Press Availability With Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics
Secretary of State
MODERATOR: (Via interpreter.) Ladies and gentlemen, and now we start the media opportunity of Foreign Minister of Latvia Edgars Rinkevics and U.S. Secretary of State, her Excellency, Ms. Hillary Clinton. First of all, I’ll give the floor to the Latvian Foreign Minister, and then the Secretary of State, and then media will have the opportunity to ask questions.
FOREIGN MINISTER RINKEVICS: (Via interpreter.) Honored media representatives, it’s my true pleasure to greet you today here in such large numbers. And today, we have just concluded very fruitful discussions with my colleague, State Secretary Clinton. We covered broad range issues which of – about which I have informed you earlier: our political, economic cooperation, our cooperation in the field of security. We paid special attention to Afghanistan, the future of Afghanistan, and also the matters related to the Northern Distribution Network. We are ready to cooperate further towards creating the opportunity for this road to deliver goods not only to and from Afghanistan but also to turn it gradually into a route for civilian goods that would improve the economic situation in the Central Asian region.
I would also like to emphasize our discussions on educational cooperation. Normally we speak about security, economy, and politics, but we have a longstanding cooperation in the field of education, and the memoranda we signed is proof to that. We also talked about the contribution by the U.S. and the Baltic American Freedom Foundation to the education of Baltic students. And I hope that in future (inaudible) this foundation will provide opportunity for the students to study at the best universities of the United States.
We also covered broad range of issues concerning the security policy aspects. As I said earlier we – I thanked Madam Secretary of State for support to extension of the air policing mission and I pledged to the commitment of the Latvian Government and to increase the Latvian national defense budgets, as stipulated by NATO, to reach the level of 2 percent of GDP. We, of course, discussed the situation in the region and the issues that concern the EU eastern neighborhood, Moldova, Georgia, Belarus, and the Ukraine. We also talked about the relations with the Russian Federation and the way we see the situation here. And let me say that in a very brief period of time we’ve really worked very effectively.
I would like to conclude this short statement by two things. It was a true pleasure that Madam Secretary here has an opportunity to visit this country, 18 years later, approximately like the same season as it was the previous time. And also congratulations on this being the 100th country for the Madam Secretary to visit. But there are a lot of countries with the United Nations to visit. So I do hope that this meeting and this conversation will further consolidate our mutual relations and will be a proof to our – to us being very staunch partners. And it’s really a symbolic meeting in – at the – on the year of the 90th anniversary of our diplomatic relations.
And it will be a true gratification for me to see that Madam State Secretary will dedicate the street of Sumner Welles Street as a reminder that the United States stood up for the freedom and independence of the Baltic states and that stood up for the international rights and the self-determination rights of these states are very important. This is really a truly symbolic step. And some of the words that we write in the declaration in 1940 on the U.S. principles of freedom and independence have been held sacred all those years since then. And we would like to express too gratification and thanks to the United States for all support we have received since 1990, to Mrs. Clinton as Senator and as Secretary of State for her personal support and attention she devoted to our region. I should include by this.
SECRETARY CLINTON: Thank you very much, Minister, and thank you for your warm hospitality to me and my delegation. It is a real pleasure for me to be back in Riga and to have this opportunity to discuss a wide range of important issues on the bilateral, regional, and global agenda between Latvia and the United States.
I also appreciated the chance to sign these agreements that will deepen our work in two important ways by renewing the U.S.-Latvia Fulbright Program, which supports academic and scientific exchanges between our people and by coordinating and integrating our support for the people of Moldova as they reform their country’s justice system.
More broadly, this is an opportunity to look back at the 90 years of friendship and relations between the people of Latvia and the United States and to look ahead to see how we can take our relationship to an even deeper level going forward. This morning, I had productive conversations with both the President and the Prime Minister, and later today I will have the chance to talk with young people and civil society activists.
I will also pay my respects at the Freedom Monument and help dedicate a street in honor of Sumner Welles, the American diplomat who made sure the United States stood with Latvia and the Baltic countries in the face of Soviet domination some 70 years ago.
