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January 26 – the 100th Anniversary of Recognition of the State of Latvia de iure

In the late modern period of history, the establishment of each new state is legally based on two types of basic documents. The first group is represented by those related to the proclamation of the State, and from the moment of their adoption, the counting of the state’s existence begins. The second point of reference occurs when a newly established state is recognized by powerful international organizations and great powers. Each country is able to exist and develop if it becomes a subject of international law

Latvian delegation in Paris after receiving the de iure recognition decision of the Supreme Council of the Allies on January 26, 1921. In the first row from the left: Miķelis Valters, Zigfrīds Anna Meierovics, Jānis Lazdiņš. In the second row from the left: Oļģerds Grosvalds, Georgs Bisenieks, Jānis Tepfers

Latvian delegation in Paris after receiving the de iure recognition decision of the Supreme Council of the Allies on January 26, 1921. In the first row from the left: Miķelis Valters, Zigfrīds Anna Meierovics, Jānis Lazdiņš. In the second row from the left: Oļģerds Grosvalds, Georgs Bisenieks, Jānis Tepfers

Not long ago, the Latvian State celebrated the 100th anniversary of its establishment. On 26 January 2021, the centenary is marked for the second no less important event - the recognition of the State of Latvia de iure by the Supreme Council of the Allied Powers.

There are two types of recognition of national independence in international law and diplomatic practice: de facto and de iure. De facto recognition means  acceptance of the state’s existence even if it is not enshrined in an international convention. This is the lowest level of international recognition. However, "de facto" recognition has no further legal consequences in the longer term, i.e., the state does not receive the full guarantees for the continuity or uninterruptedness of its recognition of existence, which occurs in the case of full diplomatic recognition (de iure). Moreover, de facto recognition can be relatively easily revoked. In its turn, recognition de iure is irrevocable and permanent. It means that the State has acquired full international law.

The first official de facto recognition of the Latvian Government took place a week before the proclamation of the State of Latvia - on 11 November 1918. The British Foreign Minister, Lord Arthur James Balfour, announced in an official Note that the British Government was ready to recognize the Latvian Provisional National Council as a de facto independent institution. Two weeks later, on November 25, Kārlis Ulmanis, the head of the Provisional Government of Latvia, also received a Note from August Winnig, General Plenipotentiary of the new German Social Democratic Government. It stated that the German government was ready to recognize the Latvian People's Council as an independent power and the Provisional Government as its executive commission until the International Peace Conference will settle the issue of Latvia's future in accordance with the right of peoples to self-determination.

In order to strengthen external security, the State of Latvia needed to achieve also its recognition de iure as soon as possible. In order to perform this main task, a Latvian delegation was sent to the Paris Peace Conference in January 1919, headed by the Chairman of the Latvian People's Council, the later President of Latvia, Jānis Čakste, and the Minister of Foreign Affairs Zigfrīds Anna Meierovics. In view of the fact that the Latvian delegation could not participate directly in the work of the Peace Conference, its main activity was to send applications to the conference commissions and maintain contacts with the delegations of the Member States. During the entire period of its activity, which lasted from January 23, 1919 to December 15 of the same year, the Latvian delegation submitted 34 different applications in total to the governments of the Entente countries and to the Peace Conference. No answers were received.

Demonstration in Riga in connection with the recognition of Latvia de iure

Demonstration in Riga in connection with the recognition of Latvia de iure

In the meantime, the War of Independence continued and the process of Latvia’s  de facto recognition  took place in parallel. By the end of January 1920, Latgale was liberated from the Bolsheviks with the help of Polish troops and the Latvian government gained control over the entire territory of Latvia. On 15 July 1920, Latvia concluded a peace treaty with Germany, and on 11 August, with Soviet Russia. The Latvian War of Independence ended. Until the second half of 1920, Latvia had been de facto recognized by the following Members  of the League of Nations: United Kingdom, Japan, Poland, France, Belgium, Haiti, the Vatican, as well as the newly established countries - Finland, Lithuania, Estonia and Ukraine. In the first half of 1920, there were already 16 different types of foreign missions, embassies, consulates, as well as British political and military missions in Riga. At that time, Latvia had representations in 17 countries.

