President of Latvia

Speech made to the Assembly

Tuesday, 24 September 1996

It is truly a great pleasure and honour for me to address the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. This Organisation has worked very closely with Latvia since the renewal of our independence, and therefore I attach great importance to my dialogue with you today.

Following the end of Soviet occupation and withdrawal of Russian troops, development in Latvia has been very rapid in all spheres of life. I believe that in the past five years we have covered a distance over which other European nations have taken decades. The Soviet iron curtain has been replaced by a modern, open, democratic system, and a civic society is forming in the place of an ideologised Soviet society. Free market principles have ousted Soviet protectionism and outstanding personalities are valued over impersonal Soviet collectivism.

Could Latvia be ready for the future? Would it be an exaggeration to say “yes”? There is a traditional Latvian saying with a similar question about our capital, “Is Riga ready yet?”; if the answer is in the affirmative, Riga will sink into an abyss.

We think of our readiness for Europe as conformity with the criteria of modern-day Europe and as an understanding of the definitive issues and challenges of tomorrow. Destinies of European nations can be described by several notions. The nation state is one of them. This notion is disputable and ambivalent. A look into the history of our continent prompts that almost any country in Europe has been created by its title-nation, for which this country is the only territory in the world where the nation can preserve itself. The title-nation enjoys the decisive role in developing the country’s identity. On the other hand, a nation state gains by its ability to sustain a certain openness and to integrate the riches of culture and ideas of other nationalities.

The cultural region is another notion. Historically, seldom have a nation state and a cultural region covered geographically identical territories, thus often making them contradictory notions. The link that joins these notions is the constant need to integrate what is always initially “alien” and from which we only want to distance ourselves. At the same time, however, we are all aware of the criteria which serve as a litmus test for determining what is to be accepted and what is to be rejected.

Strasbourg is located in Alsace, one of Europe’s cultural regions. Historically a number of cultural and linguistic layers have formed here. A look into the cultural environment and contemporary life of Strasbourg easily prompts the conclusion that this wonderful city has been created by the fusion of the ideas and efforts of many different people.

As a rock has a vein, Europe also has its own golden reef. That is precisely why Strasbourg was chosen as the seat of the Council of Europe and the Parliament of the European Union. Strasbourg is truly one of Europe’s “capitals”. Does the experience of Strasbourg suffice to conclude that Europe is ready for the future?

Latvia has several links with the seat of the Council of Europe. Almost two and a half centuries ago, Herder, the German philosopher, came to Strasbourg. He had just spent five years in Riga and for a long time his attention was focused on the ideas of cultural heritage of the European nations and the preservation of their identities. The years he spent in the Baltic states proved that Europe is more than the culture of the large nations. The philosopher was particularly interested in the spiritual world of the small nations. The frequently forgotten smaller nations have a world of ideas that make the European mosaic perfect and complete. The Baltic – both in Herder’s day and today – is a cultural region with a European identity.

Knowing that the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe is a forum used to open discussion, I have decided to touch upon the problem in the context in which the future of all European nation states is viewed. The issue is our national security and I would like to expand on one aspect of it, namely that a united and integrated society is a prerequisite for national security.

Therefore, I believe that the security and viability of the European nation state will be directly dependent on the extent of our ability and willingness to integrate what is alien. To me, the 'word “alien” describes ideas, values and opinions that have come from elsewhere, as well as people who have come from other lands. The model of a European state is linked to our ability to determine the difference between that which can be and even should be integrated without undermining the identity of the state, and that which' would endanger its identity. When looking at states in different regions of Europe, it is easy to acknowledge the extent to which this challenge is linked to the peaceful and prosperous future of the whole continent.

Must everything that is alien be integrated? Could Europe be ready for the future? Which are the criteria that enable us to differentiate without error between the acceptable and the unacceptable? Notions about the identity of the Latvian people help me when I think about the future of Europe as do notions about the traditional rural environment close to the Latvians.

In every country of our continent, the cultural environment and the homeland to which we have been used throughout the centuries and which suits the mentality of our nation is essential if every nation is to preserve its uniqueness and to withstand the pressures of uniformity that we face as a result of our so-called globalisation. Globalisation and only one and a half million Latvians – can these notions be expressed in one breath? Concerns over the devaluing impact of globalisation are voiced even in the larger states of Europe. The Latvian people must be truly united if they are not to disappear from the map and from the history of Europe. The fifty years of occupation brought cynical success and the consequences are very clearly visible. Are there many countries in Europe in which the native population constitutes barely half the inhabitants? Would it be very surprising in such a situation if the native population were to seek only its own identity and to reject all that is alien? However, just as before, we in Latvia are rediscovering and recognising the values that must form the foundation for integration. We acknowledge that as one of the key tasks for Latvia and we can look back and learn from our past experience. Throughout its history, Latvia has stood for a variety of spiritual ideas, languages, opinions, beliefs and expressions. The roots and expressions of that variety reach back into the beginnings of this millennium.

