Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman.
My name is Ojars Eriks Kalninš. I am a member of the Latvian parliament and chairman of the foreign affairs committee of the Latvian parliament. I also head our delegation to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, where I am chairman of the political committee.
It is a great honour to be back in Canada. I had the pleasure of being here a year ago with our Speaker. In particular, it's a pleasure—perhaps almost a belated one—for me to be able to congratulate Canada on its 150th anniversary.
As you may know, Latvia will celebrate the 100th anniversary of our republic next year. It's a very big event, although when we look back at our history, unfortunately, for 50 of those 100 years, we were under foreign occupation. Yet, if we look back, I think we'll see that the last 27 years, since we restored independence in 1991, have been remarkably successful. People within the country are always unhappy. They always think things should be better, but I think that if we look at what we've achieved in the last 27 years since rejoining the world community, there's a great deal that we can be pleased with and proud of. It's very good to be back.
When I look at the last 27 years, I divide it into three periods. I served as ambassador in Washington, D.C. for Latvia, and during the 1990s, our basic preoccupation was returning to the world community, re-establishing our diplomatic ties, joining organizations like the United Nations, and basically making our presence known.
By the late 1990s and early 2000s, we became actively a candidate country, and our two priorities were to join NATO and to join the European Union. Everything we did in terms of foreign policy and even domestic policy was geared towards fulfilling all the requirements to be part of those two organizations. In 2004, we achieved that, to the surprise of many, including Moscow and others who doubted our ability to move that quickly to join both organizations.
Basically, after 2004, our third phase was being an active member of both of those organizations, understanding what it required, how this would affect our policies, and how we could be a contributing, loyal member of both groups.
For the most part, it has been very successful, except that 10 years later—in 2014, I guess—there came the first big shock to our sense of security. That was the Russian illegal annexation of Ukraine and basically the Russian-supported invasion of eastern Ukraine in Donbass. I think it was the first time since the restoration of independence that people actually feared for their safety. Our older generation had lived through World War II. Many had lived to see the first Soviet occupation, then the Nazi German occupation, followed by another Soviet occupation. Many of us had hoped that would never return again after this restoration.
In 2014, there were many questions about how far Moscow would go, whether they would move into Ukraine, and whether they would go further, to Odessa. There was talk of Moldova, and to our consternation, for the media and for the analysts, the most popular thing to talk about was the Baltic states being next on the hit list.
We went through that year with a great deal of consternation, and for me, as a politician, the one question I got most often from voters was “Are we safe?” It was not “Will we be invaded?” but “Are we safe?” and “Will NATO come through? Will they really come to defend us?”
I would say that since 2014, that answer has been received loud and clear. Both the Wales and the Warsaw summits gave us exactly what we had anticipated, and perhaps even more, because what we needed was reassurance and deterrence, and both have been achieved by concrete actions that NATO took.
The reassurance was important for our population because I would say within a year or two after they saw what NATO was doing, people started to believe that perhaps article 5 was actually sacrosanct and that the rest of Europe and our NATO allies also here in North America would come through. The Warsaw summit accelerated that and brought us the enhanced forward presence, which brought Canada's presence into Latvia, which for us means a great deal. It goes way beyond just security, and that I'd like to talk about.
For us, both NATO and the EU symbolize what I'd say our national strategy is all about, and that is, we believe in multilateralism. We learned, prior to World War II, that small countries cannot survive alone or in isolation. You have to be part of larger groups, but also it's larger groups, organizations that can solve global problems. What we've learned more and more is that many of the problems our countries face today are global, and while we have to deal with them locally, we can deal with them much better if we work together as groups.
I'd say that if we feel fairly secure about NATO today, that NATO has delivered, then our greater concern is the European Union.
I have just one more word on NATO. I was there at a military base, Adazi, in the springtime when we formally opened this enhanced forward presence battalion under Canada's leadership. I remember standing there, and I had three reactions, looking at soldiers from six other countries—Spain, Bulgaria, Slovenia, Canada, Italy.... I saw them marching and my first reaction was a great sense of pride that people from all over Europe and North America were in Latvia to help us, to protect us. It was a great feeling, knowing our history and what we went through.
My second reaction, when I looked at these soldiers, was that I hoped they would never have to fire a bullet. I hoped that their presence alone would be enough to deter any future conflict. I'm pretty confident that's working. I think the signal has been very clear.
If, in 2014, anyone doubted whether NATO would come to the defence of a few Latvians in case there was some kind of a cross-border incursion, I think now, knowing that there are several thousand troops from six countries—and I think next year two more countries will join. Between the three Baltic states and Poland, there are 22 NATO countries that have either sent troops or provided their planes for Baltic air policing. I think the signal is clear that any attempt to attack a Baltic state is an attack on NATO and all the NATO countries. I think this is what has worked as a deterrent. That was my third feeling, that this was a case where an organization like NATO has come through and our friends and allies have come through.
