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Latvian Foreign Minister: Latvia Wants Balance In Foreign Relations

Prague, March 21 (RFE/RL) -- Latvia's foreign minister said today in Prague that his country's first priority in foreign affairs is to maintain a balance between its relations with Russia and its relations with the West.

Foreign Minister Valdis Birkavs said that Latvia can survive economically without Russia or without the European Union. But, in his words, "We can only be an economic tiger if we use our possibility to be in the middle."

Birkavs told a press conference at Radio Free Europe's Prague headquarters that Latvia can take significant advantage of its strategic economic position between Russia and the West. He added: "Russia wants us to use these advantages."

Latvia's foreign trade six years ago was 100 percent with the Soviet Union, Birkavs noted. He said that its commerce now with Russia is 20 percent of its foreign trade total. He said that in terms of capital investment in joint ventures, Russia is the second largest foreign presence in Latvia. He said a question remains whether Russia will seek to use its economic importance in Latvia as a political tool.

Birkavs, a former prime minister of Latvia, now is deputy prime minister as well as foreign minister. He is in the Czech Republic for a meeting of foreign ministers from Central Europe and U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher.