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Three Seas Talks – Māris Andžāns, PhD, Director of the Center for Geopolitical Studies Riga

Stefan: My name is Stefan Tompson and we are here for the Institute of New Europe in a series of conversations with representatives of the Three Seas countries. Today we are speaking with Māris Andžāns from Latvia. It is a very exacting topic for me. I’ve actually just come back from Latvia. I was filming in Riga and then I was filming in Daugavpils. I have a TV show about the former Polish borderlands and former Polish influence in the region. Of course one of the interesting topics that came out was Polish involvement in helping the Latvians push back the Bolsheviks in 1919-1920. So there is a great connection between Poland and Latvia in the current context. Māris, maybe we can start with you telling us about you, the work you do with your center and a little bit of context about yourself before we dive into economics of the Three Seas.

Māris: I work for the Center for Geopolitical Studies in Riga as well as at the Rīga Stradiņš University. At the first place I am the director, at the second I am an associate professor. That’s briefly about me.

Stefan: Sure. The discussions that we are having as a part of this series is about the Three Seas and about cooperation between the Three Seas countries. Obviously my questions are coming from a Polish point of reference. Contextually there is probably an overrepresentation of Polish point of view in these discussions because of the bias of the interviewer. From your perspective, could you tell me about the Three Seas and how it’s perceived in Latvia? Is it something that people know about? Is it an initiative with broad support in the country? Or is it something that does not really exist in the Latvian consciousness?

Māris: I would say that it is virtually unknown in the society at large, of course. It is known by the expert community, state institutions and politicians. But beyond that it is virtually unknown. Most probably, most people heard about it first when Latvia hosted an event this summer. It will take time for this Initiative to get a recognition in the society.

Stefan: Among the expert class and the political class, what is the general feeling towards the Initiative? Is it broadly supported? Is it cautious? What is the feeling that you get?

Māris: Generally there is a full support. We have to interact more with other countries of the region. This would enhance not only our national security but also the economic cooperation with other states of the EU. So I think the perception is quite positive. At the same time, experts and politicians are not naive. It’s going to be quite a difficult task to extend the cooperation beyond Poland. So we are quite close with Baltics and Poland. Latvia’s top trading partners (among the Initiative members) are Lithuania, Estonia and Poland. When it comes to other countries of the Initiative the links are less intense.

Stefan: Sure. You actually predicted the next question I have.  In the perception of the Baltic three there is this sense of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania being a sort of block and an interconnected space that is quite disjointed from the rest. It is interesting to hear that there is this link with Poland. I did not actually know that Poland is this large trading partner for Latvia. For some of the big, key infrastructural projects of the Three Seas the Baltics states are key to joining the North and the South. In Poland this is presented as a sort of redressing historical injustices. The infrastructure in the West is the way it is because they were not affected the way we were by the communism or the WW2 destruction. There is a sense that is all happening because of all the historical injustices and we are repairing that. Is this something that is voiced by the experts in Latvia? Is there a sense that we are behind our EU, Western partners because of historical injustices? Or is it something that isn’t brought up in the public sphere?

Māris: Well, that is something very much present in the public sphere. The resentment towards the Soviet Union. We have lost so many opportunities, lives as well. We would have been in a much better state had the Nazis and Soviets not occupied the Baltic States. It is of course quite difficult to revert history and Nazi and Soviet injustices. It is going to take quite some time. It is also quite difficult to direct the businesses and attract business partners. Nobody is naïve. Businesses naturally find their partners themselves, and this is not the way that it was done in the Soviet Union, in the centralized economy. Everything was planned – what we would produce, where, at what price and what would be sold.

Stefan: In terms of economic relations…  Could you expand on the relations that you have as the Baltic block? Is that even a right terminology? Do the Baltics consider themselves as a sort of a block? Or is it part of the imagination of the Baltics, an outsider’s perspective?

Māris: In many ways [it is true]… Of course shared geography and history matter. Lithuanian and Latvian languages are quite similar, and the societal contacts are also quite intense. So definitely, Baltic states are very similar. There are no other neighbors that are as close to us. This brough us quite close politically and economically. At the same time, the Baltic states are sometimes denoted as “beloved enemies”. When it comes to economics, the Baltic states tend to compete. There have been quite a lot of examples of the Baltics states competing instead of cooperating.

Stefan: Could you expand on that? That is very interesting to hear. What sort of competition are we talking about?

Māris: Once example was the LNG terminal. This is actually quite a big issue here since the Russian gas in no longer imported here. Latvia forbid it and Lithuania and Estonia did as well. Around a decade ago an LNG terminal was supposed to be constructed in the Baltic states, but we were not able to agree on a location. Then Lithuanians created their own LNG terminal in Klaipeda. That was one of the examples of when the Baltics were not able to agree on something. It was quite unfortunate. We might have been in a bit better situation right now, if we built it together. But it is what it is.

