Latvia’s head of state said the use of migration as a weapon by one of its neighbours increased his country’s understanding of the migratory challenges facing Malta.
In a wide-ranging interview, Edgars Rinkēvičs said Belarus’ decision to send migrants over its border with Latvia had led to greater understanding compared to a decade ago.
“When there was a migration wave back in 2015 and 2016, when the EU was really divided, many people were saying that southern members of the EU should guard their borders better,” explained Rinkēvičs.
“Then we got [Belarusian President Aleksandr] Lukashenko’s use of migration as a hybrid weapon,” he said.
“So, when we got there, I think that our understanding of all those challenges the Mediterranean region faces – [although] that’s a different set of challenges – has grown.”
This argument that NATO’s presence provokes Russia is wrong- Latvian president
In 2021, Lukashenko threatened to flood Europe with “drugs and migrants” in response to looming EU sanctions after Belarus diverted a Lithuania-bound flight and seized dissident Belarusian blogger Roman Protasevich.
Soon after, the country began to send thousands of Middle Eastern and Asian migrants across its borders with Poland, Lithuania and Latvia, a move described by the European Commission at the time as a “gangster-style approach”.
Rinkēvičs, a former foreign minister, said that in the face of such pressures, the bloc’s asylum policy inevitably had to change.
“Nobody imagined that migration could be used as a weapon. But we also acknowledge the need to address the migration issues raised by countries here in this [Mediterranean] region,” he said, admitting a solution is not easy.
Neutrality and a prelude to war
In a meeting with Rinkēvičs in November, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg called Latvia a “highly valued” member of the organisation, describing it as “leading by example on defence spending”.
And since 2017, the country has hosted a NATO battlegroup alongside Estonia, Lithuania and Poland. Since then, Russia has invaded Ukraine, taking a war to Europe’s doorstep, and sparking fear in the Baltic states, especially.
How does Rinkēvičs respond to claims that such a military presence could provoke Russia and possibly make a confrontation more likely?
“This argument that NATO’s presence provokes Russia is wrong. NATO’s presence actually deters Russia,” he said.
Pointing to Russia’s attack on Georgia in 2008 and its annexing of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014, Rinkēvičs instead argued for an increased NATO presence.
“Yes, we do say that we need more. Being part of NATO – and the Ukrainian example is very good here – protects you and protects peace,” he said, adding the numbers of alliance troops in the Baltic states were planned to increase.
However, while strong in his stance on Russia, Rinkēvičs would not be drawn into advocating for Malta to abandon its constitutional neutrality in the face of Russian aggression, instead saying it was up to the Maltese to define the limits of such a stance.
“I think that Malta has proven that it can be very vocal voice for international law... but where that concept goes, that’s up to the people of Malta to decide.”
Rinkēvičs was speaking to Times of Malta during a state visit to Malta, where he met with President George Vella and senior politicians, including Prime Minister Robert Abela and Foreign Minister Ian Borg.
The visit included discussions around various areas of cooperation between the two countries, including their work in the field of translation.
“Latvian and Maltese, both are so-called ‘small languages’. If you look at all the tools at our disposal, like Google Translate, big languages get great development – with smaller languages, it takes time,” he said.
During his stay, Rinkēvičs visited Latvian technology company Tilde, which helped develop Maltese translation website traduzzjoni.mt.
But despite such progress, Maltese has in the past been characterised as under threat, with proponents of the language fearing it is being eroded as English becomes increasingly common.
Just last month, Census data revealed that a quarter of Maltese children under 10 years old grew up speaking English as their main language.
Is this a challenge Latvia also faces?
“If you talk with teenagers, you will probably get half of the sentence in Latvian and half in English – I think it’s very common for small nations and small languages,” he said, but added he was not so pessimistic about the fate of his mother tongue.
“While you can’t say nothing is going to happen, you have to do whatever it takes to remind people that it is important to develop your language [as] it’s the core of your national identity.
While Rinkēvičs is hopeful about the future of small languages, he is less allowing of a subset of Russian residents of his country who have failed to follow recent Latvian language requirements.
In 2022, Latvia passed a law requiring all Russian citizens to pass a language proficiency test to stay in the country.
And recently, international media said that thousands of Russians would be asked to leave Latvia.
“This is not accurate,” he said, explaining that while Latvia’s laws had been changed to require the language test, many Russian citizens had already passed while others who had failed had been given another two years to retake the exam.
However, he stressed each person’s case was being assessed individually, with only those who hadn’t engaged with the law at all liable to face such action.
But does Rinkēvičs concede that taking steps to expel citizens based on language could be seen as in conflict with EU values of freedom and social justice?
“They are Russian citizens, so they have their own country of allegiance,” the president answered.
“Every EU member state expects its own citizens, but also foreign citizens, to comply with legislation,” adding there were “high emotions” within Latvian society for Russians who had lived for years in the country without learning the language.