The recent period of restoration of Latvia’s independence was marked by an uplift of national feeling. At the time, politicians and the mass media in many European states feared widespread unrest and conflicts due to rival ethnic interests and strong nationalism. However, in all these years, even a very careful reader will have been unable to find any reports of the predicted conflicts in Latvia – they simply have not happened.

From the Soviet era in Latvia we inherited complex and unsolved problems in the area of ethnic relations, which were denied in those days. The people of Latvia have understood their responsibility towards the peaceful development of Latvia from the time of the restoration of independence at the turn of the decade. This has been manifested by an atmosphere of mutual understanding and tolerance, which has been created both by the native population and by people of other nationalities. Over the past years we have developed a wide social, political and ethnic dialogue. I believe that one of the most significant achievements in the period of our renewed independence is the wide agreement of the people of Latvia that the identity of our country is a European one. I see this as proof that Latvia is the success story of the transitional process taking place in central and eastern Europe. Our positive experience in the process of social integration should be of interest to other countries. Our experience relates to important characteristics of the future model of European states.

National, political and social harmony – that is the road that we peacefully and consistently pursue, keeping clear landmarks in sight. The nation state, a multicultural society and human rights are the three key landmarks for Latvia as a modern state. They serve as the values forming the basis for the integration process in Latvia. These values emerged in the society of Latvia quite recently, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the restoration of independence. Only a few years have passed since then, but there is a high level of awareness in Latvia of human rights and the rights of national minorities. That is evidenced by the successful observation in Latvia of principles and standards which are yet to be implemented in some European states.

Those principles and standards are represented in Latvia by the national programme for the protection and promotion of human rights, developed in accordance with the recommendations of the Vienna conference on human rights. Its cornerstone is an independent human rights institution – the Latvian human rights office. The main tasks of the office are to handle individual complaints of human rights violations, to inform the public on various human rights issues and to submit recommendations to the parliament – the Saeima – and the government on amendments to Latvia’s legislation in human rights.

One of the fundamental human rights is the right to education. During the Soviet era, education in schools took place in two languages, but now it is possible in nine languages. Education is state financed in Latvian, Russian, Polish, Hebrew, Ukrainian, Estonian, Lithuanian, Romany and Belarusian.

A multicultural society is characterised by the opportunity for members of national minorities to broadcast their own television and radio programmes, to publish newspapers in their own languages and to form cultural associations. These rights are firmly established and widely used in Latvia.

Upon joining the Council of Europe, Latvia undertook a number of commitments under a major convention of the Council of Europe – the European Convention on Human Rights. Latvia is determined to fulfil its commitments to the Council of Europe. It is expected that the issue of ratification of the convention will be considered in the Saeima before the end of this year.

Thus committing ourselves, we are aware that the death penalty is a topical issue. Public opinion in Latvia is still not fully ready to accept the abolition of the death penalty. The Parliament of Latvia will, in the immediate future, begin discussing its abolition. I can assure you that, pending a decision by the Saeima, I shall not turn down any requests for a pardon. I hereby declare the Latvian President’s moratorium on the death penalty.

Social integration in any European state also concerns relations between the native population and other ethnic communities. Harmonious relations among the various ethnic groups of a state are an important and characteristic feature of social integration.

I have formed a special advisory group to develop a dialogue between national groups in our country. The group includes representatives of the various national groups. The Consultative Council on Nationalities is clearly focused on finding some kind of “binding material” that could be used in the process of social integration.

In this context, Latvian language training is a priority. Accordingly, the Government of Latvia has accepted and, in the near future, will begin to implement the national programme for Latvian language training, which will provide all non-Latvian speaking residents with the opportunity to learn the language. This should consolidate an emotional as well as a rational sense of belonging to the Latvian state and its future destiny. It should also contribute to the building of Latvia as a stable nation state.