We do have greater concerns about Europe. Latvia is very committed to the European Union. Again, if NATO provides the hard security, then it's the EU that provides the soft security, the diplomacy. We look at the combination of the two as complementary. Where NATO can do one job, the EU has to do another.
I think a clear example of that is the reaction to the Russian incursion in Ukraine, because while NATO is protecting our countries from that spreading any further, it's the European Union, together with other countries, that enacted the sanctions. That would be much more difficult, to have sanctions and try to prevent Russia from going further, if these 27 or so additional countries, such as Canada, had to each negotiate separately. But through the EU we were able to have a joint voice, and this continues. It's not always easy to get 28 EU countries to agree on something, and that's the long-term challenge, but I believe it's possible on big issues, and we face a lot of bigger issues that are collective issues.
We face internal challenges. Radicalism and extremism have risen within many of the EU countries, separatism or at least anti-EU feelings. While some of these tendencies are genuine, there are always voices in a country that see things differently.
I think the evidence is fairly clear that one country that's very interested in seeing a weakening, if not a collapse, of the European Union is Russia. If Russia is not a direct military threat at the moment to our countries for the reasons I mentioned such as NATO, I think they are using a large number of other methods to try to undermine democracy because, if you look at Mr. Putin and his motivation, I think the greatest thing that he fears is not a military invasion, but an invasion of democratic spirit in Russia. If Russia ever witnessed true democracy, clearly Mr. Putin would no longer be where he is today. So it's the spread of democracy and this unity of the European Union that they see as a threat, and now they've used all the weapons that are available. Today we talk about hybrid warfare, cyberwarfare. It's not new. In Latvia, we've experienced this hybrid warfare for the last 27 years.
If I were a strategist in Moscow, my goal, let's say, in the Baltic states, would not be to invade and occupy these three countries. My goal would be to have them as members of NATO and the EU but have their governments totally under the control of Moscow. Then you have countries within this alliance. I think that's been their goal all along, but it hasn't succeeded in taking over the governments from the inside.
We see information warfare, cyberwarfare. This continues, and that's why I'm very proud of Latvia and very thankful to Canada for being a strong supporter of the NATO StratCom Centre of Excellence in Riga. I think that's been one of our biggest success stories. It's drawing experts from around the world, and not always NATO countries. This is the leading edge, along with cybersecurity, of what we all have to deal with. It's something we're very pleased about. I know that Canada was one of our early supporters. You provided, a few years ago, I think it was a $1 million, to each of the centres of excellence in the Baltic states, and that meant a great deal to us.
As I mentioned, Latvia is very grateful to have Canadian troops there, if for no other reason than it will improve our hockey skills. I think the ice-skating rink is being completed at the military base, although I recall when, I think it was the World Hockey Championships were in Riga, and Canada beat us 11-1. However, at the last Olympics, I think we frightened Canada for two periods because we were leading 1-0 going into the third. That may have put Latvia on the map even before you sent the troops there.
The troops have been very welcome. They've been greeted by the people. They're very well received, and we appreciate their presence, but for me as a diplomat and a politician, I see beyond just the military presence.
We're very happy that we were able to be the first EU country to ratify CETA. We want to see Canada even more engaged in Europe, because we look at history, and you're a European country. The Americans were once, too. I think sometimes they tend to forget that. Also, in terms of NATO, in the past when they talked about the transatlantic alliance, all the focus was on the U.S. I think now Canada has again demonstrated that it has a strong interest in Europe. When I gave a speech in our parliament for the ratification of CETA, one of the things I pointed out was that Canada has defended Europe in two world wars. You've been there for over 100 years, so what you're doing now is nothing new.
We want to see other ties grow, trade ties between Latvia, between Europe and Canada. We want to buy more Bombardier planes. We want more investment. We want to invest here, and I think there's a growing interest, I hope in Canada about Latvia, but in Latvia definitely about Canada. I think in the long term this is a win-win situation for us.
Just to finish, because I'm very eager to answer your questions, when I look back at the whole idea of multilateralism, I'm reminded that we in a small country like Latvia have our domestic regional issues. This month we're debating our budget for next year, a budget in which we will formally achieve 2% of GDP for defence, but we are faced with the same global problems that everyone else is: terrorism, uncontrolled migration, extremism. While we can deal with these as a country, we realize that the real solutions can only come collectively, if the EU, NATO, even the UN, can work together. That's why it's a pleasure to have deepened our relationship with Canada and to work with you.
Again, thank you for the invitation and the opportunity to be here, and thank you for your great interest in and support for our country.