I have to add that when I was a high school student, Edgars, I had a social studies teacher, Mr. Carlson, who was a great advocate for the freedom of people under Soviet domination, including the Baltic countries, and he had an organization, which I joined as a high school student, and we had the opportunity to meet with Latvians, Lithuanians, Estonians, Poles, and others who came to the United States one way or another, sometimes escaping and seeking their freedom, who spent time talking to high school students about what it had meant to have this domination so totally occupy the countries that they came from. And so Sumner Welles really spoke for a lot of Americans when he stood up for the freedom and the refusal of the United States to recognize countries under Soviet rule.
We had an excellent conversation about a range of issues. Let me say a quick word about Syria. Latvia and the United States have worked closely together to increase pressure on the Assad regime, to provide humanitarian assistance to Syrian civilians, who are bearing the brunt of the regime’s brutal assault, and to support the efforts of Joint Special Envoy Kofi Annan to try to prepare the way for a democratic transition. We have also joined together in NATO in solidarity behind our NATO ally Turkey.
In recent days, Kofi Annan has accelerated plans for a democratic transition. I will discuss these issues with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Saint Petersburg tomorrow. And then I look forward to participating in a meeting organized by Joint Special Envoy Annan in Geneva on Saturday.
Turning to Afghanistan, I thanked the Foreign Minister for Latvia’s contributions to our shared NATO mission there. Two hundred Latvian troops are fighting side by side with American and Afghan forces. About half of all the shipments in the Northern Distribution Network pass through the port of Riga, and this has been a crucial supply line for Afghanistan – and at the moment the only supply line. And I want to applaud Latvia for making a significant financial commitment to help sustain the Afghan national security forces after 2014.
We also discussed a number of regional issues. I reaffirmed America’s steadfast commitment to our common collective defense under NATO’s Article 5, reiterated our support for NATO’s Baltic air policing mission, which both strengthens regional security and enables Latvia to focus on other critical security challenges such as Afghanistan.
And I want to express admiration that Latvia continues to make serious commitments on security and defense even in tough economic times. This country was hit hard by the global recession, but you had the courage to make some very difficult choices and to commit to a path of real economic reform. And I was very impressed when I was told that your growth rate last year was 5.5 percent and, in this last quarter, 6.9 percent. So the internal adjustment package that the government and the people of Latvia have been following is an inspiration, and we want to continue to support you as you move forward.
We also welcome Latvia’s efforts to diversify its energy supply and resources, and we will look for ways we can offer any expert assistance on that. And, of course, we know that despite the advances that have been made in the last several years in the Latvian economy, there are still too many Latvians unemployed, just as there are in my country. Therefore, we have to continue to make the kind of reforms and move toward competitiveness, improving transparency that will put more people to work and raise standards of living.
And finally, the Minister and I spoke about the crucial role of democracy and human rights in making Europe stronger and more prosperous. There are many areas where the United States and the EU are working together in Europe, and we want to see a Europe that is whole, free, democratic, prosperous, and at peace. And Latvia stands as a success story that showcases the benefits of integration into European and transatlantic institutions. But this historic project in Europe is not complete, and we all need to redouble our efforts to extend stability, security, prosperity, and democracy to the entire continent. It’s not always easy, but I want to thank Latvia for not only demonstrating by example and being a model to other countries in Europe, but calling for the release of political prisoners, calling to strengthen democracy in neighbors such as Belarus and Ukraine.
So finally, I’m just very pleased to be back – 18 years, nearly to the date. We were here on July 6th in 1994. The Minister told me that he was assigned to follow me around. He was very, very young at that time, so I am pleased, Minister, to be back here having a meeting with you as Secretary of State and Foreign Minister. I don’t think anyone, most especially either of us, could have predicted that 18 years ago.
FOREIGN MINISTER RINKEVICS: Absolutely. Let me just add that I was sitting on that part. (Laughter.) I was part of journalist pool assigned to follow the First Lady when you were making rounds also in Riga, meeting community leaders here. But it’s nice to have you back.
SECRETARY CLINTON: It’s very good to be back.
MODERATOR: (Via interpreter.) Thank you, Minister. Thank you, State Secretary. Now we have a brief period for questions. Please when asking questions use a microphone.
QUESTION: It’s Baltic News service. I have a question to Mrs. Secretary of State: Will United States support Latvia on its way joining OECD?
