Latvia in the Arctic: Interview with State Secretary Andris Pelšs

By Alisa Musanovic

Alisa Musanovic 

Today’s interview is with Andris Pelšs, who is the Secretary of State of the Latvian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Could you tell us a bit about yourself and your career in government so far?

I have been the Secretary of State at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Latvia since August 2018. In this capacity, I oversee the development and implementation of foreign policy, as well as leading the administrative work of the institution.                   

In my previous position, as Under-Secretary of State – Political Director of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Latvia, my portfolio included: policy planning in external relations with Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Russia and CIS, the Americas and Oceania; policy planning in security and humanitarian issues; external trade and development policy; relations with international organisations; and policy coordination with the EU/NATO Member states and EEAS and NATO Secretariat. I have also served as the Ambassador and Representative of the Republic of Latvia to the Political and Security Committee Permanent Mission of Latvia to the EU. Prior to that, from 2007 to 2012, I was a Foreign Affairs Adviser to the President of the Republic of Latvia.

In terms of my education, I hold a Master’s degree in Political Science from the University of Latvia (2000). I also studied in the United States of America and hold a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science from Truman State University (1997), as well as a Master’s degree in Business Administration from Morehead State University (2003).

What are Latvia’s past and present connections with, as well as interests and specialisms in, the Arctic?

The Arctic region has become a significant geopolitical and geoeconomic area of global interest. Large and small countries, research institutes, universities and international organisations such as the European Union have taken a keen interest in the future development of the Arctic, and are increasing their presence in the region. The motive is not hard to find – the Arctic is a living laboratory where one can observe the irreversible consequences of climate change and all the challenges and opportunities that come with it.

The Baltic Sea region is geographically and historically connected with the Arctic region. All the environmental, economic and security-related changes directly affect our region. As a close neighbour of the Arctic region, we are building up our expertise and looking forward to tighter cooperation with our closest neighbours in this matter.

Our scientists are actively involved in and developing polar research. Numerous research expeditions to the Arctic have been launched – to Greenland, Svalbard and Iceland. During those expeditions, our scientists from the University of Latvia have advanced their knowledge and expertise related to glaciers, including their geometry, surface changes and thermal structure. Other key areas of studies are related to microbiological diversity and environmental pollution in the Arctic and the impact these have on the Baltic Sea region. Aside from this, there are many fields where we can bring our expertise to the Arctic. For example, the reduction of pollution. Unfortunately, due to its geographic location and economic activities, the Baltic Sea remains one of the most polluted seas in the world. Much has been done together with our neighbours to improve the situation. This includes not only the reduction of pollution but also our steps towards building a sustainable blue economy, including coastal management and development policy. And Latvia is ready to share that experience.

How has the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ approach to the Arctic evolved over the last decade?

With climate change unfolding, the global role of the Arctic is on the rise. As climate, security, the safety of navigation and sea routes have long been priorities for Latvia, it is apparent that the focus on the Arctic in our foreign policy has been increasing in the last couple of years.

To understand climate and environmental change in the Arctic, we need to look at these changes in the global context. The Arctic and also Antarctica are two regions where you can see climate change at a faster pace than in any other region in the world. Latvia considers the mitigation of climate change to be one of the strategic priorities in diplomacy for the coming decades. Last November, the whole world was following discussions in Glasgow at COP26. The implementation of COP26 results requires a more ambitious commitment from all the Parties to the Paris Agreement, given that it is our joint commitment.

At the national level, in 2019, Latvia developed a national plan for adaptation to climate change for the period up to 2030. In 2020, Latvia approved its national strategy for achieving Latvia’s climate neutrality by 2050. Like in other EU Member States, a National Climate and Energy Plan for the period 2021-2030 has been adopted, which maps out the directions of economic development in sectors that are to contribute to the implementation of the green transition. At present, the new Climate Law is in the process of interministerial coordination.

We fully support the approach that the Arctic is a ‘zone of low tension’ and that all interested parties should have a general agreement to keep it like this. However, what we have seen lately is the potential for tensions to increase. With the melting of the Arctic ice sheet and its full collapse looming as early as by the mid-century, the Arctic seas face becoming strategic waterways drawn into a competition, the consequences of resource extraction, open navigation claims, and a military stand-off.

In the field of navigation, Latvia’s long-term interests lie in free, safe and environmentally friendly navigation in the Arctic, based on the principles established by the United Nations and the International Maritime Organisation. The use of new sea routes must contribute to prosperity in the wider region.

In November 2021, the Latvian Minister of Foregn Affairs, Edgars Rinkēvičs, stated that Latvia intends to apply for the role of Observer in the Arctic Council in 2022. What are the key priorities that Latvia will present in its application?

Yes, it is our goal to apply for Observer status in the Arctic Council. The main focus of our work in the Arctic Council would be placed on three issues. First, the environment and climate change. As mentioned before, the Arctic has the potential to become a pilot region for mitigating and adapting to climate change. Developments in the Arctic have a direct impact on the Baltic Sea region; hence, Latvian scientists are interested in the Arctic. We see the potential for increasing our research activities in the Arctic; we have already developed our scientific expertise in the Baltic Sea region, and we are ready to offer it to the Arctic. 

Our second priority is people. We want to take an active part in preserving the cultural and linguistic diversity of the Arctic region as Latvia has vast experience in this matter. The Arctic countries want to improve the living standards of the region’s population, its accessibility and the quality of health care. Latvia could potentially provide its solutions in the fields of food quality technology, nutritional research and health care. 

