KALAMAZOO, Mich. – Guntis Ulmanis, former president of the Republic of Latvia, spoke Jan. 20 to a crowd of nearly 100 Latvian-Americans at the Kalamazoo Latvian Center during a special visit to Michigan.
Ulmanis served from 1993-1999 as Latvia's first president following the dissolution of the USSR – and the 50 years of Soviet occupation that preceded it. He was introduced by Maira Bundza, president of the Kalamazoo Latvian Association, and Maj. Gen. Leonard Isabelle, commander of the Michigan Air National Guard, who pointed out that the Michigan National Guard's highly-successful partnership with Latvia began under President Ulmanis' watch 25 years ago.
"He was the first president of a country that was reinvented after the Soviets left," said Isabelle."He was also the first president who agreed to be a part of the National Guard Bureau's State Partnership Program (SPP), which has since expanded into such a great asset, not only for our national security, but also for Department of State diplomatic efforts."
Today, the SPP has expanded to include 74 unique security agreements between 79 countries around the globe, linking them with the National Guard forces of nearly all 50 states. In November 1992, Latvia was the first country to be visited by a delegation from the National Guard Bureau while plans for the SPP were being formulated. The Michigan-Latvia agreement was formally signed on April 27, 1993.
For the Kalamazoo Latvian Association – mainly comprised of descendants of Latvian refugees whose families came to Michigan during the Soviet era – Ulmanis' visit offered a rare insight into how the Latvian military and the Michigan National Guard bring military synergy close to home.
"We're very proud of the Michigan National Guard's partnership with the Latvian military," said Bundza."But there still might be people here who don't know about it. I think it never hurts to reiterate that, especially since President Ulmanis was instrumental in its beginning."
In an interview earlier that day, Ulmanis spoke of how Latvia's close ties with the Michigan National Guard helped guide his country through a tumultuous moment in history. He noted that in the immediate post-Soviet era, even something as simple as the sight of a Michigan National Guard member working side-by-side with a member of the Latvian military held tremendous symbolic value to the masses.
"When Latvia was on its path to independence, we needed to build our own institutions and our own defense," said Ulmanis."There was no blueprint for our country. We just had to ‘do' – and the first priority was creating agreements with other countries. Our relationship with the Michigan National Guard, and the fact that they were willing to work with us to build our defense capabilities, was very important in that."
Since then, the SPP has reaped enormous benefits in both Latvia and Michigan. This success has largely been attributed to the long-term, personal relationships that serve as the program's core. Today, there are ongoing collaborations between Latvian and Michigan personnel in areas including cyber defense, fire fighting, airfield operations, public affairs, security operations, and military professional development, among others.
"Professionally, the Michigan National Guard's relationship with the Latvian military helps us to prepare to operate in theaters other than Michigan," said Isabelle."But on a personal level, when you get to know the Latvians, their struggle, and their story, it also helps us appreciate the freedoms we've had for many years in the United States even more."
Regardless of its record of success, Ulmanis is quick to point out that in a tense global security environment, the SPP cannot afford to rest on its laurels.
"The State Partnership Program is not yesterday," said Ullmanis."It is today – and it is the future. The world is now a much more dangerous place than it was in 1993, and for all the technological answers we may have, we must not forget these human relationships that serve as the foundation for peace and stability."
Ulmanis offered his close friendship with Maj. Gen. E. Gordon Stump, adjutant general of the Michigan National Guard from 1991 to 2003, as an example.
"There are no cultural issues between old Soldiers," said Ulmanis."In the heart, we are brothers."