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, as you might guess, we have discussed that both with the Foreign Minister and with the Prime Minister, and we are certainly very interested in furthering Latvia’s ambitions to be integrated into a number of international organizations, and we appreciate Latvia’s interest in joining. As you know, OECD membership is based on consensus, so I can’t predict what will happen for any candidate country, but we certainly value our relationship. And our Embassy here in Riga is working hard to promote trade and investment. And the Minister gave me a paper about the OECD membership application, and we will continue to pursue that and work with Latvia on a range of issues that are in its interests.
MODERATOR: Thank you. And Jill from CNN.
QUESTION: Thank you. Madam Secretary, thank you very much. I’d like to ask you about Syria, please. On the eve of your meeting with Minister Lavrov, he is indicating that he does not totally support Kofi Annan’s plan. He says that President Assad’s fate should be decided through a national dialogue by the Syrian people. He says there should be no solution imposed from the outside, including about the fate of Mr. Assad. So how can the meeting in Geneva, that you’re going to be going to, succeed if that is Russia’s approach – in other words, no explicit call for Mr. Assad to step aside?
And, Mr. Minister, just one quick question: You talked about relations with Russia, and I would be interested in whether you feel any pressure or any threat coming from the new government of President Putin. Thank you.
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, Jill, as I said yesterday, we want this meeting in Geneva that Special Envoy Annan has called to provide an opportunity to make real progress in supporting and implementing his six-point plan and the roadmap for transition that he has laid down. Now in his transition document, it is a Syrian-led transition, but we certainly believe that you have to have a transition that complies with international standards on human rights, accountable governance, the rule of law, equal opportunity for all people of Syria, and this framework lays out how to arrive at that. So we’re going to wait until I have a chance to consult with Foreign Minister Lavrov tomorrow and then until we get to the meeting on Saturday. But it was very clear from the invitations that were extended by Special Envoy Kofi Annan that people were coming on the basis of the transition plan that he had presented.
FOREIGN MINISTER RINKEVICS: Well, thank you. First of all, let me say that, yes, we discussed certainly our relations with Russia and foreign policy of Russia under President Putin.
I want just to have couple of points on the issue. First, of course, it’s, I think, a little bit too early to judge what kind of foreign policy Russian President is going to follow. We see that there are some certain guidelines issued. We, as a neighbor, of course are very much interested in having as good as pragmatic relations with Russia as possible. I have to say that we also have used, I think to the fullest extent possible, recent policy set by President Obama and President Medvedev. They have had improvement of relations, particularly in economic field. Also we have been able to sign some long-awaited agreements.
One thing, certainly, what I want to underline, is that some of current developments with democratic, political rights within Russia worries us. It’s absolutely clear. And I think that we also are here very united in our assessment. And we do hope that internally also middle class, also politically active people, representatives of civic society will be able to change to the course of internal development to more democratic way.
However, I think also that we will build our bilateral relations, our – also relations as a part of EU with Russia, as a part of NATO with Russia, on principles of self-respect, of mutual respect, and certainly we are looking forward to continue this dialogue. And as you know, there are some issues that directly affect also this region, for instance, missile defense and modernization of military in Kaliningrad. There are some things that we are closely watching and we are seeing some certain – also I would say reason for concern.
And we also are going to discuss that with our Russian colleagues; we are going to discuss it also, of course, within NATO. But in general, I still hope that also President Putin and Foreign Minister Lavrov will continue engagement and a constructive engagement with the West, and we as a part of the West will be certainly part of a very constructive relationship.
MODERATOR: (Via interpreter.) We have – we are very short of time, so very – a couple of brief questions. Daily Business Newspaper.
QUESTION: Business Daily Newspaper, Daily Business. Until recently, Latvia has been largely overlooked by American investment, and for a good reason. We are a small, faraway country, et cetera. But do you see any other good reasons for this attitude change right now? Thank you.
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, first, let me say that we are certainly working to promote greater business between Latvia and the United States and greater investment in Latvia by the United States. That’s been a particular focus of mine. I’ve used the phrase “economic statecraft” to promote a real emphasis on commercial diplomacy.
Our Ambassador has worked very hard on that. There will be some American business representatives visiting Latvia in the next few days. We are exploring ways that we can do more procurement in Latvia for the Northern Distribution Network. We are looking at as many possible routes into closer business ties, including reaching out to the Latvian American community. So we’re working hard together to try to create more economic opportunity between our two countries, which will benefit both of our countries.
