Prime Minister of Latvia

Speech made to the Assembly

Tuesday, 27 June 1995

It is a great honour for me to address the Parliamentary Assembly today on behalf of Latvia. The Council of Europe throughout its existence has been the defender and promoter of the values of a democratic society. The representatives of the thirty-four democratic European member states have done a great deal to ensure that the fundamental principles of the Council of Europe – democracy, human rights and the rule of law – become deeply ingrained in the thoughts and deeds of European society.

Let me remind you of some forgotten words once said by the American churchman Reinhold Niebuhr: “Man’s capacity for evil makes democracy necessary and man’s capacity for good makes democracy possible.”

The time of the “singing revolution” and “Baltic way” has passed and the natural emotional elation in the Baltic states during that time has abated. This does not mean that the aspirations of the Baltic peoples have diminished. Quite the reverse – we have entered a new phase of development, participating with full responsibility in the discourse and bilateral relations required of us by the new European thinking represented by the Council of Europe and its member states.

Latvia began to participate actively in the Parliamentary Assembly in September 1991, immediately after the restoration of independence. Although in those days our parliamentary delegation had observer status, time and time again it returned home from Strasbourg with new viewpoints and ideas to further our return to the fold of democratic European nations. This joint effort has borne much fruit in Latvia. One of the most notable results has been the harmonisation of legislation with European standards, leading us closer to achieving Latvia’s goals of a democratic and just society and a free market economy. By adhering to the statutes of the Council of Europe, Latvia could clearly demonstrate her commitment to observing the standard promoted by the Council of Europe, the United Nations, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, and other international organisations. I would like to thank the Council of Europe experts who helped to draft our Law on Citizenship for their efforts. A notable example of Latvia’s further integration into the community of democratic European nations was the signing, two weeks ago, of the Europe Agreement, which brings a new quality to the relations between Latvia and the European Union.

I am greatly pleased that this session of the Parliamentary Assembly is taking place at the time of another auspicious event – the opening of the new Human Rights Building on June 29. I am convinced that this is a deeply significant step in the efforts of democratic European states to create effective mechanisms for the strengthening of justice in Council of Europe member states and elsewhere. May the European Court of Human Rights continue just as successfully in its new home to implement the norms of the European Convention on Human Rights. May it go on defending the rights of each and every one of us against the blind spots which exist in the day-today workings of government institutions and the legal apparatus of any country. The occasion is particularly auspicious for Latvia because tomorrow you, the esteemed delegates, will elect a judge to the Court of Human Rights with respect to Latvia.

Thus Latvia is becoming increasingly involved in the process of implementing the European human rights protection mechanism whereby the people of Latvia will have further opportunities to defend their rights. By signing the European Convention on Human Rights, Latvia confirmed her commitment to improving her system of human rights protection.

Over the four years preceding Latvia’s accession to the Council of Europe, we have with your help implemented in Latvia many human rights standards, which in several cases are a good foundation for general norms. By this I mean especially those standards which should be implemented with regard to the naturalisation procedure in the Council of Europe member states. As you know, up until now, this issue has not been addressed adequately by law.

Another area in which we can share our experience with other Council of Europe member states is cultural autonomy for national minorities and state- financed education in national minority languages. That is why Latvia wishes to further the strengthening of necessary standards in international law, starting with binding conventions and other documents of the Council of Europe.

These are not the only examples of how Latvia is consolidating her role in the Council of Europe. On 11 May Latvia signed the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, thereby reiterating its firm commitment to defend and promote the rights of national minorities in Latvia. Although it is only four years since the restoration of independence, the native population, Latvians, are a numerical minority in Latvia’s seven largest cities, and yet Latvia recognises its responsibility to protect her national minorities. This can be explained by the liberal traditions which took firm hold during Latvia’s era of independence between the wars, when the rights of national minorities to cultural autonomy were firmly established. For many centuries, foreigners have lived in Latvia, especially its capital, Riga. Their contribution to our cultural and economic life has been invaluable.

Today, representatives of Latvia’s national minorities are once again assured of a broad spectrum of rights, which are accorded equally to citizens and permanent residents.

