From listening to smuggled Queen LPs behind the Iron Curtain to presenting her credentials to The Queen as Ambassador of Latvia, it’s been quite a journey for Baiba Braze.
Wanting to ‘break free’ (to quote Freddie Mercury), Braze in 1989 linked arms with her compatriots to form the Baltic Way in protest against Soviet occupation. By the spring of 1990 Latvia had regained its independence (first established in 1918 before being occupied in 1940 by the Soviet Union).
Braze found herself combining her studies at the Faculty of Law with helping her law professors (all pro-independence Popular Front leaders) to draft the legal foundations of the state. Soon after graduation she joined the Foreign Service as a lawyer and was posted to New York, before returning to join the team preparing for EU accession negotiations, later serving as Director of the Europe Department and then on to Ambassador in The Netherlands.
Asked if that intense EU experience will be helpful in the Brexit negotiations, Braze shakes her head and smiles wryly: “Nothing prepares you for Brexit.”
Whatever the outcome Latvia wants “the UK as close as possible to the EU,” she says. “But the risk of shooting oneself in the foot is very high. On all sides we have to do everything possible to avoid that”.
Britain is Latvia’s 7th largest trading partner – with 50% of Latvia’s territory covered in sustainable forests, wood products are a major export. One Latvian company holds 12-14% of the EU veneer market so it’s no surprise that the veneer for the 2012 Olympic spectator stands came from Latvia. Riga also has a thriving IT, start-up and fin tech scene with close ties to London. The two cities share a free-trading tradition dating back to the Hanseatic League of medieval times.
Ironically, the Ambassador points out that Britain was the driving force behind the Single Market and its underpinning four freedoms – goods, capital, services and labour. While Britain now wants curbs to free movement of labour, there are few voices on the Continent arguing to reform this fundamental freedom, says Braze. “Uncontrolled migration from outside the EU is a serious concern, but there is no problem with free movement of labour.”
Change in atmosphere
It was unfortunate, says the Ambassador, that anxieties leading to the referendum result in Britain have led to anti-foreigner sentiments “Our community tells me the atmosphere has changed.”
While welcoming UK government’s statements reassuring EU citizens and other foreigners, she still has worries. “Creating the label of ‘the other’ in society is very dangerous and it can deteriorate,” she cautions.
The Ambassador speaks from experience, having handled the human rights portfolio as part of her role as Director General of Security Policy and International Organisations.
‘We are proud of our social integration model,” says the Ambassador adding: “More than 150 ethnic groups live in Latvia and we protect and support our national minority groups – while Latvian is the official language, state-financed national minority education programmes in Latvia are available in seven languages.’
Maintaining common values is also important, not only from a human rights perspective but from a security perspective. As a former Director General of Communications she has seen how the so-called “information warfare” has been used by external actors to sow divisions in democratic societies, with serious consequences, citing examples from ISIS to Crimea.
Latvia has adopted a three-pronged defence against this new type of warfare, she explains. Firstly, recognizing the importance of independent quality media, the Latvian government strengthened the public interest media and supported an establishment of an independent Baltic Centre of Media Excellence. Secondly, it has embarked on a programme of public education in media literacy. “We believe in press freedom and in access to information but people also need skills to think critically and to identify when they are being influenced,” says Braze.
Latvia also hosts the NATO’s Centre for Strategic Communications, which helps NATO Member States to develop capabilities to counteract information warfare in its various guises. In this and other spheres, Britain has always been an excellent partner in NATO, and the two countries will continue to be strong allies even after Brexit, says Braze.
Responding to President-elect Trump’s comments about NATO, she agrees that European countries have to invest more resources for their defence (as Latvia aims to do). However, collective defence can never be optional, particularly with Europe’s history, she cautions: “World wars started from a distant event but spread across the whole world. Security in Europe is interlinked and a challenge to one of us is a challenge to all. History shows that if risks are not taken seriously and [aggressive] behaviour is not stopped in time, consequences become very serious.”
Latvians know this all too well, when they were wiped off the map in 1940. That’s why the centenary celebrations in 2018 will be so meaningful. Here in London the Ambassador is planning a cultural programme, also paying tribute to the role the Brits played in Latvia’s first war of independence. And expect some singing because, like many Latvians, the Ambassador is a keen chorister.
It’s clear that whether in a choir or in diplomacy, Ambassador Braze is good at creating harmony.