Honourable Prime Minister,
Members of parliament,
Ladies and gentlemen,
4 May is the day we celebrate Latvia!
On this day 26 years ago thousands of people gathered around this building. At home, at work or in the street, thousands more listened to the radio broadcast of the historic sitting taking place here – just as it is emotionally portrayed in the video created for the White Tablecloth Celebration.
The nation held its breath, as the votes were counted.
And then the 138 members of the Supreme Council, who had voted in favour of the 4 May Declaration on the Restoration of Independence of the Republic of Latvia, walked out of the building and were met with indescribable joy and jubilation. On that day they were national heroes!
Their act of heroism had been to achieve something more than just the ordinary human wish to live a little bit better. They had fulfilled a seemingly faded dream that had secretly blazed within our hearts for 50 years.
Edgars Bergs, a priest and the editor of newspaper “Svētdienas rīts” prior to World War II described the essence of a hero as follows: “A hero lives the fate of his nation. The nation’s gains are his gains, the nation’s honour is his honour. He knows what stands in the way of the nation’s well-being, what causes pain to the nation. He holds the nation’s interests above his own. A hero grows larger than his own life.”
That is what made these 138 people heroes – they understood that the vote on 4 May was something larger than life, something beyond the boundaries of time And they cast it.
On 4 May 1990 we regained our de jure independence – of the state that was born upon the rubble of World War I in 1918 and blossomed into success and excellence in various areas, such as economics, sciences, agriculture, culture.
On 4 May 1990 people wanted to believe that we would return to that same successful and rich Latvia in just a few years’ time. We did not know what awaited us – the January Barricades, the August Putsch; we had not the faintest idea of how difficult it would be to get the occupation army to leave; we did not fully grasp how much time it would take to re-establish our own legal system, economy, security and democracy.
Have we become a successful and excellent state now that 26 years have passed?
Politically – yes. We are a member of the European Union, a union of 28 states and the largest economy in the world. We are a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, whose total number of soldiers between all member states exceeds 3 million.
We have attained wonderful results in culture, sports, pharmacology, and information technology. There are many areas where Latvia – a country of 2 million inhabitants – has proved its excellence.
A whole generation has grown up in the restored Republic of Latvia. When asked why it is best to raise children in Latvia, young people respond that it is because of Latvia’s wonderful nature, four beautiful seasons, high quality food and future prospects. But one of the main advantages that young families highlight is paid child-care leave, which in Latvia is one of the longest in the world. While maternity pay and other benefits could be higher, young parents can return to the same job after child-care leave.
Indeed, since 2011 the demographic indicators in our country have started looking up. More children are born. Based on the number of new-borns per mother we are ahead of both Estonia and Lithuania. However, much remains to be done. Thus, the recently established Demographic Affairs Centre will mainly focus on large families, as the third child policy is crucial for the future of our state.
We love our country and take pride in it. In our eyes Latvia is the best and most beautiful.
Then why does part of our society seem to be disappointed?
It is true that these 26 years have not endowed everybody with the prosperity for which we all yearned and that political parties have been promising to voters prior to each election.
Economic prosperity is a prerequisite for each of us to live a fulfilling life, with dignity and security in the present and future. And to turn our dreams into reality.
Less than three months ago, addressing the first meeting of the Cabinet headed by Māris Kučinskis, I said that people are hoping for positive change, a flourishing economy and a better life for everybody. People are hoping that this Cabinet will see Latvia become more powerful and potent. People have placed their trust in this Cabinet.
The government is committed to ensuring that more resources can be allocated for families, health care, education, security and strengthening of the national identity.
I would like to stress, however, that the pledge of prosperity will only be fulfilled after a wide and strong middle class has emerged in Latvia.
The middle class is the core of a strong country.
If we deliberately work to increase the middle class, the loyalty to our state and its security will grow along with it.
The middle class respects the past and values the future. It creates demand for high-quality education for their children and cares for the quality of life of their parents. The middle class respects the laws, can do without a bloated public administration and is seldom involved in corruption or shadow economy.
What kind of a middle class do we need? It should include teachers, physicians, civil servants, farmers, small and medium business owners. It should be constituted by people who take initiative, cherish their values and believe in continuity of generations.
How can we strengthen and expand our middle class?
When we manage to find a practical answer to this question, then all the government action plans will easily fit into a couple of sheets of paper.
Why is it taking Latvia so long to grow its middle class? What is slowing us down on our way? Why do we have this gaping inequality?
Recently media circulated the news that corruption in Latvia is causing a budget gap of up to 5 billion euros. Few, however, went on to read more and learn that these study estimates are based on the levels of corruption as perceived by the society. Unfortunately, Latvia ranks poorly on the Corruption Perceptions Index.
How people feel about developments in their country – including corruption, red tape, quality of politics and even simply attitude towards them – is crucial. These feelings affect patriotism, security, economy. They impact our mutual trust and our faith in one another and in Latvia as a state.
