Joint Press Conference With Minister of Foreign Affairs of Latvia Edgars Rinkevics

Press Conference
John J. Sullivan
Deputy Secretary of State
Riga, Latvia
February 22, 2018

PRESS SECRETARY OF MFA JEGERMANIS:  Dear representatives of the media, we will now start the press conference of Minister of Foreign Affairs Edgars Rinkevics and Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan. Now I give the floor to our Minister.

MINISTER OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS RINKEVICS: Hello, dear colleagues. We have just finished our negotiations with Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan, and we discussed very, very many issues on cooperation regionally and other types of cooperation.

This visit was planned some time ago as a part of the preparation of the meeting of the presidents of the U.S. and the Baltic countries. And now I want to reconfirm that in Washington, this year, on April 3rd, this Summit will take place, and we spoke not only about safety and security, as you know in this sector our cooperation is very good, we also negotiated on the possibilities of cooperation within the area of education and trade. This is a very important meeting, because all three presidents will visit Washington, they will meet the president of the United States, Donald Trump, and other officials during the year when all the Baltic countries will celebrate, and are celebrating, their centenaries. We are going to work on this Summit, and at the beginning of March, the three Ministers of Foreign Affairs of the Baltic States will meet the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the United States and officials in Washington, in March, as I said.

We spoke about our cooperation in defense. I thanked the United States for their support, financial support, as well for the presence of the U.S. soldiers here, in Latvia and the Baltics. We spoke about other issues concerning our cooperation on combating and elimination of cyber threats, and how to make the exchange of information safer.

You, the journalists, will have many questions as to the topic of the last days. We spoke about this issue as well. We spoke about issues of the finance sector. And I would like to stress, that we, the Government of Latvia, Council of Safety and Security as well, we clearly define three things, that I also reconfirmed to my colleague. First of all, the Government of Latvia and the Council of National Security is strictly standing for the fact, that all things that have been done by public officials or any officials, anyone, concerning breaches should be investigated totally. We are willing to help in all ways, and our colleagues from the U.S. also expressed their willingness to help us practically and with advice. So we will tackle these issues immediately.

And another thing, that I have mentioned, we are very interested, and our partners reconfirmed. And it will be possible. We are willing to tidy the financial sector, because it is the issue not only of the image of Latvia, but also the safety and also the independence of our country. We see this as an opportunity to solve these issues.

And, finally, we spoke about issues concerning the EU-US dialogue. Mainly, we see many things in a common way. There will be many business projects, as well as we spoke about sanctions against Russia for their aggression in Ukraine. We spoke about other bilateral cooperation issues. If you have some questions, we will be able to answer.

May be now, Mr. Sullivan has something to add before you come up with your questions.

DEPUTY SECRETARY SULLIVAN: Thank You. Good morning. I am delighted to be here in Riga and to have the opportunity to meet with Foreign Minister Rinkevics to discuss global security issues and regional priorities.

As the Foreign Minister said, we just concluded a very productive meeting, in which we discussed a range of issues, that shows how deep and broad the relationship is between the United States and Latvia.

I want to start by extending our sincerest congratulations to Latvia, as well as Estonia, and Lithuania, on your centennial. We look forward to celebrating 100 years of independence throughout the year, concluding with the anniversary on November 18th.

To that end, I want to confirm and express my great confidence in announcing the meeting on April 3rd that President Trump will host for all three Baltic presidents in Washington, D.C. This Summit has been in the works for some time and we’ve been working on it diligently in Washington and in consultation with our colleagues in Riga, Vilnius and Tallinn. And we are very much looking forward to do it. As well as the Foreign Ministers Conference on March 5th.

This summit is a testimony to the strength and vibrancy of the relationship between the United States and the three Baltic nations, reflecting President Trump’s view that a strong alliance of free, sovereign, and independent nations is the best defense for our freedoms and for our interests. It will celebrate our admiration for all that Baltic nations have accomplished these past 100 years, and mark our commitment to the region for the next hundred years.

Returning to Latvia specifically, I want to note that as an EU partner and NATO Ally, Latvia shares our goal of strengthening the Alliance to address the full range of threats facing the transatlantic community.

As I have discussed with the Minister, the security threats can take many forms, including corruption and efforts to undermine the integrity of the financial system. We are pleased to see, that Latvian authorities are taking decisive steps to investigate activities of corruption and the banking sector. The United States stands by Latvia and will fully support its effort to establish a well-regulated and thriving banking sector.

The United States, Latvia, and our NATO Allies also clearly recognize the threat posed by Russia. We remain focused on countering Russian efforts to undermine democratic institutions and the transatlantic partnership. At the same time, we recognize the importance of cooperation with Russia where it is in our mutual interest: ensuring strategic stability, defeating ISIS in Syria, and sending a unified message to the DPRK. It is the United States’ goal to work with partners like Latvia to ensure that these efforts continue.

