Honourable President of Latvia,
Honourable Prime Minister,
Honourable members of the Saeima,
Ladies and gentlemen,
History has different eras, periods of placidity, ups and downs; but it can also have turning points and dividing lines. 4 May marks the line dividing what we were and what we are going to be; it was a turning point to have our own and only state.
Twenty two years ago, the adoption of the Declaration of Independence of the Republic of Latvia truly changed the history of our state. It clearly announced to the entire world the decision of the people; it was a bold venture and a matter of historical justice and future existence. It was accomplished by all of us together – members of the Supreme Council, activists of the Popular Front, special volunteer guards, fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, all patriots of Latvia.
Of course, it was followed by the Barricades, times of fear and desperation; there were also attempts to take away the faint scent of freedom which had just filled the air.
But our perseverance, defiance and the events of 21 August 1991 fortified the ideas contained in the Declaration of Independence about the Republic of Latvia as an independent and sovereign state and also legally restored our freedom.
The Declaration of 4 May restored the ideas and values which in 1922 were set forth in our Constitution and thus formed the foundations of our state.
Ninety years ago, the Constitution of the Republic of Latvia was adopted and came into force. Professor Vasily Sinaisky, an outstanding scholar of law, once wrote that a constitution is an agreement signed by all citizens; in a way, it is a monument in whose presence all controversies subside. He emphasised that a constitution is the mandatory minimum prerequisite for peace, and without it the development of a law-based state or culture is impossible.
I think that these words are still relevant today – more than 20 years after the de facto restoration of independence and 90 years after the adoption of our Constitution.
During these years, the Constitution of the Republic of Latvia has truly become a monument to our striving for independence and desire to live in a free and democratic state; a state that is based on the rule of law. Having close relations with other European nations where fundamental values such as rule of law, human rights and justice are observed.
The pages of our Constitution reveal the destiny of our state and people. First we see the bright and intellectual Latvia.
Then – the Latvia ravaged by totalitarian regimes of the 20th century.
Afterwards – the lost Latvia. Those who supported neither Hitler’s Third Reich nor Stalin’s empire fought for ideas embedded in the Constitution. To national partisans and later to dissidents, words Constitution of Latvia were an inspiring reminder of the possibility to have an independent Latvia.
Finally – in the Constitution we see the restored Latvia with its successes and failures – the Latvia shaped and witnessed by ourselves.
The amendment to the Constitution adding Chapter 8 on Fundamental Human Rights is the clearest example of how the Constitution keeps up with the times. Since 1998 the fundamental rights of people have been set forth by the supreme legal act – the Constitution – thus reflecting the values of the state without which a modern democratic society could not exist. Contemporariness and openness of the Constitution depend on our ability to embrace changes.
Ninety years ago the 1st convocation of the Saeima was elected and convened.
On 7 November 1922, in this Chamber, at the first sitting of the Saeima, Jānis Čakste, President of the Constitutional Assembly of Latvia, addressed the new parliament: „You have been sent by the people to do an important work. I am confident that you will do it selflessly and conscientiously for the honour and blessing of our precious motherland.”
These words by Jānis Čakste were relevant not just back in 1922. Today as well all citizens of Latvia sincerely hope that the Members of Parliament whom they have elected will fulfil their duties conscientiously, selflessly, without tarnishing their reputation and that they will place the public good above their own. They hope that the contribution of each Member of Parliament will be beneficial to Latvia and its people.
Čakste’s words are to the point today as we celebrate 4 May to honour free and independent Latvia. It would be very fitting if, before every important vote where a single ballot can determine Latvia’s fate, we were to carefully consider our choice and uphold our loyalty to our country and the values set forth in the Constitution.
The founders of the Republic of Latvia did not doubt that the new state must be a parliamentary republic. A few weeks after the proclamation of the Republic of Latvia, Arveds Bergs, one of the most outstanding politicians of the time, stated that “parliamentarism is the type of governance that we need”, but he also warned that “we have chosen the most complicated embodiment of state power”.
Thus, the most efficient and suitable way is not always the easiest one.
We see proof of this every day. The parliament – the Saeima – is the chief representative of the nation. The 100 members of the Saeima are elected to represent the opinions, needs, hopes and dreams of every citizen. There are voters with different personalities, different lives, routines, celebrations, worries and joys standing behind each of us. Our voters are as different from one another as we are; their views on Latvia’s development opportunities, as well as current foreign and domestic challenges, differ just as ours do.
