Pēteris Kārlis Elferts was born and raised in Seattle, the state of Washington in the US and began his career at the Foreign Ministry of the Republic of Latvia in 1999. He has served in various posts such as Special Assignments Ambassador on the Renewal of Iraq, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Republic of Latvia to the Permanent Representation to the Council of Europe and Adviser to two Latvian Prime Ministers. In May 2018 he submitted his credentials to President Rouhani as Accredited Ambassador of the Republic of Latvia to Iran, residing in Ankara, Turkey.
AVA Diplomatic’s Exclusive Interveiw with
Pēteris Kārlis Elferts, Accredited Ambassador of Republic of Latvia to Iran
Interview by Mohammadreza Nazari
How could the result of the parliamentary election in Latvia affect the country’s relations with the EU and Russia?
The results of the parliamentary elections in Latvia will not affect our relations with the European Union despite of the fragmented composition of the Parliament. Our motivation to remain in the core of the EU remains strong, in spite of the challenges ahead of us in the elections of the European Parliament planned for May 2019, which are the growing populism, migration crisis, cybersecurity, Brexit and others. We can overcome those obstacles by continuing our work on European integration and strengthening the sense of belonging to the European Union and its values, by understanding its past and having a common vision for the future.
Latvia continues to employ a two-track approach to Russia combining sanctions with attempts to find a diplomatic solution to the conflict in Eastern Ukraine. While contacts between Latvia and Russia on the political level remain limited, practical cooperation continues in areas of shared interest, such as the maintenance of our border and its security, migration, the environment, natural disasters, taxes, travel of citizens, fighting organized crime, exchange of property and investment. This cooperation serves the interests of Latvia and the EU and is not affected by EU sanctions.
Latvia and Russia share nearly 550 km of joint borders, which means geographically, Latvia is closer to Russia than to any another of its NATO allies and has more in common with it, too. Can that be a factor to affect the cooperation between Latvia and NATO?
The length of the Latvian – Russian border is 283, 6 km in total. Russia is our historical neighbour that we share a complex history with and, in some instances, also a tragic past. However, our cultures and mentalities are distinctively dissimilar. Throughout history Latvians have always considered themselves to be deeply rooted in European culture. Latvia has been Western-Oriented, which has continued after the establishment of the independent Republic of Latvia in 1918. Even during the time of Soviet occupation – in 1940-1941 and 1945 – 1991, Latvia was perceived as more European than the other “Soviet republics”. Latvia is an EU and NATO Member State since 2004. In 2006, Riga successfully hosted the NATO Summit. On 1 January 2014, Latvia became the 18th country to join the Eurozone – the common EU currency.
Riga has always been a city with a European spirit, European cultural traditions and values.
Riga also became the European Capital of Culture in 2014 along with Umeå in Sweden. Hundreds of special events took place in Riga that year, including the World Choir Games. Riga is also the Art Nouveau Capital of Northern Europe. According to UNESCO experts, the historic centre of Riga has the highest concentration of Art Nouveau architecture in the world. This puts Riga on the map of European Art Nouveau together with Paris, Brussels and Vienna.
In terms of economic development Latvia has always been a crossroad of important trade roots – by land and by sea as well. Our capital city Riga was a member of the Hanseatic League- an organization founded by North German towns in tandem with German merchants abroad as a means to protecting their mutual trading interests, dating back to XIII- XV century.
Today, given its geographical location and well-developed infrastructure, Latvia is an integral part in the Trans-Eurasian supply chain. Latvia can serve as a gateway to Northern Europe and Scandinavia, as well as to CIS countries. Latvia is also the centre of Baltic aviation. Riga International Airport is the leading air transport and transit centre in the Baltic States with a high-speed cargo distribution centre. More than 7 million people came through the airport in 2018 and this number is on the rise. The Latvian national airline, “airBaltic”, provides regular flights to more than 70 destinations from Riga as well as Vilnius and Tallinn. Our ice-free ports located in the cities of Riga, Ventspils and Liepāja are ideal for developing transit and transport services.
