Honourable Mister Speaker of the Saeima,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
During my presidency, I have established a new tradition - an address by the President of Latvia at the beginning and the end of the Saeima's working year. This will be the eighth and last time.
Today, I will speak about three areas of importance for Latvia's future: security, Latvian identity and our reform capacity.
I On security
NATO's new strategic concept at the Madrid Summit means that the enemy will be stopped at the border. So, perhaps, on Latvia's eastern border.
After Russia's crimes in Ukraine, NATO's Eastern flank countries could no longer accept the previous NATO strategy of recapturing territory after the enemy has entered. However, I would like to stress that this important change in NATO strategy did not come easily or naturally to us.
We are next door to Ukraine, with a war going on nearby. For countries thousands of kilometres away from this war, other concerns may be more important.
Latvia has managed to achieve a new level of security in the last year and a half through close cooperation between the President of Latvia, the Ministers of Foreign Affairs and Defence, the leadership of the Saeima and the Foreign Affairs Committee.
I further strengthened our common position in the format of the Presidents of the NATO Eastern Flank countries. Our position was respected in NATO.
I would remind you that Latvia was the only Baltic country to leave Madrid with a signed agreement - a Memorandum of Understanding - to deploy a NATO brigade on its territory. Our big task now is the Sēlija training ground.
Our own homework is also to increase the combat capability and numbers of the National Armed Forces.
The number of young people who have signed up for the first National Defence Service recruitment is one and a half times higher than we expected. This is a good answer to the sceptics and moaners who opposed compulsory service.
I am convinced that in a few years' time, young people will regard military service as a matter of honour, just like our northern neighbours. The newly introduced National Defence education in schools will also contribute to this.
At the same time, I would like to remind you that we must finally build a national border. The failure over the years to do this simple thing is regrettable. This inability discredits the authority of the state - above all in the eyes of Latvian society itself.
Strengthening the internal affairs system must also be a priority for the coming years. It is not fair that interior workers are paid significantly less for a job as responsible as their counterparts in the army.
In two weeks' time, the NATO Vilnius Summit will begin. The summit must ensure the implementation of the Madrid decisions, in particular the establishment of an integrated Baltic air and missile defence system.
The hot topic of the Vilnius Summit will of course be Ukraine's future in NATO.
I believe that Ukraine should join NATO soon after the end of the war. I expressed this position when I met with the presidents of the NATO Eastern Flank countries a few weeks ago.
It is the common position of this group of countries. We must be able to convince the other NATO partners with good arguments.
This is necessary to prevent the next war. If Russia is allowed to recover and regroup, the next war will be inevitable.
The world has entered a new era of instability and unpredictability. It threatens the international legal world order that was established after the Second World War. So far, however, 70 years on, the world has more or less been at peace.
The existence of international law and respect for this legal order is the basis for world peace and Latvia's security.
We must strengthen the institutions that maintain this order. We must do everything we can to stop and punish those who undermine this order. Therefore, an important foreign policy objective for the near future is to secure support for Latvia's election to the UN Security Council.
Latvia must actively continue its work to establish an international tribunal to investigate and punish Russian crimes in Ukraine. Apart from the legal obstacles that can in principle be overcome, the key issue here is the political will of the international community.
I have been actively advocating the strengthening of international law and the creation of a tribunal for Russia since the very beginning of the war. As a lawyer with international experience, I will continue to do so.
Russia was not punished for its occupation of the Baltic States or for any other international crimes. This time, Russia will be punished. Sooner or later.
II On cohesive society and Latvian identity
Today, the Iron curtain has descended on the border at Zilupe. It must not be permeable, neither militarily, nor for business transactions, nor in the minds of the Latvian people. This 'iron curtain' separates worlds of incompatible values. That is why we must patiently but persistently continue to build a society that is immune to the 'Russian world' in all its manifestations.
A cohesive society is not somehow cobbled together at any price. A cohesive society can only be one based on common values – Latvian identity, democracy and European belonging. Values that a person sees as his or her own.
There is a fairly broad consensus in Latvia on democracy and European belonging. On Latvian identity, there is still some way to go.
For a large part of society, Latvian identity is a given. However, there are also those who still dream of a comfortable "Russian world" here in Latvia. Others simply do not see the remnants of Russian and Soviet colonialism and Russification, they are used to them or are resigned to them.
Latvian language as the state language is at the heart of Latvian identity. However, Latvian identity is more than that.
It is also a way of seeing the world from our perspective. It is our culture, our interpretation of history. The conviction that the occupation of Latvia was a crime, that an independent state is an asset. That Latvia belongs to the Western world, not the Eastern world.
Latvian identity is a solid foundation for our civil society.
Latvian identity invites everyone to be part of it. And this in no way diminishes the right of minorities to cultivate their national cultural identity among themselves.
In order to strengthen the Latvian character of the Latvian state, I drafted the Law on Historical Latvian lands. It was adopted by the 13th Saeima. Vidzeme, Kurzeme, Latgale, Zemgale and Sēlija represent the diversity and historical depth of Latvian identity.
