By Anastasya Lloyd-Damnjanovic
Washington — Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton spoke with Latvian youth June 28 about the progress their country has made and the challenges it has yet to face at a town hall meeting in Riga during her official four-day tour of Finland, Latvia and Russia.
Though Clinton visited Latvia to talk with top officials about Latvian cooperation on NATO initiatives, the management of the Latvian economy and other important issues, she emphasized that she also “came to Riga in part to demonstrate our full solidarity and partnership with Latvia.”
Clinton added that the town hall meeting represented an opportunity to extend cooperation with Latvia by holding a dialogue with its youth about their national aspirations.
“One of the reasons I wanted to come to this great university and have a chance to meet with young people like all of you is to hear directly about what you think about your country’s future, about your own future, because the work I do is mostly about your future and what comes next in the world,” she said.
The town hall meeting, billed as a “townterview,” took place at the University of Latvia and was hosted by Latvijas Televīzija (LTV), a Latvian public broadcasting television company. A diverse group of young Latvians asked Clinton a variety of questions in several key categories: the economy, youth participation in politics, education and political independence.
“The most recent years of economic hardship that you’ve gone through but came through with real resoluteness and sacrifice, I think reinforced the faith that so many of us have in Latvia’s future,” Clinton said. However, she warned, many reforms must still be undertaken to ensure that Latvia weathers the global economic crisis and fully develops its economy.
Noting that Latvia’s educated population is capable of supporting a high-value manufacturing sector, Clinton urged the country to ensure that it takes steps to remove barriers to international investment and business formation, more efficiently use excess capacity and improve young people's access to credit. These measures would facilitate economic growth by increasing Latvia’s competitiveness and reducing unemployment, she said.
In addition, Clinton recommended that Latvia find a way to “brand” itself as the producer of some valuable commodity or service. One way to do this, she said, would be to utilize its vast grasslands in the production of biomass, which could provide a profitable form of renewable energy.
The participation of Latvian youth in government and public life was also a significant topic of discussion at the meeting. With several young members of the Latvian parliament and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in attendance, Clinton applauded the strides that young Latvians have made toward increased participation and stressed the importance of utilizing the Internet to build grass-roots movement for positive political change. Participation is critical to a healthy democracy, she said, whether through voting, online organizing or other means, so it is vital that young Latvians involve themselves in political life for their own country’s progress.
“Whether it’s in politics or business or academia or the arts or civil society, NGOs, whatever it might be, I hope you will find a way to really help secure, deepen, broaden Latvian freedom, prosperity and success,” she said.
On the subject of education, Clinton announced that more exchanges of American and Latvian students would take place under the renewal of the agreement on the U.S.-Latvia Fulbright Academic Exchange Program, signed earlier in the day on June 28.
In response to questions on ways to improve Latvia's education system, Clinton emphasized that a flexible education system, with institutions to train people for skills demanded by the market, is important for a healthy economy. Community colleges, specialized magnet programs and charter schools could all help to better train young people for the kinds of jobs needed by the Latvian economy, she said.
“We can no longer say one model works for everybody because that’s obviously not true,” Clinton said. Therefore, it is necessary to be willing to experiment with new education models and to try a range of options.
Clinton also spoke about measures Latvia might take to ensure its political and economic independence. She recommended that the Latvian people develop a consensus on a set of critical issues such as energy security, media independence, alliances with Eastern neighbors and opening the country to international markets. These measures would increase Latvian employment and competitiveness.
“You’ve dealt with the government budget side of the ledger, but you need to deal with the open economy-competitiveness-reform side of the ledger in order to drive employment even more than you have,” she said.
Latvia could make an important step toward political and economic independence in the region by diversifying its energy supply, Clinton said. With its abundant grasslands, it could become a producer of renewable energy, rather than continuing to rely on hydrocarbon fuel shipped from the East. Once it produced renewable energy, Latvia could work to become integrated into a Baltic European electricity grid.
Energy independence is critical, Clinton said, because “the more independent you are, the more you control your own destiny.”
Clinton’s stop in Latvia marks the first visit by a U.S. secretary of state since 1993.