Stefan: There is one recurring thing that has come up from other experts I have spoken to. The Three Seas at its core is ultimately about infrastructure, these big transborder infrastructure projects. One of the recurring complaints has been that it is already difficult to complete big infrastructural projects at the national level, let alone across borders. Has the Russian invasion of Ukraine had an impact on the Three Seas, on pursuing these infrastructural aims like Via Baltica? Is there a new energy, a new sense of urgency, of purpose? Is that something that actually might accelerate the integration?

Māris: Yes, but not necessarily in the context of the Three Seas Initiative. We have, at least, two challenges when it comes to infrastructure. One is natural gas. Estonia together with Finland is planning to build an LNG terminal, it should be ready before the winter. Latvia is also going to construct and LNG terminal most probably in Skulte, north from Riga. And also GIPL, natural gas interconnector was unveiled in May between Lithuania and Poland. So natural gas is one issue and had Russia not invaded Ukraine then new LNG terminals might have been completed further into the future. These decisions were hastened. And also GIPL most probably would be unveiled much later.

The second is transportation, specifically railroad. Rail Baltica is the largest infrastructure project in the last decades in the Baltic States. The construction is on the way, we are few years away from being able to come from Tallin to Warsaw by train. Currently this is impossible as we have different rail gauge here in the Baltic states due to the Soviet era (wide gauge) and in Poland you use the European gauge. There are some lines crossing into Poland and there are some European gauge line inside of Lithuania. Still, it is impossible to use train to travel across the Baltic states and reach Poland. That’s going to be a big gamechanger. It is not just about the economic cooperation but also about the contact between the societies. Right now you need around four hours to drive from Riga to Tallin or to Vilnius. The times could be cut to 2 hours by train and a train would also be much more comfortable than a bus. Not only the three Baltic states would be brought much closer but also Poland is going to be a bit nearer.

Stefan: I am very aware of that logistical element. We have been filming a second season of my show and a lot of it was filmed in the Baltic three. It’s a very long drive from Warsaw. It takes a surprisingly long time. This brings me onto another topic… It is funny how something that seems so banal, like the width of rails, can be a massive issue in terms of connecting these capitals. One of the things, at least from the Polish perspective, is that despite being so close to the Baltic three and despite recent meetings of our leaders (politically we are suddenly very close, we are at the front of the humanitarian effort and support for Ukraine, providing it with weapons and political support), outside of that political realm there is a great unknown. We don’t really know Latvians, Estonians and Lithuanians. How does this look on the ground in Latvia? Obviously you know each other, you do know your Estonian and Lithuanian neighbors. Is there a sense that you know Poland and the broader Three Seas as well? Or even that you have some countries that are more popular for tourist? Like in Poland, we might not be neighbor of Spain but many people go there to spend their holidays. There are feelings of some affinity. Could you expand on that on sort of human level rather than of an expert?

Māris: Recently we did a national survey on the friendliest and least friendliest countries according to Latvians. The first was Estonia, second was Lithuania and the third was Poland. Poland is considered as one of the most friendliest countries. Even though there is quite a distance to Poland, Poland still is quite a popular destination for Latvians. Not only as a destination, but also as a transit country to Germany and other countries, for those who travel overland. So Poland is quite well known here in Latvia. Polish community is rather significant. It’s Russians, Belarussians, Ukrainians and then Poles in terms of ethnicity in the Latvian population. So Poland is well known and it is also well known that you are on the same page when it comes to foreign and security policy. There are of course differences when it comes to some issues within the European Union. But we agree on the general foreign and security policy in terms of NATO, in terms of supporting Ukraine. At the same time, we are not completely on the same page when it comes to issues in Poland, the justice system and other issues.

Stefan: Going beyond Poland, and more towards the Three Seas in general. In Poland there is some concern that the Three Seas are seen as a Polish-led Initiative, because we are obviously the largest state within it. There is a fear that the Initiative might be seen as Poland’s attempt at regaining its “rightful place” within the region, rebuilding the Jagiellonian alliance within the Central and Eastern Europe. Is there such fear in Latvia, of sort of Polish neo-imperialism happening? And that the Three Seas Initiative might by an attempt at that, though it is not necessarily?

Māris: Absolutely not. Poland is considered as one of the most friendly countries in the Baltic states and especially in Latvia. I mentioned the survey results. Feeling might be different in Lithuania because of the historical relationship between Poland and Lithuania, but not in Latvia. I did not mention, but Polish soldiers also serve in Latvia as a part of the Canadian-led NATO battle group. So Poland is generally seen in a positive light here, both among the experts and politicians as well broader society.

Stefan: Going beyond Poland, and towards other Three Seas states… Are there strong links between Latvia and other regional states? Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Czechia, Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia, and Austria of course…

Māris: That depends. The farther you go, the weaker the links become. We interact less the farther South the Initiative country is located.

