In Belarus Crisis, Latvians See Echos of Their Own Independence Struggle

The people in Latvia have been closely following the crisis in Belarus, their neighboring country to the southeast, and “are deeply concerned about the situation,” Maris Selga, Latvia’s ambassador to the United States, said in an Maris Selga has served as Latvia’s ambassador to the United States since September 2019. (Photo courtesy Latvia Embassy)Latvia, along with its Baltic Sea neighbors Estonia and Lithuania, regained its independence with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, and the memory of that time remains strong in families and in schools.“The time of the Baltic Way and the entire independence movement in Latvia laid the cornerstone for the country we have today,” Selga said. The Baltic Way refers to the peaceful united front put up by the people of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia to successfully demand a restoration of their sovereignty.Recalling that critical time, Selga said, “Everyone came together for the same goal — a free and independent Latvia.”He added that the support of the international community — including support from the overseas Latvian community — was also critical to his nation’s regaining its freedom.“We are also grateful for 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.”One action taken by the American government in 1940 stood out, Selga said. “The Sumner Welles Declaration of 1940, which condemned the forced annexation and occupation of the Baltics, was monumental.”The declaration, initially a one-page press statement issued by then-Acting Secretary of State Benjamin Sumner Welles, rejected the legitimacy of the Soviet Union’s annexation of the three Baltic states and laid a foundation of moral support for the Latvians and their neighbors.The nation’s appreciation was formalized in 2012 when the street that runs by the American embassy in Latvia’s capital city was named after Sumner Welles.“Watching the situation unfold in Belarus, Latvians can once again feel reassured and grateful to be living in a free and democratic country,” Selga said, adding that the unrest now unfolding in Belarus “highlights the importance of human rights, including the freedom of expression, and the rule of law.”Selga says his country’s leadership and members of its parliament, known as the Saeima, have joined their counterparts in other European countries to call for a peaceful resolution of the Belarus protests and to condemn violence against peaceful demonstrators. Many citizens have expressed support for the people of Belarus, including by organizing various peaceful protests.Latvia has also gathered and allocated resources to help the people of Belarus.Expanding support to civil society in Belarus “is vital,” the ambassador said. To that end, Latvia has put aside more than $175,000 for legal, medical, counseling and other practical assistance to “victims of human rights abuse that occurred after the August 9 election, as well as assisting with documenting the abuse.”Belarus “is and will remain an important neighbor” and Latvia will continue to maintain friendly neighborly relations with the people of Belarus, Selga said.“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” anywhere, he reckoned.“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.”Selga was appointed Latvia’s ambassador to the United States in August 2019. He began his diplomatic career in 1994. Previously, 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.