On 15 November 1920, the Latvian delegation under the leadership of Zigfrīds Anna Meierovics went to the first general meeting of the League of Nations in Geneva to achieve Latvia's accession to the League of Nations, which should promote the de iure recognition of the state. On 16 December  1920, in the plenary session of the General Assembly on Latvia's accession to the League of Nations, 5 countries (Italy, Colombia, Paraguay, Portugal, Persia or present-day Iran) voted in favor, 24 countries were against, 13 countries abstained.

The main reason of  rejection for many countries, including the great powers (Great Britain, France and the USA) towards Latvia's de iure recognition and accession to the League of Nations was to be found in the fact that these countries, former allies of the Russian Empire, had not lost hope of rebuilding the former empire, whether in the form  of monarchical or parliamentary administration. At the Paris Peace Conference, Jānis Seskis, a Latvian diplomat and member of the Latvian delegation, later wrote that the Western powers had considered  sinking of their former ally Russia into Bolshevism as a moment of darkening of the Russian people's state consciousness, when it is over "the Russian giant will rise again in all its power." He asked rhetorically, “Would it be wise for friends to leave her in a time of weakness? What are the Baltic nations and states compared to the Russian colossus? ”

Russian emigrants – the former members of the tsarist government and diplomats, also had a negative impact on the views of European powers and the USA leaders on the issue of recognizing the Baltic States.

The French resistance to the recognition of the Baltic States de iure was also accompanied by another reason: it was the debts of tsarist Russia to French bankers, which amounted to more than 5 billion gold francs, which were to be recovered only in the event of the restoration of the undivided Russian Empire. But that meant eliminating the independence of the small, sovereign states. Therefore, the Allied powers did not want to tie their hands prematurely, recognizing these countries de iure.

After the failure of Latvia's accession to the League of Nations, Zigfrīds Anna Meierovics returned to the leaders of the European powers, trying to prove the necessity of Latvia’s  recognition de iure.  From 18 to 23 December 1920, the Latvian Minister of Foreign Affairs  visited Rome, where he was received by King Vittore Emanuele III of Italy, Prime Minister Giovanni Giolitti and Minister of Foreign Affairs Carlo Sforza, showing awareness  and responsiveness. In the Vatican, Latvian diplomats were received by Pope Benedict XV.

The decisive factor in the de iure recognition of the Baltic States, however, was the change in the international situation, the fact that the fighting on the Russian civil war fronts ended with the victory of the Red Army. As early as November 1920, after the defeat of Wrangel's troops in Crimea, it became clear that Soviet rule in Russia would not be a temporary, short-lived phenomenon. Hopes for the possibility of rebuilding the old Russian Empire were lost. In such circumstances, it was necessary to think about the creation of a security zone or "sanitary cordon" between Soviet Russia and the Western democracies, which would protect them from the spread of Bolshevism. Therefore, the skeptical thoughts  of the former deniers of recognition of the  Baltic States also changed.

At first, such a turnaround was observed in France. Latvian Foreign Minister Zigfrīds Anna Meierovics visited Paris from 24 to 31 December 1920, where he met with the President of France, Alexandre Millerand, and the Secretary General of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Philippe Bhertelot. On December 29, the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs sent Notes to all the Entente countries with a proposal to recognize Latvia and Estonia de iure. The fact that Aristide Briand, a Social Democrat, became Prime Minister of France on 16 January 1921 was also of great importance in later events.

However, the fight for recognition was far from reaching an end. In the first days of January 1921, Zigfrīds Anna Meierovics was received in London by the British Foreign Minister George Nathaniel Curzon, who was not favorable to the freedom efforts of the small and oppressed peoples and strictly rejected the idea of the recognition ​​of the State of  Latvia de iure. He had received information from some former tsarist Russia diplomats about the precarious political and economic situation in the Baltic States. According to Curzon, given that the Baltic States once belonged to Russia and are small in size, the League of Nations will avoid admitting them. Legal recognition of the Baltic States, in his opinion, would be absurd and would result in a war against Russia.