The Historic Lands Council was founded, and there should be annual state funding, programmes and full content.
I have always consistently stood in favour of unified schools that teach in the Latvian language. The 13th Saeima finally adopted this decision. Although much too late, this will put a stop to the endless continuation of the division of our nation in the future.
Following my insistence to three successive Ministers of Education, from the 2026/2027 school year, a European language will finally be taught as a second foreign language in schools.
The fact that the second foreign language will no longer be Russian is a consistent step towards further liberation of Latvia from its colonial past.
In the last year, Latvia has been rid of many monuments glorifying the occupation. There is still a lot of work ahead. However, there are still a number of street names and signs in Latvian public space that symbolise Latvia's belonging to the Russian space. Given Russia's aggressive imperialism, it is high time to change that.
Latvian public space must affirm our Latvian, democratic and European values, not those of the Soviet occupiers and Tsarist Russia.
That is why this Monday I submitted a legislative initiative to the Saeima. It is accompanied by a list of street names associated with the occupying power that should be renamed, compiled by the Centre for Public Memory. You will be able to discuss this.
I would like to ask: what message do Pionieru, Gagarin or Pushkin Streets convey to us? Is it that Latvia is somehow part of the Russian space? Even today, when Russia's aggressive imperialism emphasises that the space of the "Russian world" is much wider than Russia's borders?
We ourselves have many honourable people after whom we can name the streets of our cities. I will mention three women of great importance in Latvian history - Klara Kalniņa, Valērija Seile or Berta Pīpiņa.
If not all municipalities have the will and the ability to rid themselves of this unbecoming and indecent legacy for a free Latvia, then the state must act.
In the health sector, a recent letter by a young doctor reveals an unacceptable situation. The Patients' Rights Act's regulation that information must be provided in a form that the patient understands is being interpreted in a one-sided way as an obligation for doctors to speak Russian. But why not Polish, Finnish or Lithuanian? There is no logic here. This means that we urgently need to adopt a legal framework which, in practice, prevents discrimination against Latvian doctors and other health workers.
There are still many companies in our country that require their employees to speak Russian. Why? Is it because Latvia was once part of the Tsarist Russian Empire and was occupied by the Soviet Union for fifty years? We must not allow our young and educated generation to be forced out of the Latvian labour market. Forced out of Latvia. They do not need to speak Russian.
I thank civil society - in particular Liāna Langa and her colleagues - for their consistent and effective campaign to strengthen the Latvian language. And I call for this campaign to be continued and expanded. It is indeed the civic activism of the public that has ensured that the Russian language is no longer imposed on Latvians in many situations.
But if public pressure is not enough, the legislator must intervene. If necessary, the law should be changed, not the continuation of the colonial and Russification policies of Tsarist Russia and the Soviet Union in the free and independent state of Latvia should be guaranteed by law.
There is no doubt that Latvia has become more Latvian in these four years.
I am proud that, as President of Latvia, I was able to make my contribution here.
The foundations of the Latvian state have become stronger!
III On our reform capacity. Why is it so low?
Already in autumn 2021, from the rostrum of this Parliament, I pointed out the structural backwardness of the country. "Latvia is lagging behind" - I repeatedly called on the Saeima to act in every speech. Finally, this problem is now on the political agenda. It is being talked about nowadays.
Economic transformation is the way to overcome our structural backwardness. And in addition, it is the only way. In the short term, this means regaining competitiveness. But in the long term, it means serving Latvia's sustainable development in the context of the European and global economy. I would like to stress that sustainable development is the key to reducing inequalities. Inequality in Latvia is significantly higher than the European average.
However, the solution is not to redistribute the existing gross product. That can only be a band-aid. The solution to reducing inequality can only be a significant increase in gross product. It must be faster than in the Baltic neighbours and faster than the European average.
And this can only be achieved by working carefully on each of the elements and their interconnections that I have mentioned many times and to which a number of conferences and meetings at the Riga Castle were also devoted. These elements are 1) school education, 2) higher education, 3) science, 4) research, 5) innovation, 6) production and 7) exports. And in that order! The end result is a constantly growing Gross National Product.
I would add that until these elements are arranged and the link between them is ensured, no development in the direction of prosperity will be possible.
Immigration will be just a pseudo solution too. It might solve the problems of some particular companies, but it will create new ones and they will be much, much more complex ones.
We can all find that our economic drive is moving too slowly. Relatively, we're slipping back. Why is that? I will mention the six obstacles that, in general, form our culture of backwardness.
First: time factor
We are grappling with reforms when, because of prolonged inaction, the situation has become dire. This is evident both in terms of sorting out school networks, hospitals’ levels and in many other reforms that we are running. Colleagues, these reforms are long overdue!
The same applies to employment policy, where the discrepancy between labour market demand and labour supply is constantly growing.
We did the capital reform of the financial system when we risked entering the grey list. Renewables are only now booming thanks to sanctions against Russia, while in other countries the development has gone much further.
The last two cases, however, have to be acknowledged that when we are in really big trouble, when the situation has become dire, our reform capacity may even be pretty good. But where does it go in calmer times?