The U.S. commitment to NATO’s Article 5 is ironclad, and President Trump, Vice President Pence, Secretary Tillerson, and Secretary Mattis have all made it abundantly clear that an attack on any of us is an attack on us all.

We are grateful to Latvia for leading by example on burden sharing among NATO Allies. Latvia has committed to investing two percent of GDP in defense this year and devoting at least 20 percent of that share towards major equipment acquisitions. And we are hopeful that our work with Latvia on this front will encourage other Allies to implement the Wales Defense Investment Pledge.

In addition to our collaboration on defense and security issues, Latvia and the United States are close partners on a wide-range of critical international issues, both bilaterally and through the EU.

In that realm, I want to commend the Latvian Embassy in Washington, D.C. for taking concrete steps to build stronger bilateral business and investment ties this year. Re-opening a U.S.-based office for the Investment and Development Agency of Latvia was an important milestone, as was executing ‘Spotlight Latvia,’ the largest-ever Latvia business promotion event in the United States.

The connections between our people continue to deepen as well. Through partnerships and exchanges – including work on media literacy programs, the exchange of Fulbright English Teaching Assistants, and visits by world-renowned authors – we gain an even better understanding of each other and of our mutual values.

So, in conclusion, I am thrilled to be here to reaffirm our strong relationship with Latvia. And I look forward to answering any questions along with the Foreign Minister that you might have. Thank you.

PRESS SECRETARY OF MFA JEGERMANIS: Time for questions, please.

From Latvian Television

QUESTION: I have a question regarding the FinCEN report to Mr. Sullivan: Has the U.S. given more detailed information and evidence supporting the claims of FinCEN to our anti-corruption authorities because they have mentioned they are lacking some of the evidence to take further steps? Thank you.

DEPUTY SECRETARY SULLIVAN: Thank you. Our cooperation with Latvia on strengthening any corruption efforts in the financial institutions in Latvia are wide-ranging. Without getting into details on the specific matter that you mentioned, our work across the U.S. government, not just the State Department, but Treasury Department, Department of Justice, is extensive, it’s wide ranging and I want to reaffirm that the United States is working in partnership with Latvia to address the issues that have been discussed in the FinCEN report and, more generally, it is supporting Latvia's effort to fight corruption and reform its financial institutions. It’s not merely a question of creating a better environment for economic prosperity for Latvia but it is also a national security issue. So, we are committed to it, we are committed to our partnership with our strong NATO ally and we look forward to working with them on these and many other issues. Thank you.


QUESTION: Hello, my name is Ģederts Ģelzis and I am from Reuters agency. I have a question to Mr. Sullivan. In the recent days we have seen really concerning developments taking place in the Latvian financial system and one of the aspects of the developments is the FinCEN report about the ABLV Bank which says that there were concerns about money laundering and also allegations about possible bribery. I was also wondering whether the U.S. is targeting only the ABLV Bank at the moment or whether when you read the report you may have an impression that you are implying that the problem persists within the whole banking sector? Do you have any other Latvian Banks in sight? Thanks.

DEPUTY SECRETARY SULLIVAN: As I said before, the United States’ relationship, both of the Department of State, Department of the Treasury, and other U.S. government agencies are working very closely with the Latvian government on any corruption issues and reform of financial sector in Latvia - which the Latvian government has the lead on, of course. We are happy to work with them and support them as partners. I would defer to the U. S. Department of the Treasury to any specific inquiry about that investigation, in that report, which is still an open matter, but I can reaffirm today the importance of the partnership between the United States and Latvia in working on these issues and I know the Foreign Minister shares my views on this.

MINISTER RINKEVICS: Let me just add that as you all know we have long-standing cooperation with the United States. We had already one period when we were cooperating closely during our accession process to OECD. I think that we had already very good results. Apparently, as I said, the government is very committed, first of all, to let investigators to do their work as in any normal, rule-of-law based country. Whoever must be prosecuted, will be prosecuted. We are also looking forward to very close cooperation between our law enforcement agencies and that is what normally diplomats don't interfere with; that is for investigators to work with, but also let me say that we have seen also very good contacts: our Ambassador met officials of the Treasury; we are expecting the high level visit in March, and so this is ongoing process and as I said both the government, as well as the National Security Council, is fully committed to address all those issues that have been related to this money laundering and sanctions regime against North Korea or any other sanctions regime that has been imposed by the international community.


QUESTION: I have a bank question regarding the ABLV Bank. What does ABLV Bank have to do to end concerns of the U.S. financial authorities to prevent the sanctions actually being imposed on the bank?