FOREIGN MINISTER RINKEVICS: Let me just quickly add I think we are a small country, but with a great spirit, and I’m absolutely certain we will find also ways to increase and to improve our economic ties. That was part which was discussed between Secretary and President, Secretary and Prime Minister, and myself and Hillary. So we are very much committed to do that from both sides.
MODERATOR: And for last, please, a very short question, Indira from Bloomberg.
QUESTION: Thank you, Madam Secretary. Today, as you know, is the deadline – the day that U.S. financial sanctions on Iranian oil imports begin, and I want to ask you about China and Singapore not having gotten exemptions yet, and whether they’re about to get them or whether it’s possible their financial institutions are going to be subject to those penalties.
And secondly, for both foreign ministers, if we could ask how important the issue is of restitution of Jewish communal property from the Holocaust? Thank you.
SECRETARY CLINTON: Indira, we are actively working this issue. Washington is barely awake. I will certainly let you know if and when there is something to announce, but for the moment, I want to reiterate what I said last week – that China and Singapore both share our goals of preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, and they appreciate that international sanctions and the pressure that these sanctions have brought to bear on the Iranian economy has been a key aspect to our dual-track strategy over the last years. And both countries have announced steps that they have taken already in their own national interest to move on this important matter, and we’re continuing to discuss and gather additional data on the implications of those steps.
And look, I mean, we’ve really made an enormous amount of progress internationally, because, globally, our work with our allies and partners around the world to implement these sanctions is paying enormous dividends. In – just for your information, in 2011, the IEA, the International Energy Agency, estimated Iran’s oil exports totaled about 2.5 million barrels a day. In 2012, those exports have already dropped to between 1.2 and 1.8 million barrels a day. That amount is continuing to go down, and it will go down, we think, quite significantly as the additional EU and U.S. sanctions are implemented.
And of course, this is all for the purpose of persuading the Iranians to negotiate sincerely with the P-5+1 over the international community’s concerns regarding their nuclear program, and we’re going to continue to both make the case and put on the pressure in order to reach a diplomatic resolution.
FOREIGN MINISTER RINKEVICS: Okay. So on the issue of restitution of Jewish property, I have to say that we have had – and we have – a very good dialogue with Jewish community here in Latvia. I want to underline that, already, those citizens or those individuals who – or whose ancestors have had any property before World War II, as they have been able, and they claim back their private property, according to Latvian law on denationalization.
What we are currently talking, it’s about communal property, about things like religious buildings, like buildings of community, clubs, and so on. And I have met with Jewish community a couple of times. We have discussed how we can address this issue, how to keep and maintain dialogue. What we have already done – and I want to underline we have been also supporting Jewish community where we have seen that it is impossible to give back some of communal buildings, for instance, Jewish school. The government and Riga City Council has found a way how to actually restitute that school in a different building. And I think that currently, Riga Jewish School is one of the most modern schools in Riga or in Latvia. It has been opened last January, and that’s the way how we see the process gradually developing.
Having said that, of course there is a discussion because, as you may imagine, this is an issue with legal dimension, with moral dimension, with historic dimension. It is very difficult. It shows there are, of course, different opinions in society and political circles. But what I have encouraged the Jewish community and what also political parties agreed is to have a dialogue, to continue seeking the ways how this problem can be addressed.
And I have to say also that – if we speak about all those tragic, historic events that actually were unfolding here in Latvia during 20th century, one thing of course we have to keep in mind – that all that property, of course, has been taken away by the Soviet regime. And then we had a second wave of occupation which was Nazi regime. So I think that when we are talking about such things here in society, in public, we have to exercise extra caution because they are very sensitive due to historic considerations. And I am also very committed to continue dialogue with community here. I’m also very committed to have a dialogue with other political parties in order to find the best way how to address concerns of community.
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, I very much appreciate the Foreign Minister’s comments. I raised this issue today in our meetings with the President and the Prime Minister – and you’ve just heard from the Foreign Minister – because the United States strongly supports restitution or compensation for those whose property was confiscated by either the Nazis or the Communists. And we think resolving these issues quickly and fairly is in everyone’s interests, and we hope that the process that the Foreign Minister has just described will be able to move forward, and that this issue about communal property, restitution legislation can be addressed as soon as possible, because it is a piece of unfinished historical business, but I very much appreciate the efforts that the government is making.
Thank you all very much.
FOREIGN MINISTER RINKEVICS: Thank you.