Second: understanding complexity
Serious reforms are always complex. The European Green Deal, the National Development Plan 2030 or any long-term programme requires linking different reforms and efforts by different ministries into a single, focused chain.
One example. The Human Capital Council has just been set up. This is very welcome! But it follows from its remit that workforce policy now has to start from scratch. What have governments done in this area so far? Obviously there has been no policy or action that now the government has to start again.
I have talked a lot about increasing funding for science, research and innovation. And indeed, thank you, the government has committed to doubling it from 0.7 % to 1.5 % of GDP in four years. However, once we have achieved that, the European average will then be approaching 3 %.
We have a number of good scientists and research institutes, but the creation of innovation and its transfer to the economy is lagging behind. Sometimes it turns out that we even have brilliant and ingenious concrete solutions. But our capacity to tackle complex, structural problems is inexcusably weak. This is our country's negative feature against the background of Northern Europe.
Reforms cannot succeed if there is no clear objective and no coherent path to it.
The National Development Plan approved by the Government envisages that by 2030 Latvia will be a much more developed country than it is today, that it will be well on the way to, and in a number of indicators above, the European Union average. But the Government Action Plan, approved in December, contains more than 700 points. We will indeed live much better if these targets are met. However, it is clear that with our limited financial and human resources, we will not be able to achieve them all at the same time.
Does the country have a clear road map, which objectives and how far should be prioritised, which ones should be reduced, which ones should be postponed and which ones should perhaps be deleted altogether? It will probably be the same as always. And it is always the case that whoever gets the most out of the Finance Minister gets ahead. This is not targeted development!
Fourth: an outdated governance structure
Public administration is fragmented. It cannot keep up with the ever-increasing complexity of society and the economy.
Under my persistent pressure, the 14th Saeima has taken a step in the right direction. Thank you for that! The Ministry of Climate and Energy has been created. I think we are one of the last countries where such a responsible official for such a central sector of modern politics has been established.
Likewise, the posts of ministerial members have been established but not applied. There are also a number of Cabinet committees. And not with a view to increasing the civil service, as populists believe, but to developing and implementing policy in precisely those areas of a modern society, where such policy does not actually exist at present. And - let us not forget - to ensure political accountability for them.
The sclerotic nature of public administration, where sectoral policies continue to live their isolated lives, has still not been overcome.
The structure and design of public administration must reflect the relevant policy priorities of the government! Structurally, this will now be possible, following the amendments you have adopted. But I really urge you to put it into practice.
I do not believe that significant progress in areas such as demography, employment, digitalisation, science and innovation can be achieved without the responsibilities scattered across various ministries being pulled together and overseen by a politically accountable official.
Long-term goals can only be achieved if they are pursued in unison, not by each individual.
Bureaucracy is necessary. It is unpopular, but it is a set of rules and procedures that provide predictability, justice, stability and clarity about how the state functions. But the original sin of bureaucracy is the tendency to expand and to lose the meaning behind the letter.
We are wasting time and money, for example by failing to inject European Structural Funds or Recovery Funds into the economy in timely manner.
Bureaucracy hinders the transfer of innovation. Procurement is already tragically inefficient. And I could go on for a long time. That is why I have called for the introduction of a de-bureaucratisation unit in the public administration, which would constantly review and eliminate unnecessary bureaucratic procedures. This would be a counterbalance to the natural desire of bureaucracy to expand unhindered. Today, I repeat this call.
I repeat this call today. I'm sure there won't be a shortage of work for this unit and it won't end so soon.
Sixth: lack of reform skills
It may come as a surprise to some, but you have to know how to reform, colleagues! Reforms are often painful, and if they are not painful, they are not reforms! Reforms require not only a good and correct idea, but also the skills and knowledge to implement them.
You need to be able to anticipate future needs and challenges. Flexibility must be programmed into reforms. It must be possible to attract supporters and anticipate resistance. It must be possible to reassure those who will lose out. It must be possible to put all the stages of reform into a logical sequence without losing sight of the long-term objective. The reform in question must fit into the overall development plan of the country. And so on! Reform must be done well!
A typical example of a reform with a good objective and dilettantish execution is School 2030. A badly executed reform discredits a good objective.
Reform performance is a science. In Finland, SITRA, an independent reform institution, has been working since the 1960s to help the country reform. It both recommends the necessary reforms and, if the country has decided to do so, also helps to realise them. It shows how the country can achieve the set goal. I believe that Latvia needs one too.
Taken together, these six obstacles create a failure of reform in Latvia, a culture of backwardness.
It is within your power and responsibility as Members of the Saeima to remove these obstacles.
You have three years to do so. We will all be waiting for the results!
When I took office, I promised to be the President of the entire nation. During my presidency, this meant working for the Latvia’s sustainability and security as well as national Latvia. For the benefit of the whole nation. I have done so responsibly and to the best of my conscience.
I wish President Rinkēvičs success in the next four years!
Thank you, honourable Members, for what we have done together!
Let us love Latvia with our hearts, but improve it with wisdom and insight!
Long live Latvia!