Latvia to grapple with Russia as EU president
Latvia takes over as European Union president on Thursday, putting it on the front line of negotiations with neighbouring Russia over the deadly crisis in Ukraine.
The small Baltic state will also grapple with thorny issues ranging from energy security to Islamist militants to Greek economic woes when it assumes the six-month rotating presidency of the EU on January 1.
But it is the Kremlin in particular that has spooked the nation of 1.9 million people, which broke free from the crumbling Soviet Union in 1991 and joined the EU and NATO in 2004.
Latvia and its fellow Baltic states, Estonia and Lithuania, have been on edge since Moscow annexed the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine and offered alleged military support for pro-Russian separatists battling Kiev government forces in eastern Ukraine.
The region fears Moscow could be trying to seize back former Soviet and tsarist lands and has looked to NATO for reassurance as Russian military planes and ships skirt its borders on a daily basis.
Though Latvia is among the voices backing a hardline approach to Moscow's actions in Ukraine, the government insists its EU presidency will be bias-free.
"One thing we are not going to be is an 'anti-Russian' or 'pro-Russian' presidency, or a presidency that does not take into account the views of all member states," Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics told AFP.
He spoke a day after symbolically receiving the torch of the EU presidency from Italian counterpart Paolo Gentiloni in the Latvian capital Riga.
"Our principled position, which is not going to change, is the non-recognition of Crimea" as part of Russia, said Rinkevics, whose country includes a sizeable ethnic Russian minority, many of whom are pro-Kremlin.
"If we see things improving in eastern Ukraine, if Russia becomes part of the solution rather than part of the problem, we can soften or even lift some sanctions. If things get worse, inevitably we have to use this instrument."
Despite grappling with the fallout from Western sanctions and plunging oil prices, Russian President Vladimir Putin's domestic approval rate is still estimated at around 80 percent.
His country's economic woes also do not seem to have significantly altered his public stance on Ukraine.
- Overture to Belarus -
Latvia's stint at the helm of the presidency will culminate with the Riga Summit on May 21-22 to map out a new direction for the EU's Eastern Partnership programme, much loathed by Russia.
The programme was designed to draw ex-Soviet states closer to the West and includes the countries Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine.
Rinkevics hopes the summit will send the signal that the historic EU association agreements signed by Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine "are not the end of relations between eastern partners and the EU".
He also hopes the summit declaration will include "a strong signal on visa liberalisation" for the partnership's countries.
Latvia's EU presidency may open the door in particular to Belarus -- a Russian ally, with a spotty human rights record, that helped broker the shaky Minsk agreement and subsequent ceasefire in eastern Ukraine.
"We can have more intense dialogue between Belarus and the EU but it's very much up to Belarus how much the country wants to engage," Rinkevics said.
Latvians generally see the EU presidency as something positive, though "not something that gets the pulse racing", according to political scientist Daunis Auers.
"Anything that inches Latvia away from the East and closer to the West will be grudgingly accepted by most Latvians," the University of Latvia professor told AFP.
The only real opposition AFP found to the presidency came at the National Library, which will play host to most meetings. Opened to the public this year, the main entrance is now out of bounds to all but EU-accredited officials.
"It's a bit humiliating having to creep into your own library by the back door," visitor Arnolds Zarins said with a grin.
Latvia saw its economy boom after EU entry but was hit hard by the global crisis, when its output shrank by nearly a quarter.
A painful austerity drive turned the economy around, with growth forecast at 2.8 percent in 2015, and paved the way for eurozone entry in 2014.
Latvia will hand over the EU presidency to Luxembourg six months later, on July 1.
© 2014 AFP