Riga, March 12, 2015
[As prepared for delivery.]
Thank you, Matīss, for that kind introduction; I would like to express my personal appreciation for your outstanding efforts to strengthen Latvia-U.S. relations, expand trade and investment, and promote mutual understanding between our two countries during your term as President.
The past year has been one of success and rapid change for Latvia. Domestically, the country demonstrated impressive maturity as a democracy as a new Prime Minister led her nation with a steady hand beyond the 2013 Zolitude tragedy and outbreak of violent conflict in Ukraine, through a successful Saeima election and the formation of a new government. Internationally, Latvia took a leading position within the EU – embracing the euro, taking a politically courageous stance in response to Russian aggression, and launching its tenure in the EU Presidency early this year. Only a few months into 2015, Latvia has already guided important debates within the EU about its approach to the Eastern Partnership countries; the future of sanctions and ties with Russia; the prospects for creating jobs and economic growth; and negotiations on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (T-TIP).
Throughout this time, AmCham has also done its part to facilitate public discussion on the issues of the day through its frequent and dynamic programming. AmCham has engaged actively with U.S. companies to raise awareness of business opportunities here, and has worked to enhance Latvian understanding of and access to the U.S. market. In 2014, the U.S. Embassy partnered with AmCham on the very first Human Development Award, and is excited to have the chance to do so again this spring. We are grateful for our longstanding and fruitful cooperation.
This year, the Embassy also intends to make T-TIP a special focus of our efforts. The free trade agreement has tremendous potential to boost jobs and exports in the EU and the United States, and we see 2015 as a unique moment to rally support on both sides of the Atlantic. It is vital that we seize this opportunity to set high standards for future international trade that reflect our shared values. Latvia as host of the EU Presidency has an important role to play in maintaining the momentum in negotiations, and we want to do our part as well.
Latvia is moving in a positive direction, but we should not ignore the challenges. The public and business community would like to see social and educational reforms. There is general consensus that lower wages and income inequality threaten Latvia’s economic prospects and encourage emigration. More work needs to be done to fight corruption, improve transparency, and strengthen the judiciary, so that Latvia sees increased economic growth and stability.
Corruption is not any one country’s problem. It is a human problem that affects societies everywhere. But is also a vulnerability that, in these demanding times, free societies can no longer afford to ignore. The U.S. Embassy in the coming months intends to deepen our engagement with Latvian officials, business leaders and civil society in order to find solutions to these enduring challenges. We would welcome the opportunity to cooperate with AmCham and other interested parties in combating corruption and promoting transparency, and together make lasting progress.
We all know that Latvia joined the EU just over a decade ago. A few of these challenges may well be the growing pains of a country in transition. And others are perhaps a legacy of the hard years of Soviet occupation. Over long decades, scarcity and cynicism ate away at civic responsibility and the country’s social glue, testing the Latvians as a people. Since Latvia regained its independence, this country has made truly great strides – its government and society have chosen for themselves, time and again, the hard yet transformative path of political reform, EU integration, fiscal discipline, and confident leadership. Yet work remains to be done as the traces of a difficult past grow fainter but persist.
It is precisely here that the expertise and mentoring of an energetic U.S. business community can help Latvia the most. It is a hard job to build where others have destroyed, to instill values and fresh initiative where others have torn them down. But helping a good friend make the most of his or her abilities, side by side, is a challenge worth taking on. Ultimately, Latvia must find its own path forward, and decide its own destination. As Latvia’s friend, partner and ally, the United States will always be ready to assist and encourage.
As AmCham looks to the coming year, I would like to remind you that you are all diplomats – as AmCham members, you represent a way of doing business; a culture that prizes initiative, hard work, and fair dealing; and the values of a country with boundless faith in the power of people to grow. In planning your activities, I urge you to think boldly and to consider how to truly improve the business climate in Latvia, promote international best practices, and guide this society towards economic prosperity. The results of our efforts are not always readily apparent – to foster a new mindset means winning people over slowly, redirecting habits and making connections one person at a time. But I am confident we will witness continued improvement in Latvia’s business environment in the years to come, and that the U.S. Embassy and AmCham Latvia – together – will help make that happen. Thank you.