There are still countries – also in our neighbourhood – that reproach Latvia because they believe that its policies permit violations of human rights. Recently, the members of the Political Affairs Committee of the Parliamentary Assembly visited Latvia and gained an insight into our everyday life. They had the opportunity to see for themselves that the political system in Latvia guarantees the fundamental rights and freedoms of every inhabitant. Latvia has nothing to hide in this respect. We are ready to answer any question about the situation of human rights in Latvia.

A permanent place in our consideration of a united Europe is held by the notion of identity. Each nation reaches its understanding of this notion in a different way. This understanding is linked to determining historical factors. It is also to a large extent each nation’s free will, formed by decades and centuries.

Europe knows many criteria which serve as a foundation for a nation’s identity. Here I refer to the language, birth place and native region with which individuals associate themselves. What is important is the awareness of and feeling for the homeland, which provides the emotional and rational link with the territory in which one lives. Memory and historical awareness are central notions to every European.

In the case of Latvia, this includes the fifty years under Soviet occupation. We have spiritually overcome this period and a different system of values has found roots in our society. We shall never forget it because historical memory forms the facets of our identity.

We do not harbour desire for revenge, because we are able to tell ordinary people apart from those who proclaimed and brought the criminal ideology to life. Nor do we equate ideology with nationality.

I am speaking here not only with the conviction of president but also with my own personal conviction.

I should like to say a few words about my personal experience. My life has had several key stages which have reflected the destiny of the Latvian people. After Latvia found itself a part of the Soviet empire, my family, too, had to share the tortured experience of many Latvians who were deported to Siberia in the name of an ideology.

Returning to Latvia after the years spent in Siberia, I was already aware of the harm that the communist ideology had done to many nations, including the Russian nation. Although the humiliation sits deep inside us, our attitude towards the grim past cannot be described as hatred. The harbouring of such feelings is not compatible with the building of a common future.

I would rather go as far as saying that I pity those who wanted to rise above others in the name of ideology and who completely rejected and silenced alternative views and ideas. This does not refer to the people who were an integral part of the mechanism of destruction. I do not believe that we can say that they did not know what they were doing.

One of my wishes is to try to visit, in the near future, the eastern regions of Russia, which are known in political history as Siberia. I want to do this for several reasons. I want to bow my head in memory of the Latvians who were deported there and perished in exile. I want to remember with gratitude the ordinary people who helped me and my family to survive. I want to see this harsh region of Russia, where many Latvians still live today and which has become their permanent place of residence. Once Latvians were completely alien there, and I want to gain some understanding of their present view of life. I want to try to see how the world is viewed by the people of present-day Russia, the citizens of a country, which is now developing relations with Latvia as a neighbour state.

When we speak of a united Europe, we refer to the concepts of territory, spirit and moral values. The overriding dimension is usually the spatial one, although it seems to me that the spiritual one is even more important.

In the spatial dimension, Europe will probably be remembered in term of territories divided by force, drawn into war, or destroyed. The second world war forced Europe to rethink radically this tradition of violence, because it has left bitterness, wounded feelings and mutual grievances in many areas of our continent. These sediments of history have hampered and limited the development of mutual understanding among countries and nations. Evidence for this can be found in the simmering conflicts in some regions of Europe. However, it is not the main result of the historical process when the notion of “territory” underwent the greatest transformations in Europe.

Has the Council of Europe, by its activities, not proved the opposite? What the League of Nations failed to achieve before the second world war, European countries and nations successfully set about achieving in the post-war period. The Council of Europe has played a decisive role in this process. One of its goals is to create harmony and to facilitate a stable peace. This can also be achieved by keeping in mind the values of forgiveness, respect and morality.

Mutual forgiveness and a coming to terms with history can be seen as important tools and a way of rising above historical injustices.

Morality versus cynicism, the ethical principle versus realpolitik? Is that outdated and forgotten today? Can morality be pragmatic today, given that the whole of western civilisation insists that pragmatism is one of its characteristics?

The more we reach harmony with ourselves, with our past and with our neighbours, the better we shall be able to overcome the negative emotions rooted in the past and the more we shall be able to build a united Europe, with prospects for survival in the dimension of time.

Latvia is ready to become part of a united Europe. Our advantage is that we do not create any conflicts in Europe. On the contrary, Latvia can serve as a successful example of a solid nation state, in which a multicultural society and human rights play a major role. I believe that this view is shared by all those who have observed the peaceful development of Latvia, including you.

