Rotary Scholar puts his diplomatic skills to work in a free country
Illustration by Roger Chouinard (not for reuse)
I was born in 1974, when Latvia was still part of the Soviet Union. My first experience with the USA came when I was a kid, listening with my father to the forbidden radio program Voice of America. My father, in his childhood, had been deported to Siberia and returned just after Stalin’s death. He and my mother, like so many Latvians, dreamed of restoring Latvia as an independent state.
I shared that dream, of course, and when I had an opportunity to study in the United States as one of Latvia’s first Rotary Foundation Ambassadorial Scholars, I took it. There is no way I could have known that one day I would edit a book on U.S.-Latvian relations. Latvia and the United States: A New Chapter in the Partnership was published in the spring of 2012.
I was lucky. I finished high school in 1991, right when Latvia reestablished its independence from the Soviet Union. At the University of Latvia, I was among the first students who were able to study political science and international relations based on Western academic standards. Under the Soviets, you were taught the Communist version.
Latvia was also starting to rebuild all of its institutions. That’s why I could start my career so quickly after being a student – everything was new, and there were lots of opportunities. Nowadays, it’s much more competitive.
In 1995, while working part time in the Latvian parliament, I learned about a scholarship offered through The Rotary Foundation and the Rotary club in my hometown of Riga. The Riga club is the first one in Latvia. I’ve since learned that it has a special historical heritage because it was started in the 1930s, just before the Soviet occupation, and it was restored right after the occupation ended.
The scholarship was sponsored by a Rotary club in Florida. I didn’t know much about Rotary at that time. I simply saw a chance to get to the United States and broaden my education. I studied at Lynn University in Boca Raton, a small private school. Most of the students were American, but some were from South and Central America. For me, coming from a small country in Europe, it was a great challenge to be in an international environment. It helped me to think globally.
My most important personal relationship was with Steve and Iris Laine, the Rotarians I came to know as “my Florida parents.” They were attentive to my needs, and they inspired and supported me. Steve took me on a tour of the USA, all the way to California. During my time in the States, we visited more than 30 Rotary clubs together. That was great – having the chance to represent myself and my country, speaking to different Rotary clubs, meeting people from different backgrounds. Along the way, I learned about Rotary and became familiar with the organization’s ideals and global objectives. But the really valuable part was the personal experience – meeting people and making friends. I gained so much confidence by interacting with people from other countries with different cultural and religious backgrounds.
Soon after my Rotary scholarship ended, I was appointed to serve as the first Latvian secretary at the United Nations. I also worked for Latvia in Geneva, and I served as an election observer in Bosnia right after the war. Later, I started to work with Freedom House in Latvia, a project promoting citizenship and democracy.
The idea for the book came from the Latvian embassy in Washington, D.C., and it also was sponsored by the American Latvian Association and the Centre for East European Policy Studies, a think tank that deals with foreign policy issues.
Historically, the Latvian experience has been tragic. We were an occupied country for most of the 20th century – by the Soviets and the Nazis. The Baltic states were neutral before World War II, and though neutrality may sound good from the perspective of peace, it also can mean isolation. When you are a small country and you are isolated, you are at a much higher risk of losing your independence. This is what happened to Latvia.
The book is another opportunity to strengthen ties between the United States and Latvia by analyzing all that we can do as partners and friends – in defense, economics, energy, culture, science, and technology. I was invited to be the editor because of my international experiences and my contacts in Latvian diplomatic circles. It was an honor to be chosen, and I had a chance to collaborate with some outstanding researchers and analysts. Academic research is what I enjoy the most. I’m finishing my doctoral thesis on international immigration processes and politics in Europe.
My wife is a judge of the Latvian Constitutional Court – our equivalent to the U.S. Supreme Court. We have a 12-year-old daughter, Zane, and she has been to the United States twice now.
In 2011, she and I attended the Rotary convention in New Orleans. That was a great event, emotional and inspiring, not only for me but also for Zane. She was only starting to learn English, but she comprehended quite a bit because of the expressive way people explained what they do and how they do it – especially fighting polio. It was a thrill for both of us to meet Bill Gates – someone who is wealthy and famous, but at the same time personable and kind. There were many impressive presentations, and Zane understood that many people around the world are suffering. She already knows that we all can do something to make the world a better and safer place.
I’m not a Rotarian, but I am involved with some Rotary projects. My mother, who’s an artist, has a painful back condition, and she chairs a local organization for people with disabilities in Latvia. One of her annual projects involves organizing activities for them by working with area Rotary clubs, and I help her with that. I also keep in regular contact with Steve Laine. I plan to visit him in the summer, and after I’ve defended my thesis, I hope I can get more involved with Rotary.
When we restored independence in Latvia, the main focus was to build as many bridges to Western countries as possible. With the Internet and other new technologies that became available, bridge building is no longer the exclusive province of government or large institutions. It can now happen through individuals. Rotarians are a great example of that, as are Rotary Peace Fellows. Those whom I have met have become part of my network of contacts all over the world. They are people who believe they have the ability to change the world. That’s the power of Rotary and a reason to be hopeful.