Latvia, which took over the rotating EU Presidency on 1 January, will try to overcome stereotypes and convince Moscow that its intentions are in no way anti-Russian, the country’s foreign minister Edgars Rink?vi?s told journalists in Riga yesterday (7 January).
Rink?vi?s spoke to a group of 57 Brussels-based EU correspondents who were invited on a press trip to Riga to mark the official launch of Latvia’s Presidency of the Council of the European Union.
The ceremony will take place on Thursday (8 January) in the presence of Jean-Claude Juncker, the President of the European Commission.
Russian journalists were not invited to join the group, which includes only media representatives from the 28 EU member states.
Ukraine crisis tops Latvia’s priority list
As expected, the crisis in Eastern Ukraine will dominate Latvia’s six-month tenure at the EU helm.
Rink?vi?s said Riga will try to “give impetus” to the process aimed at finding a political solution to the Ukraine crisis, “not only to do a lot of talking, but to really implement”.
The Latvian foreign minister said he had good expectations from a planned summit to be hosted by the President of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev in Astana on 15 January. The meeting will bring together the President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko, his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande.
Rink?vi?s will visit Russia on Monday 12 January and hold talks with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and some other government officials to prepare for the meeting. He said the objective will be to “try to find new ways of engaging in discussions on the Eastern Partnership” and “disperse some stereotypes, as we definitely don’t see our presidency as something that sometimes is called anti-Russian presidency”.
On 21-22 May Riga will host a summit of the Eastern Partnership (EaP), the EU initiative covering Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan.
The previous such summit, held in Vilnius in November 2013, marked the beginning of the Ukraine crisis when the former President of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovich refused to sign a landmark Association agreement with the EU. The summit’s failure triggered massive pro-EU protests in Kyiv, which led to the eventual ousting of Yanukovich and paved the way for the current crisis in Eastern Ukraine, which supported the former President and its pro-Russian stance.
But the Latvian foreign minister promised a new orientation for the EaP saying it should not provide grounds for further antagonism with Russia.
“We have seen that there are some signals […] there is some kind of willingness [of Russia] to work more closely with the EU on issues of the Eastern Partnership and to try to find a way out of the current situation in Eastern Ukraine”, he said.
An “individual approach” to Eastern Partnership countries
The minister said Latvia would pursue a “more individual” approach to EaP countries, mentioning the cases of Armenia and Azerbaijan in particular.
Regarding Armenia, it remained to be seen whether deep cooperation with the EU was still on the agenda, Rink?vi?s said, recalling that Yerevan had signalled its intention of joining the Russian-led Eurasian economic union.
On Azerbaijan, Rink?vi?s said the country was important for the EU “in terms of energy”, as it is expected to provide the Union with 10 billion cubic metres of gas when the Southern gas corridor is eventually built. But he added that Baku was “not actively engaged” in the Eastern Partnership, or at least not as much as some EU countries would like.
Turning to Belarus, he said Minsk had helped de-escalate the Ukraine crisis by hosting summits in its capital, giving Minsk some leverage for “openings on behalf of the EU”.
Visa liberalisation for Georgia and Ukraine could be a “deliverable”, Rink?vi?s said, adding that he would be happy if such an outcome could materialise under the Latvian presidency.
Flexibility on sanctions
Regarding Western sanctions against Moscow, Rink?vi?s said those had been effective, also helped by the fall oil prices and of the Russian rouble. He called this situation “an opening we can use”.
If the situation in Eastern Ukraine improves, Latvia will certainly support softening or lifting some of the sanctions, Rink?vi?s said. But he added that even in this case, the policy of non-recognition of Crimea will remain and that economic sanctions will continue to apply on this territory.
Rink?vi?s mentioned a number of conditions that would mark an improvement to the situation in Eastern Ukraine. These include the joint control of the border between Russia and Ukraine, a termination of Russian support for separatists in Eastern Ukraine, and on the Ukrainian side, “some kind of comprehensive understanding to provide some degree of autonomy to Lugansk and Donetsk”.
Sanctions prevented Russia from securing corridor to Crimea
Responding to calls for tougher sanctions against Moscow, Rink?vi?s said he disagreed with those who argue that sanctions do not work.
“I would say that probably the sanctions have prevented the situation from getting worse, for example creating a corridor to the Black Sea,” he said, referring to the fact that Russia did not occupy further Ukrainian territory in order to link Crimea to its mainland.
EurActiv asked the Latvian minister of defense Raimonds V?jonis to comment on this statement. V?jonis said he agreed with the foreign minister, but thought Russia had not given up plans to secure such a corridor, because in his words “without a territorial link the economic situation in Crimea will deteriorate”.
Rink?vi?s also said he wanted to comment on “some allegations made by Russian officials” that with the sanctions, the EU and the USA were pushing for a regime change in Russia.
“That’s not the goal, believe me,” he ensured.
Rink?vi?s added that Riga’s intention was to have a “balanced Presidency”, which would not focus only on the EaP. Among the other external affairs issues he mentioned was the continued work on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), EU enlargement talks, immigration, the Syria crisis and fight against the Islamic State (ISIL).
Regarding enlargement, he mentioned “opening chapters with Montenegro and possibly with Serbia”.
Asked if Latvia would participate to the celebrations of 70th anniversary of the victory in World War II in Moscow on 9 May 2015, he said that the Latvian President Andris B?rzi?š had not yet made a decision, but that he hoped for a united EU position whether the EU leaders should go to the Russian capital or not.
The crisis in Ukraine erupted after its former President Viktor Yanukovich cancelled plans to sign trade and political pacts with the EU in November 2013 and instead sought closer ties with Russia, triggering protests that turned bloody and drove him from power.
Moscow annexed Crimea in March following a referendum staged after Russian forces established control over the Black Sea peninsula in the biggest East-West crisis since the Cold War.
Pro-Russian militants control buildings in more than ten towns in eastern Ukraine after launching their uprising on 6 April. On 11 May pro-Moscow rebels declared a resounding victory in a referendum in Donetsk and Luhansk, which the West called illegal and illegitimate.
The fighting has escalated sharply after Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko ordered on 1 July an assault on separatists. The EU's resolve to punish Russia strengthened after the downing in Ukraine on 17 July of a Malaysia Airlines passenger plane, killing all 298 people on board. 194 of the passengers were from the Netherlands.
Western leaders say pro-Russian rebels almost certainly shot the airliner down by mistake with a Russian-supplied surface-to-air missile. Moscow has blamed Kyiv for the tragedy.
On 27 August NATO and the U.S. said Russian incursions into Ukraine took an ‘overt and obvious form’ and on 28 August Poroshenko said Russia had invaded Ukraine.
A truce was agreed on 5 September, but the situation has remained volatile.