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe is traditionally viewed as the conscience of Europe. Parliamentarians have tried in this forum to ask themselves and others the essential questions that have been “inconvenient” for many people. The answers to these questions have provided an opportunity to bring together previously irreconcilable views, to find harmony and mutual respect. People and political views, previously alien to one another, have found the path to understanding and face a future without confrontation.

That is why the Council of Europe should remain in its role as the institution central to the building of Europe of the future. Its investment could be crucial to defining the answers to the challenges of tomorrow. The efforts by the Council of Europe to solve the issues of integration are at the same time a search for an answer to the question: is Europe ready for the future?

Thank you.


Thank you very much, Mr President, for your interesting and moving statement. Members have expressed the wish to put questions to you, Mr President. I remind members that their questions must be limited to thirty seconds and that they should ask questions, not make speeches. So that as many members as possible may put questions, I do not propose to allow supplementary questions. I call Mrs Ojuland.

Mrs OJULAND (Estonia)

The Baltic states have developed close co-operation since their independence was restored in 1991. What is the most important achievement that you, Mr President, would like to mention, and what are the prospects for further co-operation?

Mr Ulmanis, President of Latvia (interpretation)

replied that the Baltics were indeed often viewed together and he saw the most significant achievements as being the establishment of a free trade area and co-ordination in the fields of defence and foreign affairs. In future he hoped to see further economic integration.

Mr GLOTOV (The Russian Federation) (interpretation)

asked if the President could assure him that human rights would be respected in Latvia and that standards would move closer to those set out by the Council of Europe.

Mr Ulmanis, President of Latvia (interpretation)

thought that a visit to Latvia would help to calm Mr Glotov’s fears. He hoped that future legislation would be in harmony with the rest of Europe and said that Latvia would be happy to review past legislation if not in accordance with European standards.

Mr SOLÉ TURA (Spain) (interpretation)

asked if the teaching of the Latvian language would be to all citizens or just those of school-going age.

Mr Ulmanis, President of Latvia (interpretation)

said the Latvian language would not be forced on anyone but would be taught to those who wished to learn.

Mr OLEINIK (The Russian Federation) (interpretation)

asked how the President saw Latvian/Russian relations developing in the light of recent statements.

Mr Ulmanis, President of Latvia (interpretation)

said the future for, Latvian/Russian relations was good and that the recent parliamentary declaration was one of only a few misunderstandings. He hoped that there would be a return to pragmatism as the basis for good neighbourly relations.

Mr FILIMONOV (The Russian Federation) (interpretation)

asked in the light of the closure of two schools in Riga, why Latvia restricted the education of the Russian-speaking population.

Mr Ulmanis, President of Latvia (interpretation)

said that secondary education for all Russian speakers in Latvia was freely available although he admitted that more could be done at the tertiary level.

Mr ABOUT (France) (translation)

Mr President, 34% of your population are Russian speakers. Both Latvia and Russia are now members of the Council of Europe and your country is faced with the delicate issue of the treatment of minorities and their citizenship.

What kind of political and cultural integration programme do you intend to devise in order to afford a third of your population the same rights and the same duties as other Latvians?

Mr Ulmanis, President of Latvia (interpretation)

pointed out that Ukrainians and Lithuanians were also minority groups in Latvia and felt that education in the Latvian language and history would help towards successful integration. A recent survey had shown that 70% of non-citizens in Latvia were ready to accept citizenship and integration into Latvian society.

Mr LORENZI (Italy) (translation)

Allow me to thank you, Mr President, for a very interesting statement. However, I find your support of the concept of the nation-state somewhat excessive at a time when that particular model is in crisis around the world.

Personally, I feel that the face Latvia presents to Europe bears the features more of the region-state than the nation-state, for reasons which are bound up with her size and also, perhaps, her population, her position in and comparison with Europe.

I would merely ask the following, therefore. Do you believe you stand before Europe, and wish to be seen by her, as a nation-state? Do you claim that status, or could you not envisage, for example, figuring as part of a federation of Baltic states?

Mr Ulmanis, President of Latvia (interpretation)

said that the question raised a fundamental issue. The history, language and territory of his country did lend support to the idea of integration. However, the question of the nation state was one which should be considered carefully. The Baltic states themselves had not considered the question of federation but had examined the mutual development of the region.


That brings us to the end of the questions to Mr Ulmanis. On behalf of the Assembly, I thank him most warmly for his statement and for his answers to questions. I thank him also for his personal commitment for the sake of Europe and for the progress that he has achieved in his country. We look forward to even closer co-operation with Latvia in the years to come.