Tag Archives: latvia

Latvia

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The Baltic’s are quite flat lands and the drive north to Latvia was quite featureless. More snow had fallen over night and we knew this would increase for the rest of the trip. All of us were feeling the pressure from the work we were doing and time on the road but our continued financial problems added a ten fold factor to this. Still no money had been paid into our bank account and two of our three credit cards had now topped out. We were again in trouble and it would only be days till it all came tumbling down. Mette avoids conflict and was making excuses for the lack of payment and I was getting more and more angry with those that we messing us about. It was like Istanbul all over again but at least then we had a little left to pack it up and get the van back to Serbia. Now we had run to the wire and if the last card tilted out then we would be in a lot of trouble.

NPA had said they would pay in money to our account as a stop gap measure but this too had not arrived. I sent another email. The email was sent to Thomas and the contact person at NPA. Short and sweet, we were almost broke and it may fall in a heap in the next three days. Maybe we would not get through the weekend and we were not sure what would happen with paying our hotel bill on check out. I hit send.

There was much to do in Latvia, Estonia, Finland and Sweden and the thought of a collapse at this point was a bitter pill to contemplate.

We drove into Riga and it seemed a little more backward than Vilnius as a city. It’s only an impression of driving in and can be counted on for nothing but that’s how it made me feel. Many derelict wooden buildings lined the road into town and there was a kind of shanty town around the edges of the city.

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Many roads had ‘do not enter’ flags up as did many buildings. The ever present red top and bottom with the white bar through the centre was all around. The GPS seemed to be doing the right thing and was guiding us across town when we realised that all of these flags and signs were not ‘do not enter’ signs but the Latvian flag, a red flag with a white bar across it. Ooops!

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There was no time to waste at the hotel so we hit the ground running. Bags were dumped in the creatively named ‘Best Hotel’ and we went in search of the Irish Embassy. Our contact there was the Second Secretary Aoife. She had contacted as many NGO’s as she could and we walked right into a briefing with some of them. These were a select few as we were to talk to a larger gathering of NGO’s the next day. They grasped the urgency of our visit and committed to getting busy with it. Mara was the director of the Latvian NGO platform and a very dynamic woman. Her contacts were second to none and she was a woman on a mission. She thought fast, acted fast, got the brief down, filled the gaps in the argument for her then got to work on it. Within hours, more contacts and opportunities were coming together for our few days in Latvia, a real one woman whirlwind.

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The Irish Embassy shared the same building as the Graduate School of Law and Aoife had organised for us to speak to a class of students studying International Humanitarian Law under Dr Jane Smith. We marched out the back and across the shared square and up to the class. Jane Smith seemed to be another great mover and shaker. My original impression was that we may have been intruding a little in her class as it was mentioned that we had only half an hour to get lots of information out. I set the scene and Mette launched into details on the treaty and its creation. Conscious that the clock was ticking I tried to wrap us up in half an hour. Jane wouldn’t have it and wanted many questions answered. When she realised we were also involved in the creation of the Landmine Treaty she was even more interested as they look at that treaty in their studies now.

A great discussion was had with all and finally we really were out of time after and hour. More contacts made and many who would like to get involved. As we were leaving, Jane said that there was to be a reception tomorrow night for the Law Faculty and would we like to come. The guests would be the cream of the legal academic world and some strong national policy makers. More keys in more doors and more contacts to work towards the treaty. Out in the cold we found a pizza restaurant and settled in for dinner.

Aoife was another great Irish woman who was down to earth with an interesting past. A person with an extremely strong social conscience, she knew a few of the more inspiring and charismatic people that we had met in Ireland during the treaty negotiations. She certainly knew what being on the road was all about and after knowing us a grand total of three hours gave us the keys to her apartment and said we could do what we wanted from there. The one thing that is always hard to do while on the road is wash clothes and hotel laundry bills are normally more expensive than buying new ones.

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“There’s a washing machine there, I bet that would be handy,” she said.

We had now been on the road 50 days with a shoestring budget trying to make every penny count and we were sick and tired of hand washing everything in hotel sinks and trying to get it all dry before we moved onto the next city. This woman really was gold. No wonder my Nordic ancestry married Irish women, they are so nice!