Two years ago, Latvia signed an Intergovernmental Agreement with Lithuania and Estonia on Rail Baltica, the ambitious greenfield railway project to integrate the Baltic states in the European rail network, which will greatly enhance Latvia’s transit capabilities through railway too.
Being Russia’s neighbours entails dealing with common tasks and challenges, for example, the maintenance of our border and its security, migration, taxes, fighting natural disasters and organized crime etc. Such a wide range of sectors of the treaty-based relations with Russia makes it necessary for us to deeply analyse and anticipate Russia’s policies.
Since 2017, we have additional NATO allied forces stationed in Latvia as a security measure. It comes as a direct consequence to Russia’s aggressive policy against neighboring Ukraine when it attacked and illegally annexed the Crimean peninsula and supported a proxy war in Eastern Ukraine.
When President Rouhani received Your Honor’s credentials, he stressed the operation of the private sectors in Iran and Latvia to make the most of the two countries’ potentials and capabilities. What possible potentials do the two countries have to work in together?
I believe that it is important for both of our countries to work on the promotion of mutual awareness and encourage people – to- people contacts as a solid foundation to build upon for future cooperation. Latvia and Iran currently have a modest cooperation in the field of higher education, which could be expanded upon. There’s certainly work to be done in the field of culture. Iran is a country with long and well-established traditions in arts and culture. Latvia also has a lot to offer. The cultural scene is vibrant and many various cultural events take place not only in the capital Riga, but also in other Latvian cities- Cesis, Rēzekne, Liepāja, Saulkrasti, Jūrmala etc. each year. These include international and local festivals of classical and other types of music, Opera and ballet, film, fine arts, gastronomy etc. All these events constitute an area of potential cooperation between our countries. Latvia is home to internationally acclaimed opera singers and conductors. They perform at world-renowned stages, such as the Metropolitan Opera in New York, La Scala in Milan, Vienna State Opera and others. We also have some widely acclaimed orchestras performing worldwide, and Latvia has also gained international acclaim for its choir music, conductors and singers.
Latvia also has a long tradition in textile –art. There is a lot of potential for cooperation with Iran in this area. This summer a Latvian town called Gulbene hosted the first international textile-art festival, “Two Julies”, and an Iranian art historian and expert on Islamic Arts took part with the lecture on themes of Persian carpets. On the other hand, a Latvian professor of arts presented her research on the comparison of Persian and Baltic symbolism. I find it truly amazing, that so many commonalities can be found in our traditional symbols and colors, used in rugs, mittens, dresses etc.
In June 2016, Dr. Zarif, Iran’s FM, met with the President and Parliamentary Speaker of Latvia on his visit there, and signed a political MOU with his Latvian counterpart. How are the political ties between the two countries now?
In April 2017, the State Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the State Secretary of the Ministry of Transport had a productive visit to Iran that discussed potential cooperation areas such as agriculture, pharmaceuticals, transport and logistics. The previous parliament also had a friendship group with Iran, it remains to be seen if a new group is formed under the new parliament after our elections of October 2018.
What are the possible areas for the two countries to cooperate in?
I see a lot of room for development and intensifying activities between our countries. I would say, we should start with culture, because there’s a lot of work to be done in the area of raising mutual awareness in both countries. Latvia is currently celebrating her first centenary, which translates into a plethora of cultural events throughout the country and abroad. One such event was the screening of the Latvian documentary “Bridges of Time” in Tehran in December, including a workshop on how the film was made, which was held during the festival Cinema Verite. Our cooperation in education and scientific research also has a potential for growth. There has been exciting research done in the University of Latvia on the similarity of Latvian and Iranian symbols. I was curious to learn there is an amazing number of commonalities in our traditional symbols, colours and patterns. The similarities are quite astounding! I believe there is certainly room for further research in this area. The Baltic Iranian Association founded in Riga is also looking forward to cooperation in many fields.
Do the two countries know each other’s potentials as they should?
