What Can Latvia's Integration With Europe Teach Ukraine?

Fabrizio Tassinari is head of foreign policy at the Danish Institute for International Studies and a visiting professor at Humboldt University in Berlin. He is the author of the book Why Europe Fears its Neighbors.

RIGA -- Seen from Riga, one is tempted to write a counterfactual history of the Ukraine war. What would have happened if the West did the things it promised Kiev to do before the crisis and spared itself from the mistake that could have been avoided? Latvia, which from January 2015 will host for the first time the six-month rotating presidency of the European Union, provides a remarkable answer that can serve as guidance for Ukraine. 

When it broke out of the Soviet Union, Latvia received the full repertoire of Western engagement. The United States and Europe assisted the government, supported businesses and embraced civil society. Uffe Ellemann-Jensen, then Danish foreign minister, is on record for instructing his top advisers already in 1990, one year before Latvia's independence: "We must open an information office in Copenhagen for one or more of the Baltic states, and we must organize the first 5+3 [Nordic-Baltic] foreign ministers meeting, we must!"

For its part, Latvia, like the other Baltic and Central European states, underwent tough economic and political conditions prior to accessing the EU and NATO. That included the protection of a sizeable Russian-speaking minority (some 30 percent of the Latvian population), today the most powerful Trojan horse used by Russian President Vladimir Putin in Ukraine. Washington and Brussels were uncompromising in their decision to include the former Soviet satellites in their security sphere. Yet the West also made sure to create regional platforms featuring Russia as a fully-fledged member, rather than an adversary.

Riga remains under severe pressure from Moscow. Recent days and weeks have registered incursions of Russian bomber planes just next to the Latvian airspace. Security police has even documented the presence of Russia-sponsored trolls influencing public opinion in Latvian Internet debate forums. But if Latvia is no longer as vulnerable as it was a decade ago, it is thanks to the historic achievement of the Euroatlantic expansion. Transposed to Ukraine, this experience offers at least four crucial lessons.

First, in the Baltic case, the EU and NATO never wavered on the end goal. Expansion of the two organizations into the former Soviet space was a question of when, never if. In Ukraine's case, the West has done the very opposite. The Association Agreement, which then Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych rejected at a summit in November last year triggering the current crisis, is important in its own right. But it was never meant to turn into an existential, zero-sum choice for Ukraine, which is how European officials framed it, playing right into Russian intimidation, before things precipitated. Western strategy has not spelled out an end goal for Ukraine, and made up for this flaw by overloading technical initiatives of political value. 

 Second, the quality of the state, much more than democracy promotion, has been the overriding European concern in the Baltic states. It is no accident that for several years the most popular institution in Latvia has been an independent anti-corruption watchdog. Ukraine today is a failing state, which this year's Corruption Perceptions Index ranks 142 out of 175 countries surveyed, together with Uganda and just ahead of Bangladesh. What Latvia needed then, and Ukraine needs now, is above all good governance, founded upon a bureaucracy that is insulated from political and business pressure.

Third, the Baltic experience exposes the dire dearth of inclusive platforms. Precisely because of Russia's intransigence, the West created in the 1990s low-tension regional formats in the Baltic area which have brought countries together on things where they could agree. Around Ukraine, that inspired much underestimated projects such as the Black Sea Synergy, launched by the EU in 2007 to improve regional cooperation in things like the environment and transportation. Any form of pressure and isolation of Russia cannot come without leaving a door open for dialogue. These formats remain the most effective, face-saving, valve for that.

In May 2015, Riga will host an Eastern Partnership Summit, the first since the one that triggered the current crisis. In the face of Russia's provocations and violations, that will be the occasion for Europe to reaffirm its commitment to Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity. But the summit is also the right place to manage the expectations of Ukrainians and offer a clarification about their prospects.

And this is the fourth lesson. The West must explain that real convergence does not happen only between East and West, but first and foremost inside each country, and it resides in the social contract between the state and its citizens. Latvia's example is there to testify that the emergence of a new social contract is eminently possible. When it happens, it is the kind of transformation that will make Kiev's European aspirations the elephant in the room that no one can ignore. But Ukrainians must also have no illusion that this is a project lasting at least a generation. For a generation, from independence to the EU presidency, is exactly the time it took Latvia.

Ukraine Votes