The Baltic's Eastward Expansion
The closeness between the Baltic's and Central Asia isn't merely part of a capitalistic agenda. It goes much deeper. Many have cited solidarity among former Soviet republics as one of the foundations for successful partnerships between Central Asia and the Baltics.
There has existed a Turkish presence in Latvia since the 1800s. Many Turks and Muslims lived in Eastern Latvia on land owned by Baron Nikolajs Korfs after the Russian-Turkish war in the 1870s.
The Baron, to distinguish these people, gave them the surname of Turks. As of a 2003 census, there are 226 Latvians with this surname. Many more are buried in cemeteries in Cesis.
Airbaltic and Turkish Airlines have done much to foster the relations between Latvia and Central Asia.
Business is booming and passenger lists keep getting longer as more people are using and trusting airBaltic as opposed to Russian or other CIS airline companies for their travels.
Since 2005, Uzbekistan Airways has been using Riga as a stopover point for their Tashkent-Riga-New York flights. One year later, airBaltic got in on the action and started their first Central Asian flights to Tashkent.
Airbaltic was "pleased to be expanding our network of eastbound flights by launching cooperation with Uzbekistan Airways â€“ one more strategically important partner in the former USSR," Airbaltic president Bertolt Flick said at the time.
Despite the freedom of travel that many experienced during Soviet times, after the fall of the union, many former members have been reluctant to travel due to complications and difficulties in transportation.
Airbaltic president Flick explains: "Former Soviet Union countries are rapidly developing markets. However, travel possibilities to CIS are limited and complicated from Scandinavia, Baltics as well as the rest of the Europe."
After witnessing the difficulties and at times reluctance from other more western airlines to offer flights to Central Asia, airBaltic stopped trying to move in on an already existing and competitive western market, and instead expanded eastward. Now airBaltic offers direct flights to Tashkent and Almaty.
After seeing the initial success, Airbaltic moved into the Caucasian market, and now offers flights to Yerevan, Tblisi, Dushanbe, Baku and Istanbul.
Money, money, money
It is a more and more common sight these days to see Latvian banks and financial institutions in Central Asia, especially Uzbekistan. Latvia's Aizkraukles Banka has been in Uzbekistan for a number of years along with Latvia's Parex Bank.
Latvian Ambassador to Uzbekistan Igors Apokins has specifically mentioned areas of development to be fine tuned in the future. He cites the scientific and technical trade as the most important.
"The most prospective areas of trade and economic cooperation are transportation, industry, including pharmaceutical and food sectors, agriculture, tourism, scientific-technological cooperation and the field of information and communication technology," he said.
Despite a huge relatively recent expansion of trade and business, the East-West trade schemata isn't as new as many economists say.
A Kazakhstan official from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said trade has been going on since Soviet times. He recalled the days when cars, either stolen or rebuilt were driven from Kazakhstan to Lithuania, with dealers making the trip specifically for the cheap prices.
Turkey versus Latvia-gateway to the East
However, airBaltic doesn't quite have all the market cornered. Turkish Airlines is the chief competitor, offering direct flights from Riga to Istanbul as well.
As part of an ongoing endeavor to boost tourism, the Turkish government as well as Turkish Airlines sponsored a number of journalists, politicians and tourism professionals to travel to Izmir, Turkey during their 2008 Travel Turkey convention.
In mingling amongst the sponsored delegates, it was interesting to note that not one of them came from Western Europe. In fact, the largest foreign delegation came from Latvia. Other delegates traveled from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and other Eastern nations.
It may seem odd that Turkey and Turkish Airlines would desire more Eastern than Western tourists, but relations have been in place for hundreds of years starting with the Silk Road. Businessmen of both regions have enjoyed success in the textile industries as well as the hospitality.
In fact, when walking along a street in Istanbul, it is not only common that most people have both heard of Latvia and have Latvian business contacts, but know a bit of Latvian as well.
"Latvians are some of my best customers," said Tim Mehmet, a carpet salesman in western Istanbul.
This phenomenon contrasts heavily with Italy and France where many businessmen and sellers are unaware of Latvia as an entity, let alone fellow EU member state.
There is also the appeal of visa-free travel from the Baltic's to Turkey and Central Asia. While hordes of tourists have to line up to pay their 15 euro visa fee, Latvians have been able to cruise right on through the check-point since 2006.
The link between Turkey and Latvia had been established long before direct flights. In 2001, Turkey, who never recognized Latvia's occupation by the Soviet Union, pushed for NATO to admit Latvia and the other Baltic states.
In 2006, then Latvian Foreign Minster Artis Pabriks returned the favor and said that it was "important to leave EU doors open for Turkey." However, because of Turkish-Cypriot relations, EU talks were suspended.
The Love Connection
Cold, unfeeling, and unemotional are just a few words that guidebooks have used to describe Balts. This may attribute to the huge rise in cross-border marriages that have arisen over the years, especially with the more emotional, passionate Turks. With the advent of direct travel, many Turkish businessmen have come to Latvia not only for trade purposes, but to find love and vice versa.
A direct and heartwarming example is marketing manager for Turkish Airlines, Sanita Geka. She travelled from Latvia to Turkey before it was fashionable and now has a wonderful Turkish husband and children. She also speaks fluent Turkish. The language barrier seems to have had little to no effect on the many Latvian-Turkish couples today as most learn the others language quite quickly. This may be because Russian cannot be used as a fall back language.
Although there are just under 100 Turkish residents in Latvia, there are many more that come for business. Those that have chosen to stay and marry have not forgotten their homeland.
A Turkish companion of Dialogi.lv writer Aleksandrs Sabanovs, Ramazan Inan, explains:
"Every Sunday at the Turkish Cultural Center in Riga come about 5 children who are half Turkish, to learn their mother tongue. Mothers speak to them in Latvian or Russian and many children do not speak Turkish at all."
He went on to explain that the businessmen, most commonly in the textile and restaurant business, wish their children to retain their Turkish roots.
Central Asia comes to call
Earlier in the year, the President of Tajikistan, Emomali Rahmon made a working visit to Latvia, to help foster relations between the two nations. Tajikistan has been the only Central Asian country to have had the least amount of contact with Latvia and has remained somewhat under the radar in recent years. That is set to change if Latvian President Valdis Zatlers keeps true to the new bilateral agreement.
Zatlers said that he and the Tajik president have discussed opportunities for closer cooperation, especially during the economic crisis. They also discussed strengthening transit and air traffic between the two nations. Increasing the use of Latvian ports for Tajik imports, most commonly textiles was also on the agenda.
Despite the lack of many working agreements and joint ventures, Tajikistan has been close to Latvia since Soviet times. One of the highest mountains in Tajikistan was named Soviet Latvia. It has since been renamed Latvia.
"It would be a great challenge and honor for Latvian mountaineers to climb this peak," said President Zatlers.
Zatlers phrase could perhaps be seen as encouragement for all Balts and Central Asians to get out of the slump and depression of the financial crisis and start working together to ensure a more prosperous future.
By Monika Hanley