WASHINGTON - Maris Selga has served as Latvia’s ambassador to the United States since September 2019.
He began his diplomatic career in 1994. Prior to Washington, Selga served in various diplomatic posts, including in Denmark and Egypt, most recently as Latvia’s top diplomat stationed in the People’s Republic of China.
He discussed the situation in Belarus in a recent written interview with VOA.
VOA: How do Latvians feel about what’s happening in Belarus?
Selga: Latvians are deeply concerned about the situation in Belarus. The government has called for a peaceful and lawful resolution of the current crisis while emphasizing that the use of force against peaceful protesters is unacceptable. The leadership of Latvia and members of Saeima (parliament) have joined their counterparts in other European countries to call for a peaceful resolution and condemn violence against peaceful demonstrators. Additionally, the government has agreed to strengthen Belarusian civil society by allocating 150,000 euros ($174,000) to it.
The "Latvian Platform for Development Cooperation" along with the civil society organization "MARTA Center" in cooperation with NGOs working in Belarus, will provide legal, psychological [counseling], other medical and practical assistance to victims of human rights abuse that occurred after the August 9 election, as well as assist with documenting the abuse. Additionally, "MARTA Center" will provide qualification-enhancing training to Belarusian psychologists. Meanwhile the "Baltic Centre for Media Excellence" will implement projects that support independent media in Belarus.
Latvian society has been following the crisis closely. Many have expressed support for the people of Belarus, including by organizing various peaceful protests.
Belarus is and will remain an important neighbor and Latvia will continue to maintain friendly neighborly relations with the people of Belarus.
VOA: Is Belarus facing an entirely different set of challenges than Latvia due to its geographic position?
Selga: It is difficult to speculate about the role of our geographic position. Achieving independence was not easy and many Latvian’s sacrificed their lives for Latvia to be the free and democratic country it is today.
Watching the situation unfold in Belarus, Latvians can once again feel reassured and grateful to live in a free and democratic country, where the elections are fair and free. This unfortunate crisis highlights the importance of human rights, including the freedom of expression, and the rule of law. It is a reminder to all Latvians about how fortunate we are to not have to face the challenges Belarusian society is currently dealing with.
VOA: Why does Belarus matter?
Selga: Like all people, the people of Belarus deserve to live in a democratic country, with fair elections, where human rights are respected. It is vital to support people striving for democracy and condemn the use of force and violence against peaceful demonstrators.
A positive development of relations between the EU and Belarus is only possible through observing fundamental democratic rights and freedoms. Latvia, being a neighbor to Belarus, is interested in such a development.
VOA: What would it take for Belarus to join the “western,” democratic camp – what will it take for the “Baltic Way” to work its miracles in Belarus?
Selga: It’s important to note that the tools to achieve such a “miracle” are already available to Belarus. International norms and regulations serve as an important guide for such processes to take place. For example, Belarus is a member of the OSCE [Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe], and the OSCE’s principles, if implemented, provide support for democratization. Also, the OSCE provides election observation, which Belarus should utilize in the current situation.
Right now, it is vital that the Belarusian Government and law enforcement authorities respect civil liberties of Belarusian people and their right to freely express their political opinion. The use of force against peaceful protesters is unacceptable.
The elections of 9 August 2020 were neither free nor fair. To resolve the situation, new presidential elections should be held, organized by a new Belarusian election commission and in the presence of international observers.
VOA: What prevented Belarus from joining the democratic camp at the time Latvia did?
Selga: This is a difficult question that is better posed to Belarus. Of course, we wish that Belarus would have followed Latvia down the road to democracy. There are some historical and cultural differences between our countries that may have played a role. Latvia was a free and democratic country from its conception in 1918 and, unlike Belarus, had the fortune to remain free and independent for more than twenty years. Latvia also continued to exist de jure throughout the Soviet occupation. Once independence was restored, Latvia reinstated its constitution of 1922, which upheld the values of Western democracy and the rule of law. Further, throughout history in terms of culture and cooperation, Latvians have been more aligned with Europe than with Russia. Additionally, soon after independence was restored, Latvia strived to join the European Union and NATO, which further motivated society and government to fully implement the values of democracy and human rights.
VOA: What are the potential scenarios out of the current situation? The best, the worst, the so-so? And what does each scenario/potential outcome mean for Latvia?
Selga: I would like to focus on the best scenario and not speculate on other outcomes – right now, we wish to see a new presidential election in Belarus, organized by a new Belarusian election commission and in the presence of international observers.
VOA: What is the Ambassador’s relationship with his counterparts from Belarus and Russia like, compared to ambassadors from other Baltic and European countries?
Selga: As an ambassador, I try to keep an open dialogue with all of my colleagues. Of course, it is very easy to work with colleagues who share the same priorities and have many of the same positions. In the case of the European Union, we prioritize having unified positions whenever possible and we share the same fundamental values, most of which are also enshrined in our respective national legislation. With both my Belarusian and Russian colleagues, I aim to keep an open dialogue and am always open to meet and discuss matters. I make it clear when our views and values don’t align, but I am always open to having conversations, even if they are difficult.
VOA: How influential are EU sanctions?
Selga: The targeted individual sanctions are against Belarusian officials responsible for falsifying presidential elections in Belarus and exerting excessive force against peaceful protesters in the streets of Belarusian cities.
It is important to hold these officials responsible and sanctions are a tool through which we can do so.
It is too early to judge how influential they will be, but I am hopeful they will motivate these and other officials to uphold human rights and the principles of democracy.
VOA: What more can the EU and the US do?
Selga: It is important that we continue to follow [monitor] the crisis, pressure the authorities to uphold human rights, including through the use of targeted sanctions, and express support to the people of Belarus as they strive towards freedom and democracy. Further, it is vital to expand support to civil society in Belarus.
VOA: Can the Ambassador share with us where he was at the time of the Baltic Way? How did events then influence the Ambassador’s life and career choices? Is the Baltic Way still much talked about in Latvia, say in textbooks/at schools, also by parents to their kids?
Selga: The time of the Baltic Way and the entire independence movement in Latvia laid the cornerstone for the country we have today. My family, friends and I were involved, but so was the majority of Latvian society.
The movement was fueled by Latvians from all regions of Latvia, everyone came together for the same goal – a free and independent Latvia. Latvians continue to remember this and learn about it from family and in school.
We are also grateful to the efforts of our Latvian diaspora abroad who advocated for Latvia’s independence all throughout the Soviet occupation and helped fuel the independence movement from abroad.
In the United States, the Sumner Welles declaration of 1940, which condemned the forced annexation and occupation of the Baltics, was especially monumental in acknowledging the Soviet Union’s forced incorporation of the Baltic States and their legitimate strive for independence.
Undoubtedly, if not for the independence movement as a whole, not only would I not be an ambassador, there perhaps would be no Latvia and no Latvian ambassadors. We all serve our country, whether as ambassadors or through other vocations. Above all, I am grateful that I can serve an independent and free Latvia.