Atlanta is no stranger to hosting European diplomats, but the arrival this week of Latvia’s ambassador in the U.S. illustrates just how key the city has become in the Baltic nation’s larger outreach to the United States.
On the surface, the economic center of the Southeast U.S. may not seem to have much in common with a nation of 2 million sitting in the geographic middle of three Baltic states bordering Russia.
But a conversation with Ambassador Andris Teikmanis last September revealed that both places are enjoying a tech renaissance — with Latvia focusing on the Atlanta-friendly sectors of cybersecurity, fintech and media.
The country punches above its weight in the global startup scene, enjoying fast Internet connections and an increasing propensity for digitization in all aspects of life, from governance to banking.
“I have no need to visit my bank in Latvia,” Mr. Teikmanis told Global Atlanta. “My biggest shock when I came to America was that still checks are used. It was so alien for me. I know the address where my bank is, but I never go there.”
Atlanta and Latvia are also both doubling down on their bets to become logistics hubs for their respective regions, with Latvia investing in its airport and mulling more outside investment in state-run airline Air Baltic to increase connectivity.
Latvia is also a central part of European Union-backed Rail Baltica, a new rail line set to run from Helsinki to Berlin through the three Baltic nations. Riga, the Latvian capital, is set to build a multimodal hub to integrate this new European rail link with its traditional tracks headed toward Russia (they run on a different gauge.)
“Latvia is quite successful in fulfilling its bridge function between east and west,” Mr. Teikmanis told Global Atlanta after hearing a Metro Atlanta Chamber “Why Atlanta?” presentation at the chamber’s office in September.
This week, Mr. Teikmanis will preach the power of connections when he returns to Atlanta with Deputy Foreign Minister Arvils Aseraden Wednesday to officially open a Latvian honorary consulate here.
Kentucky native but longtime Atlanta transplant Kevin Casebier has represented the country’s interests in Georgia since his appointment last year, but the visit will put another diplomatic stamp of approval on an effort already gathering steam.
With Mr. Teikmanis’ visit, the Atlanta Latvian Association was announced:
Now it’s official- Latvian honorary consulate in Atlanta, GA, is inaugurated! Great reception, excellent participants, including newly founded Atlanta Latvian Association. Best wishes to HonCon Kevin Casebier in promoting Latvia’s interests in business & culture in Georgia! pic.twitter.com/gnBz2NDN2E
— Andris Teikmanis🇱🇻 (@teikmanis) April 11, 2018
Also, in early March, Mr. Casebier was the Latvian third of a Baltic trio of honorary consuls jointly celebrating 100 years of independence for the three nations they represent: Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania.
Mr. Casebier was the new kid on the block, the latter two countries boasting longtime Georgia ties through honorary consuls Aadu Allpere and Roma Klicius, respectively.
The event, which featured Lithuanian opera singers as part of the entertainment, was part of a much larger effort to shed light on three EU countries that tend to generate headlines in the U.S. only when it comes to security matters.
Sharing a border with their erstwhile occupier Russia, the nations are key allies of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO, and as such serve as the first line of defense for the alliance. As recently as 2015 the U.S. sent forces to Latvia as a sign of reassurance amid concerns over Russian belligerence.
Just last week, Latvian President Raimonds Vējonis met with U.S. President Donald Trump, who pledged more U.S. arms sales to the country and praised the Baltic states’ relatively stout military spending. Mr. Trump offered a long proclamation recognizing their contribution to the alliance on the occasion of their independence celebration.
But there is much more to their story — and the Baltic 100 (and Latvia 100) series of events is about telling it better.
“The U.S. is such a huge country,” Mr. Teikmanis said. “Of course I fully understand that there are not so many Americans waking up in the morning and thinking, ‘What’s new in Latvia?’ But at the same time, our centennial celebrations are a good reason to make the Latvian case more visible.”
Latvian Investment in Georgia
While famous Latvians like 7’1” New York Knicks star Kristaps Porzingis can help present a new image of their country, Latvia is also turning to the lingua franca of globalization: business.
Last September a Latvian business forum was held in Chicago, which Mr. Teikmanis characterized as the epicenter of the U.S. Latvian community. Plans to install a Latvia-U.S. chamber of commerce, possibly also in that city, are also underway.
But with 18 honorary consuls covering 16 states, the country is leaving no diplomatic stone unturned.
Already Georgia has begun to benefit from the closer business ties that Mr. Casebier is charged with fostering.
Latvian manufacturer Valmiera Glass is set to become one of the largest employers in Dublin, the Laurens County city in central Georgia, once a planned expansion brings its more than 500 total employees. Mr. Casebier and Mr. Teikmanis visited the plant Wednesday after the honorary consulate’s official opening Tuesday night.
Latvia-born startup TheMonetizr, which helps game developers boost revenues by selling in-game items and operating online stores, was part of the second Techstars accelerator class in Atlanta. The company is now looking to stay in a city that its leaders see as a hub for game production and other tech sectors in the U.S.
Dealing With Russia
Latvia is also home to a number of startups related to the future of news, and that’s partly a response to the encroachment of the massive Russian “propaganda machine.”
Some Russian journalists persecuted at home have set up shop in Latvia, but Russia continues to pump out information in the guise of news that many believe simply serves its national interests, like the global TV channel Russia Today.
While Russia has become more active militarily across its borders in recent years, as in the case of Georgia and Ukraine, Latvia has never had the luxury of discounting the potential threat.
“We have always been realists. On one hand, you can’t change your geography, and we have Russia as our neighbor — our big neighbor — and by definition we have to develop good and friendly relations. On the other hand, Russian policy has changed and has had implications for the Russian and European relationships,” Mr. Teikmanis said. “We knew, and we never had particular illusions about Russia’s belonging to a set of European values.”
The ambassador welcomes further assurances of NATO’s commitment to Article 5 of its founding treaty, which requires all partners to consider an attack on one member as an attack on all.
In the meantime, Latvia is pressing ahead plans to counter Russia’s influence on the information front. The country hosts the NATO Center of Excellence for Strategic Communication, which could potentially offer a tie-up with the U.S. Cyber Command in Augusta, Ga. Journalists are also being educated in Riga through the Baltic Centre for Media Excellence.
After visiting, the ambassador said he could see Georgia is a strategic partner for the future.
“(The trip) hasn’t changed my perception of the region. It has more opened my eyes to this region and also the opportunities we can have in connecting our business communities, in bringing more knowledge about Latvia here.”