After the night in the hotel we woke early and headed back to the Irish Embassy to do a full presentation to a larger body of NGO’s. This session was meant to educate them and get them up to speed as fast as possible. They got the picture quickly then again asked the relevant questions re the Latvian position. Time was critical so all scattered and we would meet up at the NGO office in a few hours. Mette went to get some translations done by the Norwegian Embassy and I got a fact sheet sent urgently from London. We needed to give them a simple cheat sheet of likely questions and answers that would help in any negotiations. The information arrived and we were off to build a strong Latvian NGO argument.

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Mette took the afternoon to work from Aoife’s apartment and put some clothes through the washing machine at the same time. Daniel and me finished of the fact sheets and interest from the media was beginning to roll in for tomorrow. Things were coming together well and at a great rate. A quick lap of the hotel transformed us into suit and tie guys and we picked up Mette and headed to the university to attend the reception.

I still felt a little uncomfortable that we may be gate crashing the faculty reception but the opposite was true. Jane was very pleased when we arrived and within second we were all engaged in lively conversations about International Humanitarian Law, the Landmines Treaty and the Cluster Munitions Treaty. As we have very intimate knowledge of the process and subtleties that made these treaties come into existence, the discussions kept the crowd and conversations lively all night. Various professors from around Europe asked if we could visit their universities in the future as the feedback from the day before had been exceptional. This was welcome news as the aim is to motivate people into actions and not just words. What I love about talking to students are their deeply enquiring minds and not taking anything at face value. Simply put they want us to prove it then prove it again and then, if satisfied with the response, they will lock in and engage in the argument.

I think I get an extra satisfaction from universities as it’s the quest for knowledge that I find so inspiring and a great teacher really does draw out the best in their students.

Aoife took us to a small bar with a cosy atmosphere and we ate and headed home. Mentally I was feeling drained. The day had been full speed but the lack of money was weighing on Mette and me heavily.

When we logged onto the internet at the hotel there was a message from our friend at NPA and she was horrified that the rescue money had not been paid to us. She had authorised it then it had made it to the finance department and promptly got sunk in an inbox of someone who was on sick leave. Nothing had happened. She had put on her size 6 ass kicking boots and sorted it out. She witnessed the transfer being made and we would see the money by Monday. That was really welcome news but still we might not get through the weekend. There was more to do in Riga on Friday and Saturday then we are to drive to Tallinn in Estonia on Saturday. We were now in a race against time. Which would run out first, our meagre credit or the time till Monday? If the money ran out first then we would not be able to leave Riga and everything planned for Tallinn would fall in a heap.

The work put into sorting out media was beginning to pay off as we had a long interview lined up for the national radio station first thing in the morning. We followed the GPS and experienced our second morning of horror traffic jams. Finally we got out of them and into the streets leading to the old town and the radio station when we couldn’t enter any streets as security was blocking every way. I hate being late to anything, particularly an interview, so ripped out the GPS and Mette, Daniel and me headed off on foot to the directions given. Turn left in 200 metres, turn right, turn left. We were bolting down the streets till I swung around a corner and banged straight into a Nazi!

This put me on the back foot as the young clean cut guy with the skull and cross bone insignia over a swastika looked me in the eye. My mind raced as I though “What the hell is going on?” I looked down the street to my right and saw movie lights and actors and realised World War 2 was back in town. Apparently there was a big budget movie set in Warsaw being filmed in Riga as much of Riga resembles old Warsaw. Another double take and we were on our way again.

Daniel pipes up with one of his usual interesting observations.

“Hey maybe these guys are the reinforcements, it just took them 65 years to get here!” he says.

“Well if they are the reinforcements then they must have come from a breeding program somewhere,” says me.

The radio interview was with Didzis Melbiksis on Latvia’s national radio station. The segment would be aired at 6 pm and this has massive listener ship. Most Latvian’s get their news from radio as it saves buying a news paper so getting onto the prime time 6 o’clock spot was a real coup.

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A massive ramshackle old government building was the home of the station in the old town of Riga and Didzis met us at the door. He was a very bright young journalist who had done his homework and the interview reflected this. We cut straight to the core of the matter and the issues that were bothering Latvia. The interview was long and detailed and when it ended, I couldn’t think of a corner that had not been covered. On the way out Didzis said that many politicians listen to his show so it would have put the issue on the front burner for them.

We had lost Davor as we bolted from the van but a final word was to see him at the Irish Embassy as it’s the only place we all knew. We walked through Riga and the ground was freezing and more snow was about. There are a lot of old people begging in Riga and that’s a really sad sight.