As I mentioned earlier, Latvia signed the European Convention on Human Rights upon becoming a member state of the Council of Europe. Our government working group has already begun the painstaking task of harmonising Latvia’s laws with the norms of the Convention. The task is indeed challenging. Latvia does not wish for badly thought-out changes to her laws which will only have to be changed again later. One of the cornerstones of reform is the creation of a finely tuned legal system which, inter alia, would fully guarantee the observation and implementation in Latvia of the norms of the Convention. That is why we must try to get rid of the Soviet legacy not only in legislation but especially with regard to implementation of legislative norms and legal logic. We must create a new legal system which is founded on the basic philosophical and legal principles shared by other European states governed by the rule of law.

Although the amount of work invested by the Council of Europe in Latvia thus far is immeasurable, it has been done relatively quietly and drawn little attention to itself. The efforts of the Council of Europe, whilst clearly evident in the day-to-day work of our parliament and governmental institutions, are not often noticed by the press and the general public. The time has come for a more visible permanent reminder of the Organisation’s presence in Latvia. To this end we are taking steps so that a Council of Europe documentation and information centre may open its doors in Riga this autumn. The centre will give everyone in Latvia ready access to information about the activities of the Council of Europe. The centre will also contribute to forming public opinions on modem European standards of human rights and democracy. An example of public opinion-shaping already taking place is the work of the young people of Latvia who are participating in the wide-ranging programme of the Council of Europe campaign against racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism and intolerance. May the campaign motto “all different – all equal” come true. I also wish the best of success to the young people of Europe who will celebrate European Youth Week between 6 and 12 July.

On 22 July of last year, the Parliament of Latvia adopted the law on citizenship. In accordance with this law, the naturalisation board was established and began operating in January this year. Currently, the board is working at full capacity and very successfully. With the help of Council of Europe experts we are constantly fine-tuning the naturalisation process in order that it be as fair and transparent as possible.

Furthermore, on 12 April of this year our parliament adopted the law on the status of former Soviet Union citizens who are not citizens of Latvia or any other state. This law clarifies the status and guarantees the rights of every permanent resident of Latvia. It also provides for every permanent resident of Latvia to be issued with an alien’s passport or personal identification document, whereby the right to movement will be guaranteed to all.

The observance and implementation of international commitments and domestic laws must be the first priority for any country. Therefore, we welcome the “Declaration of the Committee of Ministers on 10 November 1994 on compliance with commitments accepted by member states”. Latvia fully agrees that monitoring of compliance must take place with an unbiased and objective approach to each member state. This would help to ensure that unexpected problems are identified, while exemplary achievements are given due recognition.

Although we are doing everything possible to harmonise our laws with the standards set by the Council of Europe, we are not so optimistic as to believe that membership of the Council of Europe automatically ensures that isolated violations of human rights will never again take place. No country can afford to harbour such illusions. In order to prevent such random incidents, the Government of Latvia, on 24 January this year, approved the national programme for the protection and promotion of human rights in Latvia, which, among other things, provides for the creation of an independent institution for the protection of human rights. A draft law on the creation of the human rights bureau of Latvia has been submitted to the parliament for a first reading. The bureau will be set up with the situation and special needs of Latvia in mind. Its functions will be: first, to provide information on human rights to the public; secondly, to provide objective information on the rights and responsibilities of every individual; and, thirdly, to review individual petitions to find solutions through negotiation.

We are grateful to the Council of Europe experts who have been actively involved in the various aspects of the programme.

Yet even then the modern European fundamental values are not guaranteed in Latvia. We are convinced that Latvia’s transition to democracy and a free market economy can become irreversible only when we are given further opportunity to integrate into the common fabric of European structures.

In order to bring that about, we have prepared the groundwork for developing Latvia’s economy and ensuring compatibility with other European markets. We predict that, between 1996 and 2000, our gross national product will increase by 5% per annum and inflation will continually decrease. In the past few years, the ratio of exports to the West has increased by nearly 50%. The inflow of foreign capital will continue to be encouraged by Latvia’s strong and stable national currency, the lat, as well as the stable political climate. All this has been achieved in a relatively short period with the help of carefully thought- out, sensible economic policies.