Therefore, on 22 January  1921, when the session of the Supreme Council of the Allied Powers (the Entente) began, its decision could not yet be predicted. Representatives of the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Japan and Belgium took part in the session. Baltic diplomats watched the council's agenda with concern. The Baltic issue was scheduled to be discussed on 24 January, but nothing happened. On 25 January, the Baltic issue was not on the agenda either, although the French representatives had promised it. It turned out that Lord Curzon had suggested leaving the Baltic issue to be discussed with other Eastern issues for later. The nerves of the Baltic diplomats were highly strained. In the morning of 26 January, the Baltic issue had not yet been discussed.

Finally, in the afternoon of 26 January 26 1921, Aristide Briand and Philippe Bhertelot reached a discussion on the Baltic issue. After listening to Lord Curzon's arguments against recognizing the Baltic States and argumaents of Count Sforza that the Baltic States should be recognized, the British Prime Minister, David Lloyd-George, who was not  favorable to his Foreign Minister, in principle supported Sforza's views. On 26 January 1921 at 5:00 p.m. the diplomatic representatives of Estonia and Latvia were informed that the Supreme Council had recognized their independence de iure. Lithuania's issue was not addressed in this session due to its border dispute with Poland. Lithuania was recognized de iure by the Allied Powers only on 20 December 1922.

Cup-souvenir in honour of Latvia's recognition de iure. 1921. Collection of the Turaida Museum Reserve

Cup-souvenir in honour of Latvia's recognition de iure. 1921. Collection of the Turaida Museum Reserve

Along with the de iure recognition, the Rules of Procedures adopted by the Congress of Vienna in 1815 were fully extended to Latvia. Latvia was able to establish diplomatic relations with foreign countries, appoint extraordinary envoys and authorized ministers, conclude multilateral agreements, participate as a member in international conferences and consultations, and organise them, as well as accede to international collective conventions.

In January 1921, in addition to the above-mentioned member states of the Supreme Council of the Allies, Latvia was recognized de iure by Finland and Poland, in February – by Germany, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Persia, Austria, Portugal, Romania, in March and April – by Holland, Spain, Switzerland, but in June – by the Vatican. The United States recognized Latvia in 1922. By the end of 1922, Latvia had been recognized de iure by 28 countries, but until 1939 - by 42 countries.

On 22 September 1921, the State of Latvia was admitted to the League of Nations.

During Latvia's first independence, the date of the State’s recognition de iure - January 26 – was declared as a national holiday.

The de iure recognition of the Baltic States, including Latvia, played a very important role in the restoration of independence after the Soviet occupation. Although in 1940, as a result of the arrival of the USSR troops and the subsequent annexation, Latvia de facto lost its independence, but from the point of view of international law it still existed de iure and was recognized by more than 50 countries around the world. On the day of the occupation of Latvia – 17 June 1940 - the Ambassador of Latvia in London Kārlis Zariņš received the extraordinary authority of the Cabinet of Ministers of Latvia to represent Latvia's interests abroad, to run the diplomatic and consular service, to handle state funds, etc. After his death in 1963, Arnold Spekke, head of the Legation in Washington, took over the management of the Latvian diplomatic and consular service. In many countries, missions of the Republic of Latvia continued to operate, passports issued by them were declared valid and extended.

The support of the democratic states and their enforced policy of non-recognition of the incorporation of the Baltic States, served as a legal basis for the restoration of Latvia’s national independence in 1991, allowed the renewed Republic of Latvia to be regarded as a successor to the rights of the pre-war Republic of Latvia and  fully implement its foreign policy in accordance with  the practice established in international relations.

Edgars Ceske Chief specialist Turaida Museum Reserve

Sources and Literature used:
  1. Andersons, Edgars. Latvijas ārpolitika 1920 – 1940. Stokholma, 1982.
  2. Latvijas diplomātijas gadsimts. Rīga, 2020.
  3. Seskis, Jānis. Latvijas valsts izcelšanās pasaules kara notikumu norisē. Atmiņas un apcerējumi (1914.–1921.). Rīga, 1990.
  4. https://www.mfa.gov.lv/aktualitates/zinas/55913-latvijas-de-iure-atzisana.Skatīts 18. 12. 2020.
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