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Living the Dream – Latvia, NATO and the EU

NATO membership makes Latvians feel less secure, whilst material gains from EU membership have been unspectacular.

This article was first published by Russia Observer and is republished with the permission of the author.

This essay is an attempt to discuss the consequences of Latvia’s membership in both NATO and the EU. I chose Latvia simply because I found data for it. Membership in either standard bearer of Atlanticism, let alone both, would have been unimaginable for any citizen of the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic and, for many, a glorious dream.

North Atlantic Treaty Organisation

Because Latvia joined it first, I will consider the NATO half of the dream first. Latvia became a full member in April 2004 (“From now on, 26 Allies will be joined in a commitment to defend each others’ security and territorial integrity. This is the strongest, most solemn commitment nations can undertake“).

There is a widespread meme that the new NATO members eagerly sought membership because of popular concerns about Russia but the truth, in Latvia at any rate, is that public opinion required some time (and lots of American GONGOs) to develop the preference. And while EU membership followed a referendum, NATO’s did not. In an opinion poll in 1998 we find a slight preference for neutrality “In Latvia, the larger group of population believe that the neutrality best guarantees Latvian security and stability (29%). The second option – NATO and EU membership together (26%) while NATO membership is the third option (15%). 10% of Latvian population believe that EU membership alone can guarantee stability and security for Latvia.” The same poll found that if there were to be a referendum on joining NATO in the three Baltic states “Latvia has the lowest number of the supporters for the country’s membership in alliance: 37% would vote for, 29% against, while 34% of Latvian population has not decided yet.” Not much enthusiasm there.

But Latvia has been a member for a decade now and one has to wonder whether Latvians feel secure. One would think that Article 5 of the NATO treaty gave as indisputable a security assurance as could be wanted. “Collective defence means that an attack against one Ally is considered as an attack against all Allies.” So, if Russia were to attack Latvia it would be the same as if it had attacked the USA, Canada or Germany; there would be no need for American, Canadian or German troops to actually be there. And yet there are always calls for more money to be spent and more troops to be stationed. And the recent NATO summit agreed to do so. Outsiders with weapons to sell Latvia have their interests in playing this up as when a BBC program in February 2016 had Russia invading Latvia. Propagandists keep the pot boiling: “Counting Down to a Russian Invasion of the Baltics“, “Reinforcing Deterrence on NATO’s Eastern Flank: Wargaming the Defense of the Baltics“, “If Russia Started a War in the Baltics, NATO Would Lose — Quickly“, “Russia’s aggression in Ukraine is part of a broader, and more dangerous, confrontation with the West“; War games show NATO’s eastern flank is vulnerable. To deter Moscow, the United States will need to deploy heavy armor on a large scale, a new study says.” And so on. There are sceptics, to be sure: “Why on Earth Would Russia Attack the Baltics?“, but the subject is omnipresent and the Warsaw communiqué is full of Russian “aggression”, “destabilising actions”, ” military intervention”, “provocative military activities near NATO borders” and so forth. (And, lest we forget profits: “We welcome Allied efforts to address, as appropriate, existing dependencies on Russian-sourced legacy military equipment”). Indeed, NATO is back in business at the old stand.

All this scare-mongering is having its effect. A recent Gallup poll finds 42% of Latvians seeing Russia as a potential threat. A 2015 poll finds 69% of Latvian speakers seeing a threat from Russia. We see these op-eds: “The society has fear“. “Who’s Afraid of the Big, Bad Bear?“, “Latvians fear elections could let Kremlin in by back door“, “Panic in Latvia: Trump Will Hand Ukraine, Syria and the Baltics to Putin“. “Russia’s Annexation Of Crimea Worries Baltic Nation Of Latvia“. “Baltic Russians could be the next pawns in new cold war“. In short, Latvians are becoming nervous.

Nonetheless, the cynic who really thinks about it understands that the foreign troops are wanted not because of some perceived immediate Russian threat, but because of a lack of confidence that, when it came to it, the NATO allies would stand up. Indeed, we have a poll that suggests just that: “NATO’s European Allies Won’t Fight for Article 5“. Another poll finds that not even Americans are very willing to fight for Latvia. So, the deployments probably owe less to the “Russian threat” than to the “indifference threat”. We are reminded of George Kennan’s prescient remark: “We have signed up to protect a whole series of countries, even though we have neither the resources nor the intention to do so in any serious way“.

