On 18 November 2014 we will be celebrating 96 years since the Republic of Latvia was established. The history of the Latvian nation has been perpetually tied to both the ever-changing geographical map of Europe and the shifting political balance of power. Strategically located on the Baltic Sea between West and East, Latvia’s territory has been very much part of the international geopolitical events of past centuries.
Latvian statehood is relatively new when compared to that of the United Kingdom, but our relations have long, historic roots. The UK was one of the first countries to recognise the independence of Latvia de facto on 11 November 1918, a week before the Republic of Latvia was proclaimed. The British military forces’ participation in the battles for Latvia’s liberation right after World War I – which took the lives of numerous British soldiers – is one of many reasons why the Latvian people consider Britain to be such a good friend. Almost a century later, remembrance services are still being held each November to commemorate British losses and the British contribution to Latvia’s freedom.
Relations between present-day Latvia and the UK have developed over many centuries prior to the existence of the modern sovereign Latvian state. Written sources dating back to the ninth century mention these first instances of contact. With trade links and exchanges of visits taking place from the ninth century onwards, it was in the seventeenth century, during the reign of Duke Jacob, that relations between England and the Duchy of Courland (the Western part of Latvia) expanded most considerably, both economically and politically: the Duchy of Courland had diplomatic and consular representatives in London and Newcastle, and, according to an agreement between Duke Jacob and King Charles II, the Duchy of Courland attained the rights for the Caribbean island of Tobago. Trade links continued to be strong in the centuries that followed, with cooperation in the shipbuilding industry being the most important sector.
On 17 June 1940, the Soviet Army occupied Latvia. Ambassador in London Karlis Zariņš was the representative of the Government of the Republic of Latvia in Western Europe, and had been given extraordinary powers to head Latvia’s representations abroad. Thanks to his and other diplomats’ patriotism and tireless efforts, the Latvian Representation in London continued to work throughout Latvia’s occupation period, ensuring de jure continuation of the Republic of Latvia. The UK was one of the countries that never recognised the occupation of Latvia. On 27 August 1991, the UK recognised the restoration of independence of the Republic of Latvia jointly with other member countries of the European Community, re-opening the Embassy in Riga only two months later. Furthermore, in 1993 the gold reserves of the Bank of Latvia that had been kept in the Bank of England during the occupation were returned to their rightful place.
Relations between Latvia and the UK have continued to develop since then, with the common aim of a united and economically and politically stable Europe. The mutual interest in promoting bilateral cooperation is facilitated by both countries’ membership of the European Union and NATO. Bilateral relations between the two countries were boosted further in 2006 with an exchange of visits: Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freibergacame to the UK and Her Majesty the Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh went to Latvia.
Today, British-Latvian cooperation has a lot of common ground. A strong defence relationship contributed to cooperation on training, equipment procurement, air policing and military exercises, including recent plans to develop the Joint Expeditionary Force. Traditionally, the UK has been among Latvia’s most important economic partners, and, now that the worst of the economic crisis has been successfully overcome, bilateral trade volume continues to increase. The UK and Nordic-Baltic countries have a good political framework for cooperation within the Northern Future Forum. Latvia’s capital, Riga, is the European Capital of Culture for 2014, providing great impetus for bilateral cooperation in culture. Many Latvian artists are well known and well regarded in the UK. In the first half of 2015, Latvia will assume the Presidency of the Council of the European Union for six months, and will definitely contribute to contacts on European matters. Last but not least, the UK is home to many of our compatriots, who play important roles in British communities, and contribute to the country’s cultural diversity and the economy.