Stefan: And business wise? [I am interested in] not just necessarily about the cultural or personal ties, but also business and economic ones.

Māris:  Yes, it is quite similar. The farther down south the Three Seas region, the less cooperation there is between Latvia and other countries.

Stefan: Going back to the economic issues at hand. What are current main opportunities [from the Latvian perspective?] Obviously we have this historic moment of growth. The entire region has been growing at and incredible pace. When you travel around the CEE it is incredible to see these capitals that once had this reputation of being gray and dark, being this incredible beautiful capitals. Riga is absolutely stunning, it is an amazing city. There is an energy, a sense of things going forward. There is this sense of energy, hope and optimism for the future. What is the economic outlook and the feelings of where we are going in the region? Especially in the context of sort of an enormous stagnation in the West. I grew up in the UK and spent a lot of time in London and France. There is a sense of stagnation, of not knowing where they are going. A plateau has been reached. Whereas in Warsaw, especially around the people my age, in their economic prime, I get this feeling of really going somewhere. I want to get your feeling. Especially, from a position of an expert as I look from the position of a lay person. So it would be interesting to hear from your perspective. And also to get a view from Latvia.

Māris: You mean geographically? Or some other sense?

Stefan: Not geographically, but economically certainly. And what the future role of our region could be. And especially if you see an angle that sort of links the Three Seas. The issue with the discussions around the Three Seas is that it’s all incredibly theoretical. It’s sort of happening, but not really. Some of the infrastructural project would have happened anyway. It’s all quite vague. Sure there are some projects that are outlined, 70+ of them, but it is not really well defined, I think. I don’t know if you agree with that.

Māris: Yes, I do agree. The Initiative has potential. On one hand is hard to tell the business where it should operate, at the same time things can be facilitated. Rail Baltica has one of the biggest potentials in increasing the cooperation not only among the Baltic states and Poland but also farther down the South. I think Poland could play more active role in connecting the Baltic states with other countries of the 3SI, when it comes to infrastructure. Otherwise, the trade vectors tie us closely with the Nordic countries. For Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania they are already closest partners in trade. Russia is still quite high on the trade list, but the percentage is quite small. I checked the latest data, it’s around 6 to 7%, so we are getting farther away from Russia. At the same time we are also in a quite close economic cooperation with Finland, Sweden, Poland, Germany. These are the countries of the region with which we have the closes economic cooperation. It’s going to be quite difficult to extend this farther South, to the other 3SI countries. So the potential is there, but we are tied quite much here in the Nordic-Baltic region.

Stefan: It is very interesting what you said in the sense of needing Poland to be this “key to the [Three Seas] lock”. Obviously Poland is the country that sorts of “blocks” you, in the geographical sense, from the rest of the region. So it needs to be the “key” to further integration. What could be done by Poland to ensure that this integration goes as smoothly as possible? Not just in terms of regulation or the political will. Obviously there is the economic factor – money needs to be found to finance all of these projects – but better communication should also be considered. If you could break down the elements that are required to turn these dreams and hopes into reality. Along the outlined vectors and perhaps also additional ones, if there are any.

Māris: Poland is definitely not blocking anything. It is, as you put it, “the key”. Without Poland this initiative cannot succeed. I think that Poland has already facilitated this cooperation. It has also been instrumental in getting the US behind this endeavor. Poland should continue its efforts. Nevertheless, it is going to be a bit difficult, as I told you. When it comes to business and liberal democracies, business will always find their opportunities themselves. Of course, government can help with infrastructure. So Poland should be active, even more active in Rail Baltica project, trying to extend it farther to the south and west. You can also help organize more Business Forums and connect businesses, but otherwise there is, I am afraid, not that much else to be done on the state level.

Stefan: Final question. I am generally quite an enthusiastic person. Maybe overly so. I asked this question multiple ways… Are you generally optimistic about the Initiative, about the region? Despite, obviously the current geopolitical context and potential of the global recession around the corner. It’s more about your gut feeling. I am very keen on getting people’s gut feelings. Gut feelings tend to have some ingrained sense of truth. Quite keen to see if you are quite optimistic or not necessarily. And if so, why not.

Māris: Well, I am optimistic about the northern tip of the Three Seas Initiative – Baltic states and Poland. But I am quite cautious about the rest. I am not speaking about the 3SI as a whole, as there might be other sub-initiatives and projects that can connect other countries of the region. But I see a bright future for the Baltic states and Poland. I think the cooperation is going to grow further. Poland is one of the power centers of Europe. It already has one of the strongest armed forces. Poland is seen as instrumental here in the Baltic states in terms of security. And also is the key to the rest of Europe, when it comes to travel overland.

Stefan: Excellent. Maris, thank you so much for your time. Really appreciate it. And thanks for that bright, optimistic ending. It is exactly what we need to hear in these dark times. Thank you.

Māris: Thank you.