I believe there is room for improvement in this regard. Both countries have to invest time and effort into self-promotion in order to acquaint the people of Iran and Latvia with each other. Culture can be an excellent bridging factor in this context. Latvia is represented in Iran by myself and Iran has a non- resident Ambassador to Latvia who resides in Stockholm. Both of us have some work to do in promoting our countries. I also believe the finalizing of procedures for appointing Latvia’s honorary consul in Teheran has the potential to advance our efforts in the promotion of Latvia in Iran. I look forward to a fruitful future of cooperation in this area, because promoting Latvia and telling the world about our experience happens to be my passion.
Is there any potential in tourism, cultural heritage and handicrafts for the two countries to focus on?
Latvia is still a largely unknown travel destination for Iranian tourists. However, we do welcome friends from afar to explore our beautiful country. Our capital Riga is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is full of architectural treasures, including the finest collection of Art Nouveau buildings, cosy restaurants and creative art spaces. Latvia’s biggest treasure is its pristine nature. Forests cover half of the country’s territory, which means there are many options for green tourism from simple hikes to specially designed routes for bird-watchers, hunters and friends and connoisseurs of nature. Latvia’s lengthy coastline never ceases to surprise with its dunes, steep cliffs, sandstone outcrops, impressive rocks and caverns. It owes much of its charm to the fishing villages, the multiple areas untouched by civilization, as well as bustling port cities, and the popular resort city of Jūrmala. There are many more activities and every guest will find something special in Latvia.
How usable is the agricultural potential between the two countries? Does Latvia import any agricultural items from Iran?
The bilateral turnover of trade between our countries in 2017 reached 4.5 million euros. Iran is Latvia’s 75th largest foreign trade partner. Our trade relations have steadily developed since the 1990s. Grain crops are the most important Latvian export commodity to Iran and constitutes the largest part of our trade. The years between 2012 and 2014 were a record time when the export of wheat from Latvia totalled around 80 million euros per year.
We are interested in diversifying the structure of our exports. Latvian companies working with food processing, woodworking, machinery and pharmacy have made inquiries regarding the Iranian market.
We see potential for future economic growth in newly developing industries. Latvia aspires to become a regional leader and a cooperation platform for innovation and technologies. Therefore, the Government of Latvia has adopted the concept of Data Driven Nation. Within this framework, we are encouraging cooperation in bio economics, biomedicine, smart technology, smart energy and information and communication technologies. In this context – September last year, we held an international event “Baltic Sea Region 5G Ecosystem Forum” in Riga, which was attended by high-level delegations from the world’s leading technological innovators. We plan to encourage our partners to look into new cooperation fields through cross-sectoral partnership and business opportunities provided by innovations and new technologies.
The main import commodities from Iran to Latvia are food products (mainly fruits and nuts) and some machinery items.
What fishery potentials do the two countries have to collaborate based on?
As a country by the sea, Latvia has rich fishing traditions. We have a several large companies that work with fish processing. Some were interested in developing cooperation with Iran and have visited Iran with the Secretary of State of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs during his visit to Teheran in April 2017 together with the State Secretary of the Latvian Ministry of Transportation.
Can the banks of the two countries work together? What are the challenges ahead of them?
So far, there has been very little cooperation between our countries in this field. At the same time, the international context has to be taken into account when considering cooperation in particular sectors. In current circumstances, I believe it isn’t the right time for major advancement in this area. Time will tell what we can do in the future.
How could the re-imposition of the US sanctions against Iran affect the two countries’ relations?
Latvia supports the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), because it significantly contributes to limiting the spread of nuclear weapons globally. The U.S. decision to leave the JCPOA indicates the E.U. and the U.S. approach the same goal from different angles. It is important to address these differences, therefore, Latvia believes in searching for a solution through dialogue that would benefit the interest of Iranian people and be acceptable to the EU, as well as the US.
What challenges are there that hinder the trade ties between Iran and Latvia in general?
Seeing challenges is an easy task, but finding solutions is what brings growth and advancement so I believe we should always strive to make the best of any situation. This is my wish to the future of Latvian-Iranian relations.