Therefore we are glad to have signed the Europe Agreement in Luxembourg on 12 June. Latvia will participate actively in structural dialogue with the European Union. We are grateful for this opportunity. In order to promote and successfully co-ordinate Latvia’s co-operation with the European Union, the Council of Europe and other European institutions, as well as to harmonise Latvia’s laws with the norms of the European Union, we have created in Latvia the European Integration Bureau. We fully realise that we have a long and challenging process of integration ahead of us. We are fully committed to that process. There is a proverb “A traveller has no roads. Roads are made by walking”. We, too, are making our road to Europe by constantly and unremittingly developing ourselves in order to draw nearer to current European levels.

On this journey we are greatly assisted by the Council of Europe and the European Union, which are implementing joint programmes in Latvia on the integration of non-citizens and in local government and legal system reform. Through these programmes, we receive targeted and much-needed help in the form of funds and expertise. We welcome the renewed dialogue between the Council of Europe and the European Union. This has become especially necessary following the Maastricht Treaty, which included plans for a greater role for the European Union in fields in which the Council of Europe was already very active and experienced. It is particularly important now to co-ordinate the activities of the numerous European organisations in order to prevent unnecessary duplication of efforts, which squanders the limited financial and human resources of every organisation.

We welcome the positive decision of the Parliamentary Assembly with regard to Moldova’s application for the membership of the Council of Europe. We are convinced that this European country, so distinctive and rich in traditions, will successfully contribute its unique voice to the concert of European nations. Latvia also supports the continuing reform process taking place in Albania, where the Council of Europe has certainly had a positive influence.

Latvia’s position regarding expansion of the Council of Europe is clear. The Council of Europe sets out justifiably high criteria for membership. Latvia expects that those requirements will not be lowered for any applicant country; otherwise, not only would be Council of Europe lose credibility, but the greatest losers would be the inhabitants of the applicant country granted membership on more lenient terms.

Latvia views the Russian Federation’s application for membership with neighbourly understanding, but current events in Russia show that much more joint effort is required if Russia is to be ready to join the European Convention on Human Rights and to guarantee human rights in practice to all its people, including national minorities.

As we all know, a truly democratic state also has a democratic foreign policy; Latvia therefore considers that Russia’s fulfilment of her international obligations with regard to the retired Russian army officers still illegally present in Latvia would be tangible proof of developing democracy in Russia, and even greater readiness to become a fully-fledged European democracy among others.

Latvia recognises the considerable efforts of Ukraine to harmonise her laws with European standards, and expects her application to be discussed at the Council of Europe in the near future. We believe that Ukraine’s participation in the Council of Europe would confirm her essential role in Europe, and would ensure the irreversibility of her transition to democracy and a free market economy.

The second general elections since the renewal of independence will take place in Latvia this autumn. During these first few years of independence Latvia has learned much from historical experience, from our mistakes and from the Council of Europe and other international organisations which have provided practical support and advice. We shall continue to accept your advice, as we certainly still need your help and support; however, we also want to give something in return. Being the newest member country, Latvia perhaps most of all recognises the wishes and efforts of the present applicant countries to comply with the high standards of the Council of Europe. We wish to pass on to others the experience that we gained as we turned our backs on the principles of the Soviet regime and strove to regain our place in Europe, which had been lost for half a century.

On 4 May this year, television screens all over the world showed the destruction of the Soviet-built early warning radar installation at Skrunda, which for several years was the most visible symbol of the presence of the Russian Army in reborn Latvia. The long- awaited destruction was a loud and emotionally powerful farewell to the Soviet legacy in Latvia. Where a threatening giant turned against the West once stood, a forest will soon be planted. We believe that, by the time that the forest has grown, Latvia will long since have become closely woven into the wide and colourful fabric of Europe, and will be able to enjoy all rights and fulfil all commitments that full and active membership entails. (Applause)


Thank you very much, Mr Gailis, for your most interesting statement. Members of the Assembly followed it with close attention, and have expressed a wish to put questions to you. I am pleased that you wish to respond.

I remind colleagues that questions should take no more than thirty seconds. They will be able to put one more question if they wish. The first question comes from Mr Szymanski.


