Latvia’s Integration into NATO

Latvia’s Integration into NATO (2013) | Comments

Author: Esther Bartl .

Esther Bartl

Was the quick adaption of Latvia’s military affairs to NATO standards surprising?

This article focuses on the obviously unusual change of Latvia’s political orientation after 1991[1].  How can the quick shift of Latvia’s military affairs from Soviet occupation to NATO membership be explained?  The quick shift of Latvia’s military affairs is defined as the country’s break with its Soviet military history and its adaption to western military standards.  I examine the changes of Latvia’s military structures, determined by governmental entities, and the changes of the position towards Latvian military affairs by its own society.  

To get a full impression of Latvia’s situation in the early 1990ies, not only the position of the Latvian official level but also the attitude of Latvia’s citizens towards military affairs, which rooted in their Soviet experience, need to be considered.  Which standing did military affairs enjoy in Latvian society during the early years of the Second Latvian Republic?  The majority of Latvians had negative feelings towards military issues due to their experience in the occupant state’s army.  With the inhuman practice of “Dedovshchina” (russ. “Grandfatherism”) in the Soviet Army, young soldiers were ritually humiliated and sometimes even beaten to serious injury or death.  Since a large number of Latvian men were deployed in the Soviet army, “Dedovshchina” was quickly uncovered to the Latvians and this caused a mass rejection of the Soviet army[6].  The Afghanistan war, led by the Soviet Union, was also partially responsible for causing the negative feelings of Latvians towards military affairs[7].  Until 1989, almost 15,000 Latvian soldiers were killed in the Afghanistan war[8].  The surviving Latvian soldiers largely suffered from mental shock caused by the harsh experiences of the Afghanistan war.  In the early 1990s, based on the continued connection to the former Soviet occupants, the regular Latvian army still had a bad reputation in Latvian society[9].

When Latvia reached full NATO membership in 2004, surprisingly, the Baltic country had a well-functioning military system and military forces deployed in international armed conflicts.  When Latvia became integrated into NATO, its defense military was one of the most modern in Europe.  By 2004, the standing of the Latvian army and its military affairs in society had improved significantly.  A great majority of Latvians strongly supported NATO membership. 

How can the adaption of Latvia’s military affairs from Soviet occupation to NATO membership within only 13 years be explained?  Rationalist institutionalism and social institutionalism provide a plausible explanation for this quick adjustment.  The former theoretical school understands actors as rational, purposeful and cost-benefit driven.  States want to acquire membership of an international organization (IO) if the community allows them to better pursue their interests.  If applicant states believe they will be better off with their membership, they will adjust their standards and comply with the rules of the IO.  The most significant material gains, which countries expect from a future NATO membership, are security, welfare and power[10].  Social institutionalism, however, focuses on learning and socialization processes, which come along with the internalization and habituation of the rules and norms of the IO by the state during its integration process into the community[11].  International socialization is “a (p)rocess which forces states to take basis schemes and rules of an international society”[12].  Contrary to a “simple” compliance of norms, social institutionalism defines compliance as a country’s respect of norms insured by internal mechanisms[13].  What are the driving forces for that socialization process?  Norm entrepreneurs and platforms catalyze a state’s adjustment of his original standards to the norms of the respective community.  Norm entrepreneurs have a strong attitude towards what their community regards to be wishful behavior and they try to persuade other actors to adopt their attitudes.  They only succeed in raising broad attention and support for the respect of the “new” norms by actors in society and government, if organizational platforms, where norm entrepreneurs can build up contacts to others actors, exist[14].  Both branches of institutionalism offer explanations for Latvia’s quick integration into NATO.  Contrary to Tanja A. Boerzel and Thomas Risse, who argue that the two theoretical strains of institutionalism are equally relevant during the whole integration process of a state into an IO, I argue that, depending on Latvia’s stage of integration, cost-material considerations initiated Latvia’s intention to gain NATO membership, followed by an adjustment of the military affairs of the Baltic country to NATO standards in a process of international socialization[15]. 