The third priority would be development. With the growth in economic activity, the countries of the region are looking for environmentally friendly and balanced solutions, and those also present opportunities for Latvian entrepreneurs. The use of new sea routes contributes to the prosperity of the wider region. The development of the EU’s transport policy and connectivity with the Arctic is important for Latvia.

At this point, we are in dialogue with the Arctic Council, its member states, regional representatives and organisations representing Indigenous peoples. We want to understand regional needs and then understand which issues we could bring our expertise to and work together. Latvia is a small country but we have developed good sectoral knowledge, for example, in the fields of digitalisation and tackling plastic pollution.

Has Latvia worked with Arctic and Nordic bodies?

Active cooperation between the Baltics and Nordics began to develop when the Baltic states regained their independence in 1991. Since then, Latvia and the two other Baltic states have been fully integrated into the Baltic-Nordic cooperation format. Today, the friendship between the Baltic and Nordic countries has grown into a stable and internationally recognised “brand” – the Nordic-Baltic-8. We are linked together by common cultural, historical, political and economic ties. We share not only our geopolitical position but also our challenges and values. The main aspects of our cooperation are security, connectivity, digitalisation, climate and human rights. Latvia highly values this mutual partnership: we are ready to work on unlocking our cooperation’s potential and deepening our ties by becoming a part of Arctic organisations.

Are there any Arctic strategies already being implemented in Latvia, or in the making?

Yes, we have established an Intergovernmental Working Group on Arctic issues, and one of its tasks is to prepare Latvia’s High North Strategy. As already mentioned, our key priorities in the Arctic are the environment, climate, development and social issues. Security and defence is another topic for discussion. We want to see and keep the Arctic as a region with low tension.

Could you tell us more about the bilateral relationships that Latvia has with Arctic and Nordic states? Are there any special or challenging relationships of note?

The Arctic and Nordic countries are important counterparts for Latvia in both bilateral relations and various international organisations. Nordic countries have been close friends and partners not only at the political level, but also in economy, culture, education and environmental protection. As the Baltic Sea region, we share a common history, problems and values. No less important are active people-to-people contacts, as the daily lives in the region are becoming increasingly interconnected.

The USA is Latvia’s strategic partner and ally. The two countries have a special relationship. Until the restoration of Latvia’s independence in 1991, the United States consistently pursued a policy of non-recognition of Latvia’s occupation, made an invaluable contribution to the restoration of Latvia’s independence, and promoted Latvia’s integration into NATO and the EU. Security policy is the basis of bilateral cooperation between Latvia and the United States, as well as Canada. Since 2017, Canada has been the framework nation in the battlegroup of NATO’s enhanced Forward Presence in Latvia, thus establishing in-depth cooperation in the field of security and defence.

Could you tell us more about the Arctic institutional landscape in Latvia, including who the key players within government and academia are?

We have an Intergovernmental Working Group that includes almost all the ministries. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is the supervisory body in this working group, with the Ministries of Science and Education and of Environmental Protection and their sub-institutions also playing a very active role. Latvia has established the Polar Research Centre, affiliated with the University of Latvia. It unites all scientists who pursue research related to climate change and environmental processes in the Arctic.

What is Latvia’s current relationship with Russia like? How about with China?

Currently the issue about relations with Russia can be discussed only in the context of Russia’s unprovoked and illegitimate full-scale military attack against Ukraine. Russia has gravely violated Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity and international law, including the core principles of the UN charter. There are already devastating consequences for Ukraine and its people, though we have no doubts Ukraine will succeed, but they will have long-term negative implications for the whole Euro-Atlantic area. Russia’s long-standing confrontational actions, aggressive foreign policy, revisionist approach within international organisations and abuse of history pose a serious challenge for the existing rules-based international order that the West will firmly stand for and uphold.

Our cooperation with China is determined by overall policy developments, including the EU-China framework. China’s diverging interpretation of fundamental values like human rights as well as the rules-based international order narrows our options for cooperation. Chinese readiness to use coercive measures towards Lithuania and by extension the EU internal market as a means for safeguarding political interests is a worrying trend. We expect everyone to cooperate towards de-escalating the situation and finding a solution both diplomatically and through the dispute settlement consultations of the WTO. At the same time, we need to maintain a pragmatic and regular dialogue with China. We look forward to holding the next EU-China Summit this year.

What do you see as the greatest challenge to the Arctic?

A phenomenon expected to characterise the Arctic in the twenty-first century will be competition for natural resources, especially where no ownership has yet been fully or clearly established. Predictions of the potential access to natural resources in the Arctic have tempted many countries to look North. It is unclear how geopolitical and geoeconomic relations will develop further, especially between the world’s largest countries. That could have a challenging impact not only on the Arctic but also Europe as a whole.

(This interview took place on Friday, 11 March 2022)

Ambassador Andris Pelšs has served as the State Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Latvia since 2018. Prior to that, over the course of his career in the Latvian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, he served early on in the Security Policy Division and NATO Division, the Permanent Representations of the Republic of Latvia to the UN and then NATO, and later as Head of Arms Control Division (2005-2006), Head of International Operations and Crisis Management Division (2006-2007), Ambassador-Representative to the Political and Security Committee in the Permanent Representation of Latvia to the European Union (2012-2016) and later as Under-Secretary of State – Political Director in the Ministry itself (2016-2018). He also served as Foreign Affairs Adviser to the President of Latvia (2007-2012). 
Alisa Musanovic is a Global Leadership Fellow at Polar Research and Policy Initiative. She is a graduate of a History BA at the University of Oxford and a recent graduate of an International Double Master’s Degree jointly studied at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies at UCL and University of Helsinki. 
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