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Interview: Nancy Bikoff Pettit, the United States Ambassador to Latvia

Nancy Bikoff Pettit became the United States Ambassador to Latvia about three months ago. In the early stages of her work she has visited the regions as well as attended meetings with officials and activists. Latvian Radio's Uģis Lībietis interviewed the ambassador on Thursday.

You have been in Latvia for a few months, but this is still probably one of your first bigger interviews for Latvian media. So, I guess, most listeners would be interested in what are your impressions about our country?

Ambassador Nancy Pettit: It's been a very, very busy three months. I think it's been extremely productive. I have basically been in a learning and listening mode. I have met with the members of the government, of the Cabinet of Ministers. I've met with civil society representatives, with American and local businesses. I've met with students. So I've heard from a broad section of society. What I have learned is what I really already knew - which is that Latvia is a close partner and a great friend to the United States, and a valued NATO ally. 

Your personal heritage is also connected with this region. Does it mean that you consider your appointment as special or personal? And what will be your priorities during your stay here?

It's true that my mother's parents were from an area not too far from Vilnius. My grandparents both left before the turn of the century. They left a long time ago. So, in a way, it's a great honor to be an ambassador, but it's an even greater honor to be sent to a region where your family originally is from. On my father's side my family is from a village about two hours south of Kyiv. Coming back here has been a great honor and a great joy. It also gives me the opportunity to eat food that I grew up with and I particularly love. 

In terms of my priorities as the new US ambassador here, basically I have three. The first is our security and defense relationship. The second is trade and investment. The third is sharing our Transatlantic values. 

On the first, just to elaborate a little bit more, we work very closely with Latvia as our NATO ally. We work with them both bilaterally and via NATO to strengthen Latvia's defense and security. As President Obama has said on many occasions, our commitment to Article Five is absolutely ironclad. 

On our trade and investment and our economic portfolio here, we are particularly focused on the TTIP, The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. We are hoping that negotiations wrap up in 2016. It's a very complicated negotiation, there are twenty working groups. We believe that it's a win-win both for the United States and for Latvia, because it would create jobs on both sides of the Atlantic, and it would be particularly good for small- and medium-sized businesses, which is what Latvia mostly has. 

And finally, on sharing our Transatlantic values, we're very focused, working with Latvia, on social inclusion issues, on ensuring that everyone who resides here in Latvia has the ability to really demonstrate their full potential and to participate in Latvian society. We're also focused on anti-corruption work here and strengthening the banking system here to combat money laundering issues. 

Your appointment to Latvia has come in a time which might be characterized by pretty serious turbulence in global politics and security. Of course, most of the global attention is now mainly pointed towards Syria, the Middle East, also not forgetting about Ukraine. How would you characterize the role of the United States in the present geopolitical situation?

Our priority in Europe is a Europe whole, free and at peace. Our focus here is particularly on Ukraine. Ukraine is extremely important to us - the national sovereignty of Ukraine, and the full implementation of the Minsk agreements. Although Syria right now is getting a lot of media attention, as you probably know Secretary [of State John] Kerry will be travelling to Moscow shortly. And first and foremost, he says, his topics will be Ukraine - first - and also Syria, to coordinate our policies. But, again, the implementation of the Minsk agreement is the highest priority of the United States, I would say, in this region of Europe. 

And what about the Middle East, Syria? Recently there has been a lot of criticism towards Washington about its role there - that it should be increased, and that assistance for refugees should be increased. Do you consider the actions of the United States as appropriate right now? And probably there are some spheres or subjects where the might be improvement in the future?

The issue of refugees, and refugees coming from Syria and the Middle East, we see [it] not as a Middle East problem or a European problem but a global issue. I think that the United States has an outstanding story to tell here. We have spent more than $4.5b on humanitarian assistance since the start of the Syrian civil war, which is nearly five years old now. Secretary Kerry just announced last week another $24m [to be given] to the UNHCR, again for humanitarian assistance. I believe that we are doing our part. We have accepted more than 3 million refugees in the United States since 1975. On an annual basis we take more than 70,000 refugees, but this year we will be taking additional refugees, we will be taking 85,000 refugees. We'll be taking an extra 10,000 Syrian refugees this year, and next year an extra 15,000 Syrian refugees. 

The United States pays special attention to refugees. We've always seen our country as a welcoming country for refugees. In fact, it has been a strength of the United States to accept refugees and to give them a fresh start. The strength of the United States is our diversity. Refugees who come to the United States want to work, they want to contribute to the United States, and they contribute a tremendous amount to our country, and refugees are also very important for our economic well-being. 

Our Statue of Liberty stands in the New York harbor, welcoming refugees, and we will continue doing so in the future. 

Recent crises have activated discussions about the stability and the future of NATO and the role of it in granting security around the world. But there have also been some worries in this region regarding different statements about NATO. For example, just a few days ago, senior fellow at the Cato institute Doug Bandow wrote in Forbes that "Expansion to the Baltic States turns out to have been a huge mistake, bringing in helpless nations which the rest of Europe has no interest in defending, countries of no geopolitical importance to America but involved in bitter disputes with Russia." These quotes are mostly reflected in Russian-speaking media. Is there any reason for Latvia and the Baltics to be concerned about such statements at all? How do you see Latvia's role in NATO?

