As it was for most people who lived in a Soviet satellite state and underwent that emancipating transformation, the experience is personal for the Ambassador and, in fact, greatly affected his life’s course. “I graduated from university at the right time as the country regained freedom and had five days in my life that were very decisive,” Pildegovics recalled. “I passed my finals at the university; I got married; and I joined the Latvian Foreign Service, all within a matter of five days. It was a very fortunate springboard for my future.”
When the Ambassador speaks of the freedoms he and his fellow countrymen now enjoy there is a sense of reverence teamed with a measure of pride for how Latvia and its people persevered during those dark decades spent under the thumb of the Soviets. “It’s quite a remarkable story of how during five long decades, half a century, people kept the flame of freedom alive. They continued to make the legal case for the restoration of Latvian independence and statehood,” Pildegovics continued. “It was 20 years ago when we succeeded in striving to restore our independence.”
With Latvia formally gaining independence in August 1991, one of the first objectives for the reborn nation was to remove from its soil the Soviet troops, more than 40,000 of whom had occupied Latvia. In a process that entailed according to Ambassador Pildegovics “a very complicated set of negotiations with the government of the Russian Federation,” the goal was achieved in August 1998 as the last 500 Russia officers vacated Latvia. Latvia next applied for membership in the European Union (EU) and in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). In 2004, Latvia and its Baltic brethren, Estonia and Lithuania, joined both organizations, becoming part of the western community.
Pildegovics called this transformation—from a captive nation where people lived in a very restrictive and repressive system to becoming part of the world’s free society—“nothing short of a miracle.”
With this revolutionary change throughout the Eastern Bloc drawing comparisons to the ongoing wave of change known as the Arab Spring, Ambassador Pildegovics cautioned, “There are certain parallels, but of course there are fairly significant differences. When it comes to Latvia and other countries in Central Europe, it’s very important to distinguish that for us it was a foreign occupation imposed on us from an outside force which is a bit different from countries in North Africa and the Middle East where largely those are homegrown dictatorships.”
One other critical difference Pildegovics identified revolved around the path forward. He maintained that after regaining independence, the Balts instinctively wanted to reintegrate with the West, and in Latvia there was widespread consensus to join the EU and NATO; society was largely in harmony about its future direction. Lacking such an apparent way forward, he contends the Arab countries undergoing change will have to have the internal discussions and debates to work toward a consensus of where they are heading and how they should arrive there. “We can share our lessons from the bumps in the road, but it’s very much up to those societies to decide their future,” asserted Pildegovics.
In many respects, the realization of having broken away from the Soviet Union and restored their independence was yet another significant milestone for a land and a people that has experienced its share of tribulations. “The Latvians and the Balts could be called nations of survivors. Life has never been easy in the Baltics. Historically, we’ve went through centuries of foreign domination—political, economic and militaristic—and we’ve been the battleground for two world wars wherein we lost approximately 30 percent of our population,” related Ambassador Pildegovics.
One of the most immediate challenges in post-1991 independent Latvia was to resolve the future status of Russians who had immigrated to Latvia. In addition to deporting more than 50,000 Latvians to Siberia, most of who never returned, during the occupation, the Soviets also had a policy of promoting Russian immigration to Latvia to dilute the native population. Pildegovics construed, “Upon regaining our independence, the ethnic composition of the country was very disadvantageous to Latvians. Latvians almost became a minority in their ancestral land. And had it (the Soviet immigration policy) been perpetuated for more decades, then Latvians would have become endangered.”
“Very generous and inclusive.” These are the words Ambassador Pildegovics uses to describe the Latvian approach to handling the more than half a million ethnic Russians who had come to Latvia by way of Moscow’s guiding hand. The Ambassador recounted, “When Joseph Stalin took Latvia, all Latvians became citizens of the Soviet Union overnight against their will. In our case, we gave the people opportunity; they could decide do they want to be contributing citizens.” Approximately 300,000 chose to become full-fledged Latvian citizens while another 130,000 have a status the equivalent of a permanent resident. The Ambassador believes this approach to contending with such a difficult aspect of their Soviet legacy underscores that Latvia is “a multi-ethnic, inclusive European society.”