From a rational perspective, which role did material incentives play in Latvia’s considerations concerning its integration into the security alliance?  Frank Schimmelfenning’s thesis arguing that security, welfare and power are the most important incentives for a country of getting integrated into NATO could be evidenced in the Latvian case.  The foremost incentive for Latvia to gain NATO membership was the guarantee of the NATO security umbrella, provided by the provisions of article five of the North Atlantic Treaty.  Even after 1991, the threatening possibility of a Russian military undertaking seemed to be imaginable for Latvia, since Russia has always considered Latvia as part of the “Near Abroad”[16].  A second aspect to be mentioned here is the economic incentive of NATO for Latvia.  The possible economic gains from NATO membership could not be divided from EU membership, which has had a much stronger focus on the economic affairs of its member-states[17].  The Latvian government regarded NATO membership as an economic benefit for its own military affairs.  In the case of a failed integration into NATO, Latvia’s military expenditure would have been about 25% of its annual GDP. When Latvia was integrated into the security alliance, its military expenditure was fixed at 2% of its annual GDP[18].  Furthermore, NATO membership allowed the Latvian government to gain greater economic independence from Russia.  In 1998, Russia cut oil exports through Latvia to send a message against the alleged discrimination of ethnic Russians by the Latvian government.  After 1991, the country has still been dependent on Russia’s energy and electricity system.  NATO membership provided a certain degree of economic insurance for Latvia due to the economically strong partners stand behind it[19].  Finally, NATO membership meant an increase of international political influence for Latvia.  Looking back to Latvia’s history of Russian occupation without the right of sovereignty, the democratic structures of NATO seemed to guarantee a louder voice in the international community and better political standing that would not be associated with autocratic Soviet structures[20]. 

The interaction process between the Latvian government and NATO was characterized by the will of the former to institutionalize NATO’s requirements.  Despite this, however, it is difficult to determine to what extent that intention was a compliance insured by internal mechanisms.  Latvia had no possibility of negotiating the criteria, unconditionally set by the security alliance in the unbalanced process[21].  Based on the obligations in Latvia’s 2000 Membership of Action Plan, it had to submit individual annual national programs, providing information about its efforts to gain NATO membership[22].  The Latvian government tried its best to show its efforts: bilateral contacts between the Latvian government and groups of Latvian officials undertook informal, annual visits to NATO members, attempting to persuade them from Latvia’s fulfillment of the requirements for the acquaintance of NATO membership[23].  Some criteria, such as the establishment of the Corruption Prevention and Combating Bureau in 2002, were met.  The Latvian government has not fulfilled other criteria, however, particularly the military expenditure of 2.0% of the annual GDP.  This non-compliance was mostly based on a lack of capacities by Latvian government rather than on an unwillingness to comply.  Consequently, since Latvia did not fulfill all of the criteria, its successful integration into the security alliance mostly depended on the willingness of the NATO member-states to admit Latvia into their circle[24]. 

The government and the society of the U.S. supported Latvia in its efforts to get integrated into NATO.  Hence, the Baltic country – the society and official level – became familiar with western standards.  The motivation of the U.S. government in helping Latvia was to build up a long-lasting and solid relationship to the Baltic country.  After being confronted with this good will, the Latvian government wanted to be a reliable partner for the U.S.  The close relationship between the U.S. government and the Latvian government reached a first peak in the 1998 U.S.-Baltic Charter[25].  Latvian emigrants from the U.S. also played an important role in fostering the U.S.–Latvian relationship.  After 1991, younger generations of Latvian emigrants started getting involved in Latvian politics, since there was a significant demand for well-trained government officials in the Baltic country[26].  The first steps of Latvia’s socialization into the security alliance were mainly driven by the government and the society, in particular the Latvian diaspora, of the United States.

Latvia’s military entities undertook a gradual socialization process, promoted by education abroad in accordance with western military standards, and by cooperation with western military entities.  In the beginning of the 1990s, a significant impact on the westernization of the Latvian army was caused by the education of Latvian soldiers at military schools in Western European countries and the U.S.  The outcome was the establishment of a classical military structure of naval, air and army forces[27].  Furthermore, in international missions, Latvia’s National Armed Forces were able to overcome old traditions from Soviet time.  By having contact with foreign military units in those missions, Latvian soldiers internalized the belief that inhuman Soviet traditions like Dedovshchina were counterproductive to Latvia’s national security[28].

Actors in the Latvian society also played a significant role in influencing the ordinary Latvian population.  The Latvian Transatlantic Organization (LATO), a non-governmental organization, had the most substantial influence on the positive change of the standing of Latvia’s military affairs[29].  From 2000 to 2004, its mission was to show the benefits of the fulfillment of NATO criteria and to create a stronger link between military and society.  Public policy makers such as Ojars Kalnins and Atis Lijens believed that only a stable economic situation in Latvia could be reached by Latvia’s integration into NATO[30].  Those Latvian individuals can be regarded as “norm entrepreneurs”, who used LATO as their original platform to spread their political position in Latvian society.  To show support for the newly founded organization, other non-governmental organizations such as the American Latvian Association became members of LATO[31]. 

The following thesis can be verified: Based on cost-benefit considerations, Latvia institutionalized NATO military standards during a process of social learning.  Both rational and social institutionalism must be considered to get a full picture of Latvia’s quick integration into NATO.  Latvia’s adaption of western military standards has shown that the concepts of social institutionalism can only grasp the high complexity of socialization processes of countries by taking a variety of different entities in a country into consideration.  The Latvian case is a precedent example for controversial integrations of countries into IOs, such as Turkey’s integration into the EU.  Latvia proves that countries that do not fulfill all of the criteria set by the IO can still become strong and reliable partners in time.


