of the Latvian foreign minister Edgars Rinkēvičs, expressed at the beginning of the presidency, to overcome stereotypes and convince Moscow that the Latvian stance is “in no way anti-Russian” might be difficult to realise.
As a country with strong economic ties to Russia and with 25% of its population of Russian origin, Latvia has to date followed the most pragmatic policy towards Moscow of all three Baltic states. Moscow remains one of Riga’s most important trading partners, accounting for about 10% of Latvian exports and imports. Russian monetary capital is still significant in the real estate and tourism sectors and Latvia is extensively dependent on energy supplies from Russia.
Yet at the same time, Latvia has been a member of the Economic and Monetary Union since 2014, views the EU as its most trustworthy partner and, despite its small size, would like to see itself firmly at the EU’s core. As regards foreign policy, before taking over the EU presidency, Riga stated it would be impartial in the implementation of EU priorities, but Latvia was expected to lean towards the neutralisation in its relations with Russia. In this uneasy context, it would be prudent for Latvia to keep a low-profile on the Eastern front while being seen to speak with the EU’s voice.
The present EU institutional context actually makes this task easier for Latvia by posing certain constraints to the agenda-setting role of the presidency. First, the Treaty of Lisbon formally weakened the role of the Presidency in the area of foreign policy to the benefit of the EU High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy. Secondly, the mechanism of the so-called ‘trio presidency’ further disciplines Member States against pushing particular national interests. In addition, the increased political ambitions of the new leadership of the EU in the form of Federica Mogherini and Donald Tusk further overshadows the role of the Latvian Presidency in the Russian debate.
LATVIA and EU POLICY TOWARDS RUSSIA
Latvian policy towards Russia hitherto has been ambivalent. Until now Latvia, as well as other Baltic States, has maintained a hard position in the wake of the Ukrainian conflict and has called for the increased presence of NATO forces in the region. At the same time however, just a few weeks ago Latvia admitted ago that it is not against the reduction of EU sanctions towards Russia. On January 12th in Moscow, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Latvia Edgars Rinkēvičs met with Sergey Lavrov, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, and affirmed that the EU is interested in normalising relations with Russia but the annexation of Crimea cannot be recognised.
When it comes to its own initiatives on the Russian question, Riga has applied a “wait-and-see” policy and has taken a reactive position towards EU leadership by following the contours of the EU debate and by adhering to the decisions taken by European powers. Latvian presidential activity has remained ‘low key’ and limited to that of moderator between the hawkish, and the conciliatory tendencies in EU policy towards Russia. A change in this course should not be expected in the near future.
Yet Latvia’s approach will be tested at the Eastern Partnership (EaP) summit planned for May 2015 in Riga, during which Donald Tusk can count on the fact that Latvia will put pressure on other countries to tighten their policy towards Russia. However, the Latvian foreign minister has already promised a new orientation for the EaP, in order not to provide grounds for further antagonism with Russia. In the meantime, Mogherini expressed the hope that Latvia, at the helm of the EU, could help in reaching a détente with Russia.
Despite the Baltic States’ persistent efforts to increase security on the eastern flank of NATO, Latvia may also seek to cool EU action towards Moscow in the face of potential disagreement within the presidency trio, as Italy also opposes stricter sanctions on Russia. For Latvia this is especially important given that Russia’s trade embargo on various products in response to the EU sanctions could cost Latvia a contraction of 0.7% of its GDP. At the moment, securing a consensus in the Eastern policy could be difficult since unity among EU Member States appears weak, evidenced in the latest statements by Greek and Hungarian leaders.
Moreover, the effectiveness of the existing sanctions has been undermined as their main political objective has not been achieved. While economically the Russian market has been hit hard, sanctions did not prevent Moscow’s actions in Ukraine. Meanwhile, the events in Mariupol and Donetsk represent a severe setback in the negotiations with the EU which urgently needs solidarity and consistency if it is to make progress in this conflict.
Karolina Borońska-Hryniewiecka is an analyst at the Polish Institute of International Affairs in the EU Programme and an Assistant Professor at the Institute of Political Science of the University of Wrocław. Kinga Dudzińska is an analyst at the Polish Institute of International Affairs in the Eastern and South Eastern Europe Programme.