It has to be said that the comparison between Crimea and Latvia (or the other two Baltic states) is rather forced. A thousand years ago, Crimea was clearly part of the Byzantine/Rus culture – indeed Vladimir the Great, ruler of Novgorod and later of Kiev, was baptised in Khersones in Crimea. Conquered by the Mongols in the 1200s, it became an appanage of the Ottoman Empire and was reconquered by Russia in 1783. The Russian Black Sea Fleet was then founded and has been based there ever since. In 1954 Khrushchev transferred Crimea from the RSFSR to the Ukrainian SSR (illegally it appears). When the USSR broke up, the Black Sea Fleet remained under treaty between Moscow and Kiev together with up to 25,000 Russian soldiers and sailors. In the 2014 referendum well over 90% voted to (re)join Russia and the Russian troops provided security; there was no “invasion”. As to the Donbass: when the president you voted for is ousted, the party you voted for is declared an enemy, the central government sends the army at you and your home is renamed the “Anti-Terror Operation Zone“, there’s no need to invent a “Russian invasion”. Latvia’s history is quite different: it has been ruled by Germans, Poles, Lithuanians and Swedes until absorbed by the Russian Empire about the same time Crimea was reacquired. Despite a substantial Russian minority, it has never been considered part of the “Russian lands” and there are no Russian troops there. So the parallels are very contrived – propagandisticly contrived – indeed. And, if Latvians are really concerned that a crafty Moscow may use the Russians inside Latvia as some sort of lever, then they might consider giving them full citizenship. (An idea, it is interesting to note, that seldom occurs to the reporters who write pieces like this one: “Latvia, with a large minority of Russians, worries about Putin’s goals“).

So, one could make the case that one part of the Latvian dream – NATO membership – has not in fact given the Latvian population a greater sense of security. Indeed, an effect of the non-stop anti-Russia campaign may be that Latvians feel less secure today than they did when they were neutral.

And, as a further irony, Latvian soldiers are back in Afghanistan: under a different flag this time but with much the same results.

European Union

Latvia became a full member of the EU in May 2004 after a referendum (“We welcome a country that naturally belongs to us and we trust, that Latvia as the others future Member States, will enrich and strengthen the European Union. Welcome home, Latvia!”) . It joined the Eurozone in January 2014 (no referendum then: support only about 20%).The source for most of what follows is “Latvia in the EU – Ten Years Later. A Different Latvia?” which is a fairly detailed assessment of the first decade’s experience. The purpose of the authors is described: “We intend to take a snapshot of the moment when Latvia joined the EU, and compare it with a snapshot of the country taken today”. It was published in May 2014, too early to show any effects of Eurozone membership; neither had the refugee criss bitten. A very quick summary of the various tables follows.

In the period defence expenditure declined and the armed forces became smaller. (We’ll see what effect the Russia scare will have on them). The unemployment rate improved, got a lot worse and is now about where it started. The service sector is larger, the industrial sector smaller, labour productivity significantly up, applications for high-tech patents down. The crime rate is much improved across the board with the exception of drug offences. The population has decreased (the authors don’t tell us how much). There are significantly fewer non-citizens, more foreigners live in Latvia, tourism is up quite a bit, the proportions of native Latvian speakers (73%-71%) and native Russian speakers (27%-27%) unchanged. The number of students is down, but those studying abroad is up, the proportion of the population with higher education has increased. The average net salary has better than doubled and GDP per capita has increased from about half the EU average to about two-thirds, the poverty rate is significantly down, agricultural production is significantly up. The population is a little more satisfied with the “quality of democracy” but trust in governmental institutions (including the EU) is down a bit, electoral participation is down nearly ten percentage points but the traffic police expect bribes significantly less. Life expectancy is up about 3 years, infant mortality is down, generally speaking health seems to be better (but a significant increase is reported for malignant tumours) although both doctors and hospital beds are down. Latvia is either “greener” or it isn’t, depending on what indicator you choose to emphasise. The authors sum it up as “in the course of ten years Latvia has become more secure and prosperous.”

So, altogether in the decade, there have been improvements in Latvia’s economic situation, health and crime. But these are not dramatic and, of course, there is no way of telling what the numbers would be if Latvia had taken some other course (cf Belarus, for example). The declining esteem in which institutions are held (trust in government down from 28% to 20%, parliament 20% to 15%, EU itself 39% to 36%) and drop in electoral participation (national from 72% to 59%, municipal 53% to 46%) argues a certain lack of enthusiasm for present circumstances.

The authors mention the population decline but don’t give the numbers.Wikipedia tells us the population in the EU decade dropped from 2.277 million to 1.995 million. It was 2.651 million in 1991. That’s a drop of a quarter; a significant decline indeed. “Demographic disaster” some say, “We are dying out“. If I were Latvian, I’d worry about that a lot more than about imaginary Russian invasions: at this rate, if they really wanted Latvia’s beaches, all the Russians have to do is wait fifty years or so to peacefully occupy an old folks’ home surrounded by vacant real estate.


It would appear that there are good reasons to argue that NATO membership has made Latvians feel less secure because they have been sucked into the NATO anti-Russia hysteria. In the ten years of EU membership there have been real gains albeit none very dramatic. There is no way of knowing where Latvia would be today had it adopted a different membership package.

So, it while it would certainly be wrong to call the dream a nightmare, it’s not proved as happy a dream as was no doubt expected. Improvements to be sure, but none of them dramatic and all overshadowed by depopulation (Latvia and Bulgaria are the only countries in the world with a smaller population today than in 1950.)

The downstream costs of the Euro and refugees – both direct consequences of EU membership – as well as pressures for greater defence expenditure from NATO are as yet uncalculated.

So, a bit of a wash altogether.

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