DEPUTY SECRETARY SULLIVAN: Well, as you know, what the Treasury Department announced was a notice of proposed rulemaking. There is now an administrative procedure in place with, I believe, 60 days for the bank to respond. I don't want to prejudge in any way the continuation of that process or make a comment one way or the other on how Treasury might act in the end or respond in any way; we should let that process play out and that’s all I can say at this point about that specific matter.


QUESTION: In brief, I just want to ask about the FinCEN report. Could you highlight the methodo… the methods how these reports are being made? And the second, there is a particular point about ABLV - is that allegations that ABLV has used bribing to secure their alleged illegal activities to Latvian authorities. Could you highlight from where these allegations came? Thanks a lot.

DEPUTY SECRETARY SULLIVAN: I think the most I can say about that issue is what I have said before which is the United States Government, Treasury Department, and the State Department and others are working closely with our partners in Riga on these issues. I can't comment on specifics of the ABLV case because it is a pending matter before the Department of Treasury, but what I can say is that we are working very closely with our partners in the Latvian government to address concerns about corruption and financial reform, and we are looking forward to supporting the Latvian government as it works to root out corruption and improve the functioning of its financial system.


QUESTION: Are you concerned, why is Washington cracking down on money laundering in a Euro country? Is the ECB doing enough here, do they lack mechanisms? Why is this falling to D.C. when this is a Eurozone country? Thank you.

DEPUTY SECRETARY SULLIVAN: Money laundering is a concern to the United States as it affects a NATO ally – Latvia. As I said, we work very closely with our colleagues here in Latvia. We obviously leave to the ECB dealing with this particular bank in Riga. The action that has been proposed by the Department of the Treasury is authorized by U.S. law; a sanction has been proposed and it is a sanction that indicates the seriousness with which the United States takes money laundering, particularly money laundering as described in the FinCEN report that implicates U.S. national security interests.

MINISTER RINKEVICS: Let me just add. Look, let's be very clear; we still have a discussion within the European Union about the authority of European Central Bank concerning the money laundering issues because the European Central Bank currently is responsible for overseeing the banks through purely financial stability like this. But as you know, there are directives and regulations that have been considered also on the transfer of more authority to the European Central Bank, also in regards to also supervising illegal activities. So this is probably the case that could be used also to improve both the national capability, as well as the European capability. Of course, Mr. Secretary , I think that our colleagues from the press have been mixing up a little bit what foreign ministries do and what the ministries of finance or treasury do, but as foreign ministries we always need to take all the questions regardless the matter. However, let me say one thing: we have got enough information that our authorities are working on when it comes to money laundering, as well as the violations of sanctions regime. Those are issues that have been currently investigated and I think that we all are interested in a speedy conclusion of the investigation; be it bribery or be it sanctions violation issues or be it money laundering issues. And here also we will use the opportunity of both the March meeting, as well as the April meeting, to advance the cooperation that we very highly value and that we have developed with the United States. Currently that is also a very, very strong message to the banking system, not only in Latvia but also throughout the world.

MINISTER RINKEVICS [off mic]: We have one more question and then basically we will have finished.

QUESTION: Good morning, my name is Gunther Hoerst, Financial Times. A question for Mr. Rinkevics. I was wondering, you know, this report came out already in 2014; the Latvian authorities have, you know, put up, I think it was an administrative measure on ABLV. Don't call it a fine. How come the U.S. has to step in now to show that there have been, you know, suspicions in money laundering? Why haven't there been things from the Latvian side earlier to, you know, to show these kind of things earlier?

MINISTER RINKEVICS: Well, as far as our regulator has informed us, they had a very thorough process of analyzing the data they have received and they have a legal framework they are operating within and, as you know that, and I already mentioned that there have been banks that have been already fined by our regulator previously. So, from that point of view, I do believe that they are doing their work. Not all the facts that they have received probably were at their disposal. That's what the information I have got from the Chairman and that is why we also see that the information that we are getting from the United States or measures that we have seen taken by the United States, and that is not a sanction per se, that sometimes is already been reported in the press; that is a notice and the bank has 60 days also to respond. That is their right and that they should do. So from that point of view, I think that we will use those 60 days here, in Latvia to work with our American partners and also to investigate those charges that have been put forward and I am absolutely confident that appropriate action will be taken. This has been rather difficult sector. I know how we were working through our OECD accession process; I think that you have seen some very good results: one bank has been closed actually and that is Trasta Komercbanka. We have seen fines and that work continues. Unfortunately, sometimes it takes time and a legal process and you know that there are very strong lawyers also on the opposing side of the government and so, I would say that this work is ongoing and it will be continued. We are not interested to have a security or money laundering risk in this country. That’s why we, as I said in my introductory remarks, and thank you, Mr. Secretary, for reaffirming that we see this not as some kind of adversarial action but a friendly assistance that we are getting, so will continue to working with them. Thank you very much.