Latvia is a valued NATO partner - let me say that right up front. We are delighted that Latvia is a member of NATO. Latvia as a NATO member has developed some niche capacities that other members of NATO don't necessarily have. I think that Latvia is practicing smart defense. It is focusing on a few areas and doing those areas really well. I don't think I can say it any better than the message of president Obama when he was in Tallinn last year, which is that the defense of Tallinn, Rīga and Vilnius is as important as the defense of Berlin, Rome and Paris. We stand by NATO's Article Five and that Article Five is an ironclad reassurance to the Baltics. 

I just want to remind listeners that the United States has always championed the Baltics and Baltics' independence, and we never recognized the incorporation of Latvia, Lithuania or Estonia into the Soviet Union. And I remember seeing maps - my whole childhood, young adulthood  even when I first joined the State Department - maps produced in the United States always showed a special boundary line and clearly noted that the United States did not recognize the incorporation these countries. This is why our embassy is located on Sumner Welles street. Sumner Welles is the US diplomat who helped craft this policy of non-recognition of the incorporation of the Baltic states into the Soviet Union.

How would you evaluate US' involvement in this region up until now, and also looking into the future? We are mostly speaking about military assistance - you already mentioned different aspects to which you are orienting your activities - but still, what about plans for the future?

Well, looking into the future we have what's called the ERI - European Reassurance Initiative - where there are Congress-approved $1b expenses towards the assistance and reassurance to not only the Baltics but other Eastern European countries. This kind of financing allows us to work with our Latvian partners on developing capabilities within NATO and in infrastructure projects at Ādaži base and at Lielvārde. I believe that our work together with Latvia is very, very important. We have a company of soldiers here in Ādaži on a rotational basis, and that company engages in training and exercises with its Latvian partners. Going forward, we expect this rotational presence to continue.

How would characterize US-Russian relations? Do you see yourself as one of the persons who could try to normalize these relations between the two big countries? Is it even possible?

It's no secret that the US-Russia relationship at the moment is quite challenging. That said, we work with Russia where we can work with Russia. A good example is the recent work that we've done with Russia on Iran and Iran's nuclear programs. We are also working with Russia on Syria. We would welcome Russia's joining our 65-nation coalition against ISIL.

We have differences with Russia. For example, we don't see the future of President Assad in the same way. Russia supports president Assad. The United States believes that a president who barreled bombs and poisons and tortures and starves his population is not a good choice for a president going forward. However, we understand that Russia is a player here and we are cooperating and working with Russia to resolve this issue. 

The United States is hoping to host an international meeting on Syria in New York on or about December 18, and we hope that Russia would attend such a meeting.

We don't see our relationship or anyone else's - of the neighbors around Russia - as a zero-sum relationship. I personally believe Latvia also needs to have - and can have - a good, positive relationship with Russia and a trading relationship. But Russia first has to implement the Minsk agreements, and I think that Russia has to take steps to demonstrate that it wants to be a good partner to Latvia, and to the United States and to other EU countries. 

If we speak about this exact region, there have also been discussion about a NATO and Russia's agreement. Some say this agreement doesn't fit the modern-day realities, that it's too old, that Russia has breached the rules of this agreement. But there are the same statements from the Russian side. How do you see the future of this agreement and cooperation between NATO and Russia?

I think it's important to keep channels of communication open. The United States right now does not support a renegotiation of this agreement, we don't think that it's necessary. In fact we're abiding by this agreement and we expect the Russian side to do so as well. What is important is that we keep lines of communication open. And I think that this is particularly evident in Syria where the Russians are carrying out bombing strikes but so are the members of the coalition. It's particularly important also in Ukraine.

The European Union is also going through very hard times. The economic crisis has weakened Europe, and the refugee crisis has also shaken the unity of our union. How trustful a partner is the European Union for the United States in such hard circumstances?

I should know, I was formerly the Director of Western European Affairs at the State Department. I can assure you that the European Union is a very, very close partner, a wonderful partner to the United States. It's true that the refugee issue has proven challenging to the European Union. But I believe that the European Union is well on its way to addressing the challenges of refugees. The refugee issue is a challenge but I think it has demonstrated the unity and the cohesiveness of the European Union.

You mentioned the ongoing discussions about the free trade agreement or TTIP. What are your predictions about the success of this agreement? Will we be ready to sign this agreement next year or should we not be so optimistic? What will be its greatest advantages or disadvantages? 

Well of course I don't have a crystal ball so I can't say whether or not we'll be able to wrap up the negotiations in 2016, but it is certainly our priority and intention to do so. As I mentioned, the TTIP free trade agreement would be especially beneficial to small- and medium-sized businesses, because it will cut back bureaucracy and paperwork and will provide harmonization of products and all of these things which will make export of products much, much easier. I believe that for Latvia in particular, since Latvia is overwhelmingly a country of small, medium sized businesses, the TTIP will prove extremely beneficial. That said, as I mentioned already, it's an extremely complex negotiation, there are over 20 working groups, there are lots of different specialists involved, and we'll have to see what happens.

The final question. Latvia recently experienced the fall of the government. The United States is still in presidential race. I know that you don't have a crystal ball, but what are your predictions about the winner and what will change about the position of the United States in the future?

The presidential election season in the United States is a very, very long one. We're actually at the beginning. We have to first see what happens in primaries, and in this summer in August both parties will hold their conventions, and only then we will know what the candidates are for the office of president. So I think it's the early days yet, and it's way, way to soon to make any kinds of predictions.

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