Let us give a special thought to owners of small and medium businesses. Recently a post by an entrepreneur sparked a huge response on social media. She depicted how easy it is to run a small restaurant in Estonia and how cumbersome it is to do the same in Latvia. It would be a friendly gesture if both the finance and the economics ministers drafted a joint open letter to this businesswoman and society at large explaining what we are going to do for our entrepreneurs and what kind of cooperation is expected from them.
The good news is that Latvia is highly likely to join the OECD this year. We have been making efforts and continue to do our best to tackle corruption more efficiently, to raise the quality of public administration, and to create a more favourable business and investment environment. If the OECD had not set up this roadmap for Latvia’s membership, we would have to invent it ourselves.
My dear countrymen,
Who are the heroes of today?
There are hundreds and thousands of people in Latvia who are able and willing to go far beyond their personal interests, people whose daily work benefits our people and our country.
We have such people all around Latvia. They are the teachers who are annually presented with the Excellence Award for their creative, progressive and personal approach that helps each and every pupil succeed. They are the medical doctors who are nominated for the annual prize in medicine and selected by a popular vote. They are the researchers of the Latvian Institute of Organic Synthesis, who, in spite of the scarce state aid for science, continue to develop enterprises with a high added value.
Another quite remarkable phenomenon is the culture of donation, which has been thriving in recent years based on civic initiatives. Much like the Baltic Way, where we came together to join our hands in the name of freedom, today we join our hands to help those who lack the financial means to fight severe illness. The required money is collected in a matter of days. Here I would like to mention an extraordinary donation by a Latvian company in the amount of 1 million euros made to the Paediatric University Clinic. Latvian entrepreneur Arnis Riekstiņš is one of its owners, and he did this noble deed without unnecessary publicity or self-praise.
The admirable solidarity of our people, unfortunately, only emphasises the lack of much-needed reforms in the health-care sector.
Ladies and gentlemen,
We hardly ever think about whatever happened to those who refused to vote for the Declaration of Independence on that historic 4 May. Those who stood by the communist ideas, threatened with unrest and insisted we return to the “wonderful” creation that was the Soviet Union, born through bloodshed and terror. The Soviet Union that eradicated peoples, nations, languages and values.
Many of those who refused to vote for the Declaration of Independence, as well as their ideological supporters continue to long for the soviet regime; they celebrate our mistakes, undermine important decisions, refuse to recognise the occupation, scribble articles about a failed state, and propagate mistrust towards the future of Latvia.
Our response is our love for Latvia, faith in the future of our state, honest work, and constant improvement of our security.
As to the issue of security, we have undergone considerable changes since the regaining of independence. The security of Latvia and the Baltic States is now on the agenda of NATO. The United States is our strategic partner. We are a part of the Common Security and Defence Policy of the European Union.
We did not have such allies in 1918 when Latvia was founded, in 1940 when Latvia was occupied, nor in 1945 when the Yalta Conference condemned Latvia to years of occupation. Today we celebrate the fact that the situation has changed, and we appreciate the support of the West.
Latvia is acutely aware of current security challenges. In my recent visit to the United States and Canada I had the honour to confirm to our allies that we are diligently doing our homework; we are committed to increasing our defence budget up to 2% of the GDP by 2018, a step that is agreed-upon not only in the parliament and government, but also enjoys broad popular support.
Now Latvia and other countries of the Baltic region await the decision of the upcoming Warsaw Summit regarding reinforced and long-term presence of NATO troops in the Eastern flank of the Alliance.
Likewise, we are increasingly taking care of internal security. We have launched media support programmes in the Latgale region, started reinforcing the Eastern border. Important amendments have been made to the Criminal Law. All these measures require a lot of effort, because sometimes we tend to be excessively optimistic, unhurried and also overly suspicious.
However, one of the most recent security challenges, which seems to be beyond our control, is the vast wave of immigration that has flooded Europe. This enormous influx of people from a radically different cultural environment is unprecedented in Europe. Unsurprisingly, there were no appropriate policies in place to address this challenge.
We understand the need to help the European Union member states that, due to their geographic location, are forced to shoulder the heaviest burden; and we are prepared to uphold our commitment to admit asylum seekers, but we also expect that the rest of Europe takes into account the geographic location of the Baltic States, which is the external border of the European Union. Much effort and resources are still needed to reinforce it.
Borders play an important role. Sometimes we just need to be aware of the boundary where the interests of our people end and personal interests begin. We need to understand what stands in the way of the nation’s well-being, what causes pain to the nation.
What we need is to reach over the boundaries of our personal life. We need to do deeds that transcend time. We need a little heroic ambition. For the sake of Latvia.
Latvia will live as long as it is in our hearts.
Let us lay a white tablecloth for each other! Let us do it for Latvia! Let us celebrate Latvia and may Latvia live for ever!
God bless Latvia!