Voters have elected us to take decisions on Latvia’s future together. The key word here is together. Each of us represents our own voters, but together we represent the people of Latvia.
The way of parliamentarism is not an easy one. It does not offer ready-made answers, nor does it rely on a wise man who knows all the right choices. It is not one leader with unrestricted authority who decides on our future. These are people and their representatives that have a say.
It is crucial for Latvia to be a democratic state based on the rule of law so that its people may enjoy all the rights and freedoms they deserve. However, democracy does not mean that everything is allowed. It definitely does not allow us to play an easy game with fundamental values. Even in democracy there are issues where no compromise is possible.
Dear members of parliament,
Our work together, our wise and justified decisions, interaction with voters, non-governmental organisations and experts must prove that parliamentarism is an effective form of governance that is suited for Latvia.
The greatest value of a democratic state is free people who decide their own future, as well as that of their state. I believe that the legislature has an obligation to always be open to dialogue. It must not only listen and inform but also truly hear the needs of various social groups, thus reinforcing the conviction that each and every opinion is important and valued.
By facilitating the openness of the parliament we indirectly have a chance to bring together nearly all the people of Latvia. Organisations of civil society which represent the interests and needs of various social groups play an important role in this process.
I am pleased to say that the input from non-governmental organisations to the political process in Latvia has been increasing in recent years. The annual forum of the Saeima and NGOs as an expression of civic participation has become an integral part of the work of the parliament; the motto of this year’s forum is Stability, Partnership, Development.
Relatively new initiatives have also been undertaken – various national and international conferences have been organised in cooperation with NGOs.
We have discussed the need to ensure wholesome living conditions for people with disabilities, to foster civic participation by electronic submission of legislative initiatives, how to facilitate a fair business environment and fiscal discipline, to improve the demographic situation and promote active aging, as well as to deal with challenges of citizenship in the 21st century.
It is nice to see the mutual desire for fruitful discussions and dialogue. In addition to the agenda we determine, organisations also approach us with their suggestions. After these conferences people always come up to me and express their appreciation that we have sat down at the same table, that we have listened and that we have heard what they said.
I would also like to point out a new positive trend, namely, that interest in the political process has grown among the children and youths of Latvia. Those who say that Latvia has no future ought to come and see the Youth Parliament in action!
For the second consecutive year, last week the parliament hosted 100 youths from all over Latvia who are overflowing with ideas and are eager to participate in current policy making.
Last week, we witnessed that our young people have a free spirit and their own ideas; they have their vision and opinion about the current developments in their family, at school, in society and in the entire country. The new generation is keen on getting involved and is ready to do that instead of observing from the sidelines.
While watching the passion of the Youth Parliament and its sometimes bold political ideas one becomes convinced that Latvia’s future will be in good hands – in the hands of young, patriotic, smart, educated, willing and capable people.
Ladies and gentlemen,
The recent referendum at which we defended the foundations of our state proved that society is ready to get involved and is not indifferent. We defended the Latvia that our forefathers founded in 1918, the Latvia whose independence was proclaimed on 4 May and renewed on 21 August here in the main building of the Saeima, the Latvia that we ourselves protected at the Barricades.
People expressed unequivocal support to our state and the Latvian language despite the economic crisis, massive pre-referendum populist rhetoric and certain attempts to turn the referendum on the state language into a vote on the economy or on wounded self-esteem.
Nevertheless, the ability to live in harmony does not come as a result of a referendum. It is a value that we all have to take care of. There is no us and them, there is one nation and one Latvia. Everybody fought together in the freedom struggles for Latvian statehood. There would have been no Latvian state without the support of the ethnic minorities and their involvement in defending the new state. Also in January 1991, people of Latvia representing various ethnicities – Russians, Lithuanians, Poles, Jews – answered the call of the Popular Front and stood shoulder to shoulder with Latvians at the Barricades because they shared the idea of a better Latvia. That helped us to win the struggle.
