In this regular interview series, we reach out to some of our liberal party leaders to hear their thoughts on liberalism, Europe and beyond. In this episode, we spoke with Daniels Pavļuts, leader of ALDE member party Kustība “Par!” (Movement For!) in Latvia. He shared how the country manages to stay strong despite of the pandemic and how important the European Union is to keep facing the biggest challenge of this century so far.
What have been the key challenges you have faced since taking office as Minister of Health, and how do you feel this portfolio differs from your former role as Minister of Economy?
I stepped into the role of the Minister of Health to stand in for my party comrade in the middle of the pandemic primarily as a crisis manager. To overcome the challenges of speeding up vaccination campaign and support healthcare system through several waves of COVID-19 every bit of previous experience came in handy. Skills learned as a reform-minded civil servant, Minister of Economics in post Great Financial Crisis years, my training with focus on adaptive leadership with Ronald Heifetz at Kennedy School, party leadership - all of these were essential. Pandemic laid bare our weaknesses - underfunded hospitals, lack of capacity in primary care, fragmented delivery systems without proper digitisation, lack of health literacy and susceptibility to disinformation. But, every crisis is an opportunity and we are going to come out stronger.
You are a trained concert pianist. How does your passion for music complement your passion for politics?
Pianists are trained to have a stringent work ethic and handle complexity, develop a sense of form and memorise vast amounts of information. This has helped me a lot in my public service career. Being a concert pianist means being on stage and reaching out to people, touching their hearts and souls as politicians should too. Music has always been present in my life, these days music is an essential element of my leisure, my meditation if you like. I am an amateur these days, although I had returned briefly to concert circuit as recently as 2017.
Who is the political leader you most admire and why?
The history of our civilisation is rich in great people worthy of admiration. I draw inspiration and try to learn from people who have thrived in adversity, succeeded against great odds and helped their societies advance - Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and in fact Martin Luther too! I admire the life story of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and her contribution to gender equality. I follow closely endeavours of Alexey Navalny, who stops at nothing to help his country advance and become a true democracy, whatever the cost may be to himself. Yet my practical leadership tutor has been Professor Ronald Heifetz at Harvard Kennedy School. He has said that leadership means disappointing your people and bringing them bad news at a rate they can stand. This is a position I find myself in these days to help Latvian society overcome a crisis of a generation.
In your party manifesto, you highlight the importance of opportunities for all. How do you implement this goal in your daily work?
This principle of equal opportunities (in practice not in name only) is behind all our decisions. We have tried to look at each policy decision from the perspective of social access. An example: the previous government tried to implement a law that restricted access to state funded healthcare only to taxpayers and turn the rest away unless they paid for care. This was unacceptable to us, and we overturned this policy. Access to basic healthcare is a fundamental human right that can't be taken away. Doctors should not be made to check your tax status. Recently, the Latvian government decided to assist energy consumers to adapt to the shockingly high energy prices and developed a generous support program; we made sure the support reached the most vulnerable people as much as possible.
During the pandemic our government had to make hard decisions, and we had to limit people's freedoms, e.g., enact vaccination mandates to save the already strained healthcare sector. Keeping the healthcare system functioning was a top priority and restrictions were legitimate to be able to provide care to those most at risk. This is a difficult period for all of us. But I believe that we are going to win this fight and come out of the pandemic as a stronger society and country.
Unity is a key pillar of the European Union, and this is also important for your party. How are you contributing to ensure the EU continues to work together in the years ahead?
Our party, Movement For!, has always stressed the importance of a united Europe. We fully support the measures against EU member states that disrespect the values and laws of our Union. I am regularly meeting with the health ministers of Baltics and less often, but regularly, with the health ministers of all Europe. With our united vaccination effort and European digital certificates well under way – the pandemic is not yet over, but we, as Europe, have managed to make it as bearable as possible for our citizens while ensuring freedom of movement across borders. Latvia is fully committed to Europe as a Health Union too. We're also proud to share and be a part of the COVAX program, as well donating vaccines bilaterally to Eastern European, African, Latin American and Pacific countries. Our party also supports the civic movements in Ukraine and Belarus.
How can liberalism thrive in the 21st century?
We need to be the leaders in adapting to changes, and in adapting with dignity. The world is facing several crises (climate; democracy; energy prices; economy; disinformation; security) at the same time, and in dealing with these threats, we must remember that everything depends on how we recognise the needs of people and lead transformation while increasing rather than reducing inherent resilience of our societies. Liberalism above everything else is about pluralism, respect, empathy, and responsible, sustainable change.
The liberal coalition in Latvia currently holds the position of Riga’s Mayor. How has the liberal movement grown in the country in the recent years, what do you see in its future? And what does being a part of the wider European liberal family mean to you?
The victory in Riga's 2020 election campaign, after the capital had been governed by kleptocratic politicians for too many years, was certainly a great victory not just for liberals, but for all citizens of Latvia. The most recent turning point happened in 2018 when our liberal coalition Development/For! won 13 seats in the 2018 Latvian parliament elections for the first time in our country's history. We are literally making history as we go - several legal and political steps have been taken since 2018 to make Latvian society more respectful of human rights and diversify. We are aiming to consolidate our position in the next parliamentary elections in October 2022. Movement For! has made friends with other liberal parties in Europe (hi Laisvés and everyone!), our party members have had the opportunity to grow and learn (shoutout to Adam Vink), and most importantly, our liberal European family is making positive changes for all as we fight for a more inclusive society.
The COVID-19 pandemic has stressed the need for a stronger EU role when it comes to healthcare. What do you think should be the next steps to reinforce this dimension of the EU and to be more prepared towards the future?
The pandemic has brought out some of the best traits in us, but also made quite visible some of the worst. It is regrettable that the international society has dealt with the pandemic in a fragmented way, we have seen increasing isolationism, vaccine nationalism etc. Europe as a Union has dealt with the pandemic better than others. We have increased our scientific cooperation, sped up policy making, kick-started digitisation and we are now busy building a European Health Union. We shall be much more prepared to next pandemics. Latvia as a small nation can really appreciate the strength and solidarity of the European Family - through joint vaccine procurement and recently generous support from EU Civil Protection Mechanism when we were hit hard by the Delta variant. Thank you, European sisters, and brothers!
What type of progress are you hoping to see in Latvia and Europe in the next years?
We want to see the end of the pandemic, coordinated and ambitious climate action, a thriving, digitally-ready economy and increased resilience of our societies and political systems - against onslaught of disinformation, polarisation and authoritarianism.
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