Cultural and ethnic diversity is a source of pride for Latvia. Ambassador Pildegovics likened Latvia’s capital Riga as the “Istanbul of the north; the meeting point where peoples and cultures interact and religions meet.” Riga’s geographic location—approximately halfway between Berlin and Moscow and approximately halfway between Helsinki and Warsaw—has made it an historic crossroads for the exchange of ideas and mingling of peoples. While the Soviet’s totalitarian system put a halt to this, today’s Latvia has returned to its roots of being a society welcoming to others.
“We have state funded public schools in eight languages. We have the largest Jewish community in the Baltics, about 12,000 people, which last year celebrated its 450th anniversary of their recorded history in Latvia. We are probably the northern most country with a substantial Catholic population; approximately a third of the country. We have a fairly high rate of interethnic marriage. We’ve never had interethnic riots or violence. Of course, our ethnic diversity is different from America, but this mix is still quite remarkable,” related Pildegovics.
While the Ambassador celebrates Latvia’s openness and is focused on his nation’s future, the legacy of the Soviet occupation still weighs heavily and creates tensions in Latvia’s relations with Russia. One source of friction certainly is Latvia’s westward orientation. “Not everyone in Moscow liked our accession to NATO and the EU, but this is a fait accompli,” noted Pildegovics. But upon examining the relationship from a historical perspective and given the totality of five decades of Soviet oppression, the Ambassador believes “we’ve been fairly successful” at developing a civil relationship.
“We signed a border treaty with Russia in 2007 and it’s been ratified so we don’t have any territorial issues with Russia. We have supported Russia’s integration into the regional organization, the Council of the Baltic Sea States. We cooperate quite a bit on environmental and health issues,” Pildegovics continued. “We’ve supported Russia’s accession to the WTO, and Russia is fairly important economic partner; about 10 percent of our trade is with this neighbor and the trend has been positive.”
There are, of course, issues the two nations disagree on with the subject of history being one of the sharpest topics of discord. According to Pildegovics, the official line of Moscow is that what transpired in 1940 was not “an occupation” of Latvia by the Soviet Union. Historians in Latvia have organized a commission with the goal of engaging Russians in a public debate on this era and the competing narratives it produced. The Ambassador added, “Hopefully, one day Russia will accept that it was an illegal act.”
The United States’ Cold War policy was reflected in its conduct toward Latvia, as well as Estonia and Lithuania, during that period. The U.S. government refused to recognize the legality of the Soviet Union’s occupation of the Baltic States and permitted their diplomats to operate in Washington, D.C. Soviet propagandists often referred to their diplomatic presence as "ghost embassies." The Ambassador noted the importance of the Embassy during that time in mobilizing the Latvian-American community and serving as a reminder of Soviet aggression.
That mutual goodwill extends to the present day as the United States enjoys some of the highest favorable opinions among the citizens of Latvians and the other Baltic nations. This amity is further demonstrated through Latvia’s cooperation as a NATO ally.
Citing Latvia’s security contribution, Pildegovics observed, “Latvian troops have been in Afghanistan for quite a while. We’ve also been fairly engaged in the so-called Northern Distribution Network which is a supply chain for NATO/ISAF operations in Afghanistan. Riga is the first mile of this new network that has been operating for about two years. It’s a logistical chain which starts in Latvia on the Baltic Sea and then goes through Russia and Central Asian countries then enters Afghanistan from the north. We very much hope that trade, transportation, and communication would be part of the solution to the conflict in Afghanistan and that this network would open new avenues for trade and transit and movement of peaceable goods to those land-locked countries in the heart of Asia.”
Ambassador Pildegovics, who studied at Stanford in 1995, is quite optimistic about the future of U.S.-Latvia relations. On his watch as Ambassador, Latvia and the U.S. have agreed to waive visa travel requirements, Latvia has been integral in establishing the Northern Distribution Network to supply the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, and Latvian troops have been engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan. As important as those developments are, the bond between the nations seems to run deeper at a more intrinsic level. He says one of the biggest lessons he has taken from his time in America is that “nothing is impossible. I’ve always admired that this nation is not only a country of doers, but also a country of dreamers. I really like this American attitude, and I think in the Baltics we’ve tried to emulate it.”
With an abiding gratitude for the freedoms they now enjoy, Ambassador Pildegovics and his fellow Latvians appear today to be a nation of doers pursuing their dreams, dreams that for many decades were inconceivable.
This article was originally published in the Diplomatic Courier's March/April edition.