We are observing the dynamic process of privatisation in Latvia, especially in agriculture. Legal instruments play an important role in the process. How can you assist in the application of the privatisation programmes, and what changes will be made in internal legislation to implement that programme?

Mr Gailis, Prime Minister of Latvia

You are right: the privatisation of agriculture has been successful. There has, however, been some delay in the privatisation of industry, but all the necessary legislation has now been passed, and the special privatisation agency started work last year. We have ambitious plans to privatise nearly 80% of all industry by the end of next year. Some weeks ago we passed a property privatisation law; nearly all the necessary legislation is ready.


Another important factor is re-privatisation. What is your attitude to that?

Mr Gailis, Prime Minister of Latvia

Re-privatisation means nationalisation. We are moving in another direction: we are denationalising all the private property that was nationalised under the Soviet regime.


Thank you. The next question will be asked by your neighbour and a distinguished member of the Assembly, Mr Landsbergis.

Mr LANDSBERGIS (Lithuania)

I greatly appreciated your address, Mr Gailis. I wish to touch on Lithuanian-Latvian negotiations on the division of economic zones in the Baltic Sea.

There are two conventions on sea law: the so-called Geneva Convention of 1958, and the Jamaica Convention of 1982. Both may be used. Following the suggestion of her government, Lithuania is now to join the Jamaica Convention – valid since the end of last year – which presents a broader scale of principles to be used for the most correct agreement, balanced in the most friendly way. The 1958 convention still seems to be preferred by the Latvian delegation, which also insisted firmly on the single formal principle of division included in that convention. We in Lithuania hope that the Latvian delegation may be prompted by the government to take a more flexible and constructive position that will enable both countries to avoid the procedures of the International Court of Justice, and to save time.

Mr Gailis, I hope that you agree that such provisions will save time and work.

Mr Gailis, Prime Minister of Latvia

As a former President of Lithuania, Mr Landsbergis, you will know that we are the best neighbours. I am pretty sure that between us we will find a solution, and will not require the International Court of Justice.


I hope that our Polish colleagues do not feel hurt by your claim to be the best neighbours, Mr Gailis. Mr Landsbergis, do you want to ask another question?


I am content.

Mr ALEXANDER (United Kingdom)

In your interesting speech, Mr Gailis, you referred briefly to the remaining presence of Russian troops in your country. When will the next round of talks between your country and Russia about their removal take place? There are reputed to be 4 000 troops in the country. Do you accept that figure, and does your country propose the repatriation to Russia of all those troops, with their families, when they are demobilised?

Mr Gailis, Prime Minister of Latvia

You are completely right. There are about 4 000 retired officers and their families – approximately 12 000 people. We are not going to arrange another round of discussion since the situation has already been discussed and it is clearly expressed in the agreement between Russia and Latvia. We are working on the issue. We have already twice postponed the date on which they had to leave. Russia is ready to take them out. They are preparing apartments for the retired officers. The situation is of course difficult, but I am pretty sure that we shall solve it on the basis of the first agreement with Russia.

Mr de PUIG (Spain) (translation)

I appreciated the remarks made by the Prime Minister in his address. My question concerns relations between Latvia and the Russian Federation. Do you consider these relations to be stable and positive, Prime Minister, or, on the contrary, do you have some misgivings about them?

Mr Gailis, Prime Minister of Latvia

Russia is our nearest neighbour so of course we must deal with them. Relations are quite normal but, as always, they could be better. The President and I visited Moscow to sign the agreement on the withdrawal of troops and we then invited the Russian leaders to Riga to sign several economic and other agreements. We understand that the Russian leaders are very busy and have many problems and we are still waiting for them to visit Latvia. However, we are not waiting to deal with a package of treaties and agreements concerning areas such as transport, the economy, border controls, cultural ties, and so on, as we have already signed most of the agreements on those issues.

Trade turnover is increasing. Indeed, production of oil – one of our major products which runs through Latvia – is increasing. That is a good sign and a good basis on which to further develop relations.


We have come to the end of the discussion with the Prime Minister of Latvia. We are very pleased to have you among us, Mr Gailis, and I know that you appreciate the friendship offered by the Assembly.