[1] The theses, presented here by the author, do not necessarily represent the point of views of LATO or any Latvian governmental organization.

[2] Strods, Heinrihs: Sovietization of Latvia 1944-1991.  In: Valters Nollendorfs and Erwin Oberlaender (Edit.) (2005): The Hidden and Forbidden History of Latvia under Soviet and Nazi Occupations 1940-1991: Selected Research of the Commission of the Historians of Latvia, 11.  Riga: Institute of the History of Latvia: 209-227.

[3] Rublovskis Raimonds, conducted interview, Riga, Latvia, July 09, 2012.

[4] Spolitis, Veiko, conducted interview, Riga, Latvia, July 06, 2012.

[5] Zalkans, Gundars (1999): The Development of the Armed Forces of the Republic of Latvia, in: Baltic Defence Review, 1/1999:1-2; Vilumsons, Andzejs, conducted interview, Riga, Latvia, July 03, 2012.

[6] Braithwaite, Roderic (2010): Dedovshchina: bullying in the Russian army. oD Russia, Post Soviet World.  Online:, retrieved on 07/21/2012; Vilumsons, Andzejs, conducted interview, Riga, Latvia, July 03, 2012.

[7] Spolitis, Veiko, conducted interview, Riga, Latvia, July 06, 2012.

[8] Foreign Broadcast Information Service (1989): Soviet Union.  Military Affairs.  JPRS Report: 7. 

[9]Reuveny, Rafael and Aseem Prakash: The Afghanistan war and the breakdown of the Soviet Union, in: Review of International Studies, 25: 693-708: 702; Spolitis, Veiko, conducted interview, Riga, Latvia, July 06, 2012.

[10] Checkel, Jeffrey T.: Why Comply? Social Learning and European Identity Change, in: International Organization 55 (3): 553-588: 556; Schimmelfennig, Frank (2003): The EU, NATO and the Integration of Europe.  Rules and Rhetorik.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 27ff.

[11] Schimmelfennig, Frank (2003): Internationale Sozialisation: Von einem “erschöpften” zu einem produktiven Forschungsprogramm?.  In: Gunther Hellmann, Klaus Dieter Wolf und Michael Zuern (Edit.): Die neuen Internationalen Beziehungen. Forschungsstand und Perspektiven in Deutschland.  Baden-Baden: Nomos Verlagsgesellschaft.

[12] Ibid.: 406.

[13] Ibid.: 407.

[14] Keck, Margaret E. and Kathryn Sikkink (1998): Activists beyond Borders.  Advocacy Networks in International Politics.  Ithaka/ London: Cornell University Press: 1, 6, 8, 894-895, 897.

[15] Boerzel, Tanja A. and Thomas Risse: When Europe hits home: Europeanization and Domestic Change, in: European Integration online Papers 4 (15): 3 (Appendix).

[16] Kalnins, Ojars, conducted interview, Riga, Latvia, June 20, 2012; Safire, William (1994): On Language; The Near Abroad.  New York Times.  Online:, retrieved on 01/28/2012.

[17] Bukovskis, Karlis, conducted interview, July 02, 2012.

[18] Spolitis, Veiko, conducted interview, July 06, 2012.

[19] Bukovskis, Karlis, conducted interview, July, 02, 2012.

[20] Kalnins, Ojars, conducted interview, June 20, 2012.

[21] Vilumsons, Andzejs, conducted interview, July 03, 2012.

[22] Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Latvia (2012):  Latvia’s Membership in International Organisations.  Online:, retrieved on 08/25/2012.

[23] Vilumsons, Andzejs, conducted interview, Riga, Latvia, July 03, 2012.

[24] Pabriks, Artis, conducted interview, Riga, Latvia, July 23, 2012.

[25] Asmus, Ronald D. (2002):  Opening NATO’s Door.  How the Alliance remade itself for a new Era.  A Council on Foreign Relations Book.  New York: Columbia University Press: 235. 

[26] Kalnins, Ojars, conducted interview, Riga, Latvia, June 20, 2012.

[27] Rublovskis, Raimonds, conducted interview, Riga, Latvia, July 06, 2012.

[28] Spolitis, Veiko, conducted interview, Riga, Latvia, July 06, 2012.

[29] Latvian Transatlantic Organization (2012): Who we are.  Online:, retrieved on 01/30/2013.

[30] Baumanis, Toms, conducted interview, Riga, Latvia, July 20, 2012.

[31] American Latvian Association: Who we are.  Online:, retrieved on 08/12/2012.


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