When the Russians left they also cleaned out the financial institutions and took the national pension scheme with them. Average people who had worked their whole lives and paid their taxes were left with nothing. The sight of old people begging is really sad as the system as completely failed them. Mette stopped and emptied her pocket for an old lady standing in the snow with her hand out. Although we were broke, the old lady was broker. She looked at her hand and saw there were at least five good hot meals there or 20 cheap ones. She burst into tears.

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There must be a core to any society that looks after the most vulnerable people and the old and the young are those two groups. No point in having flash cars and designer clothes if grandma is standing in the snow trying to just survive.

Davor was at the embassy waiting so off we went again to finish the washing at Aoife’s flat. Daniel and Davor went back to the hotel and would pick us up just before our next TV interview planned for 3 pm outside of the offices of the Foreign Affairs Department. The TV program was Latvia’s best international current affairs show and we launched into a lively discussion. The questioning was quite hostile at times which is good as it lets me be attacked and defend and win a point. We bounced back and forth till the sun was setting and headed off with the cameraman to get a few shots of the van driving through Riga.

One more meeting for the day and this was back at the NGO forum. They had asked some expatriate Georgians to come in and talk to me about the problem in Georgia. This was definitely going to be hard for what I had to tell them has no happy ending.

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We sat around the kitchen table in the office and I told them what I had seen in Georgia. I opened my computer and pulled up the photographs too and strike details and strike footage. Everything was for them to see. They now looked to me a lot like the Georgian Ambassador, very uncomfortable.

“Russia has screwed Georgia but, Georgia has screwed Georgia as well.”

They asked about one town or another, mainly because they must have family there, and were given straight appraisals as to what I saw.

“Bad there, no nothing evident there, didn’t get up there.”

Three very sombre looking guys left the office but new allies had been made to work against the use of cluster bombs. There was that simple lesson learned again here. If you use cluster bombs you create a horrendous legacy and if you use them for defence you destroy your own land and people.

I needed one more thing before the day was done. I needed a copy of the Landmine Monitor Report. This is a 1000 page bible of facts and information of all the countries of the world in regards to landmines. As a research document it is very impressive and I wanted a copy to take with me to the upcoming meeting at Foreign Affairs. Emails to Canada and back connected us with Igor, the Latvian Landmine Monitor researcher. He agreed to lend us a copy and drove it over to the office for us. As transparency and reporting were key issues of concern to the Latvians, we felt we would be able to satisfy them with a copy of this.

Back in the hotel I saw a report on BBC World Service about the Georgian President. He was seriously being challenged for power over the conflict. In particular he was being attacked for the Georgian use of cluster bombs. Well I couldn’t agree more. With leadership like his and orders given to blast their own country and people, he really is unfit for office. This is what you get with stupid tough guy politics.

A pile of pizzas were taken back to Daniels room and devoured. We knew that anything left over would not go to waste as Dog Boy would vacuum up what was still in the boxes in the morning. The morning came and Daniel arrived with his bags and the pizza box at the car. He was already munching a wedge of pepperoni with a thick layer of coagulated fat solidified over the surface.

“Anyone want some? It’s still really good!” he said.

Ah, no thanks, as wonderful as it looks, no thanks.

He happily woofs it down and we are almost out of Riga. There was one last stop to make and this was to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Although it was Saturday, they were working. There was a public holiday on Tuesday but they then had to make it up by working Saturday. How does that make it a public holiday?

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The meeting was with Ieve Jirgensone, who is the acting Head of the Arms Control Division, and Diana Krieva, the Second Secretary for Arms Control and Non Proliferation Division. This was a good level to be talking at and the discussion was very candid. I really expected it to be more guarded but all cards were on the table. They were really frustrated with Defence. Simply put, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs wants to sign the treaty and has drafted all the relevant paper work. Only this week had Defence raised objections and the objections were paranoid diversions. A round table debate was to be held between the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Defence on Tuesday and the Prime Minister would then decide on whether to sign the treaty or not.

The arguments put up by Defence were really weak to us and the same old tired excuses that have been trawled up time and time again. The issue of interoperability was raised and crushed, what about Russia was counted with them being members of NATO, the example of Georgia as a David and Goliath struggle was turned into Goliath took what he wanted and David destroyed his own home. There were still a handful of issues that we would follow up on with a few concrete facts and figures and a couple of bizarre scenarios that Defence had raised. We took these in our stride and promised to have answers to all the questions by Monday morning in time for the meeting on Tuesday.

Finally we turned north to Estonia and the city of Tallinn.
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