I am also deeply convinced that all those who feel that they belong to Latvia regardless of their ethnic identity voted against the second state language in the referendum. The many minority organisations and cultural associations with whom I meet and cooperate assured me of this. All of us together are the nation of Latvia in which everybody wants to live together with people belonging to this country. To live together and to know that this country matters not only to me alone but also to many others.
As a free and independent state, Latvia has attained a certain level of maturity not only in its domestic affairs but also in foreign policy. One could assume that all the major foreign policy goals have already been achieved. Latvia is even no longer considered a new member state of the European Union and NATO because during the past eight years we have proved ourselves to be a trustworthy and active ally.
However, after achieving this level of international maturity, we are increasingly expected to be capable of changing, to be innovative and to contribute to the further development of international cooperation.
This is why it is in our best interests to be among the core countries that care about the future of the European Union and strategic cooperation with the transatlantic partners.
But that does not prevent us from concurrently shaping more active political and economic relations with new centres of power throughout the world, developing pragmatic relations with Russia and, in the interests of our entire region, fostering closer cooperation with other Baltic States, Nordic countries, Poland and Germany.
With such a broad and active cooperation we can move towards a Latvia where people can live in security, stability and prosperity. In this way, we can move towards a Latvia where all regions are evenly developed, jobs are readily available, more children are born and people enjoy a safe, healthy and wholesome old age.
In future Latvia, I can see the return of people who are now abroad in search of a better life. My hopes are nourished by my experience during the referendum when our people in their current countries of residence stood in long and time-consuming queues in order to prove their belonging to Latvia and to defend the state language. Our people will come back when Latvia has its economy in order, when they can make a living here, put their children through school and help their parents.
Undoubtedly, we can already feel quite content with our success in overcoming the economic and financial crisis, and we have also been praised for that by our foreign partners. Furthermore, while reforms and ironclad fiscal discipline are still high on the European agenda, we are already considering the possibility of reducing some taxes. That is an achievement and proof of our growth.
Now it is important to make sure our success becomes a solid foundation for further development. All the more – the slogan of our National Development Plan is Economic Breakthrough. This is the attitude that should underlie all our future plans. This is a large step towards a developed and flourishing Latvia.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Even small countries can shape the European agenda. And this is something we will soon have to prove when on 1 January 2015 Latvia assumes the Presidency of the Council of the European Union for the first time.
This will be the most noteworthy event in Latvia’s foreign policy since joining the EU and NATO and hosting the NATO Summit in 2006. The Presidency will require great effort and contribution, and for half a year we will be in the spotlight of the European Union and I venture to say even the whole world.
As the presiding country, we will not only demonstrate our professionalism and abilities but also remind ourselves and others that the European Union is a project created by us Europeans, a project based on a set of certain values. These values should not be taken for granted. It is our duty to fight for them, to protect them and to pass them on to future generations.
It was 22 years ago on 4 May when members of the Supreme Council with their hands raised in the victory gesture came out of this building to the cheering crowd and brought the news that the Declaration of Independence had been adopted. It was a sign of hope, struggle and unbending conviction. It was the beginning of a new path – the beginning of a new state, new politics and new opportunities to join our efforts for the sake of the development of our country and the welfare of our people.
Victory is one side of our struggle for freedom and independence. The other side can be compared to the reverse of the commemorative coin of 4 May, which depicts Mother Latvia carrying a millstone on her shoulders.
The millstone of freedom has to be carried day by day throughout one’s lifetime, for it is the most precious albeit the heaviest burden. Since 4 May 1990, each patriot, each and every one of us, has to keep carrying it. You cannot cast off your freedom; you cannot collapse under its weight or complain about how heavy it is.
Just as in the past when we regained our independence, the making of crucial decisions still depends on the unity of political parties, the desire of our people to become involved and the idea of statehood in their hearts.
As we celebrate 4 May and the 90th anniversary of the Constitution, I call on you to once again acknowledge our foundations – a state in which people of Latvia, citizens of Latvia of all ethnicities, govern themselves in a democratic manner, a state which is the only place where we can protect, cherish and develop the Latvian language and culture.
The state of Latvia is not merely its borders, Constitution, flag and governmental institutions. First and foremost, the state of Latvia is composed of people who share a common history, culture, language, enduring values and a vision for the future. Our state was born under the sign of victory, and it is our duty to keep on proudly carrying our most valuable treasure – our free and independent Latvia.
God bless Latvia!