WASHINGTON -- "Diplomacy is not that different from public relations," Latvia's ambassador to the United States observes with a smile, "except you get more respect."
He should know. Ten years ago, Ojars Kalnins was a budding Chicago adman, pushing auto parts and industrial sump pumps. Tomorrow, he'll be among the dignitaries welcoming President Clinton to Riga, Latvia's capital, as Mr. Clinton becomes the first American president to visit the Baltic states.
Ambassador Kalnins' overnight transformation from American PR man to foreign diplomat is a reflection of the enormous changes taking place in the republics of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia, which broke away from the disintegrating Soviet Union and declared their independence in 1991.
"For us, this is obviously a big event," Mr. Kalnins said of Mr. Clinton's brief stopover, the first leg of a weeklong European trip that starts with his departure tonight. . "This is a signal to the world that we are, indeed, back. That we are a part of Western Europe."
As countries go, Latvia, which is about the size of West Virginia and has a population roughly that of greater Baltimore, has never been a power. In fact, until this century, it wasn't even a country, just a fertile stretch of coastal plain that the Russians, Germans and Swedes took turns dominating for 700 years.
Latvia looms larger, however, in the history of the Cold War. Despite being swallowed up by the Soviet Union in 1940, the Baltic states were never formally recognized as Soviet territory by the United States. Thus, Mr. Clinton's visit holds symbolic importance as a reminder of U.S. support for Latvian sovereignty during a half-century of Communist rule.
For Mr. Clinton, however, Latvia turns out to be something more: a diplomatic success story, something the president badly needs these days, with polls showing that most Americans disapprove of his handling of foreign policy.
In April, after more than a year of personal diplomacy, Mr. Clinton helped broker a deal that clears the way for the withdrawal of nearly all of the 5,000 Russian troops left in Latvia by Aug. 31. The impasse was over a Russian radar installation in Skrunda, Latvia, part of Moscow's ballistic missile defense system.
Under the agreement, Latvia agreed to permit the radar installation, and several hundred Russian soldiers working there, remain for four more years. At the same time, the United States has pledged $2 million to help dismantle the radar site. That follows a Clinton administration pledge of about $15 million to help Russian soldiers resettle in their own country after leaving the Baltics.
"The president's given a lot of time to this," said a senior White House official, citing a series of contacts on Latvian issues between Mr. Clinton and Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin, dating back to the spring of 1993.
"In a way, the trip is sort of a logical conclusion to the relationship that has developed over the past year and a half," said Mr. Kalnins, who's been in the Oval Office four times since Mr. Clinton became president, a record that many ambassadors from much larger countries cannot match.
That's pretty heady stuff for the lanky, 44-year-old Latvian, who was born in a refugee camp in Munich, Germany, in 1949 and came to the United States two years later with his family. Though he spent most of his life in Chicago, graduated from the city's Roosevelt University and became a naturalized U.S. citizen, he renounced his U.S. citizenship to represent the Latvian government in this country.
"I have to admit, I never thought it would lead to this so quickly," Mr. Kalnins said during an interview at the embassy in Washington, a neatly kept brick house miles from tony Embassy Row.
In 1985, he quit his job at a Chicago ad agency and accepted a position as public relations director of the Rockville-based American Latvian Association, which pressed the case for Latvian independence on behalf of the 100,000 Latvians who settled in this country, mainly after World War II and mostly in the older industrial cities of the East and Midwest, including New York, Chicago, Detroit, Boston and Cleveland, as well as Los Angeles.
Over the past few years, however, the human flow has begun reversing, as it has been for some of the other former Soviet satellites, as younger Latvian-Americans return to Latvia in search of new opportunities in business and politics. According to Mr. Kalnins, there are "many" former Americans in the Latvian parliament and in the government. Latvia's minister of defense, who oversees an armed force of 9,000, is a U.S. veteran of Vietnam.
By comparison with the economically strapped former Soviet republics of Ukraine and neighboring Belarus, the Baltics are thriving. Riga, which is larger than Stockholm, Sweden, and other nearby cities on the Baltic Sea, is now a bustling gateway to the East for businessmen trying to cut deals in the former Soviet Union.
Along with the burst of commercial activity has come an increase in smuggling and crime of all varieties, a growing problem throughout the region.
"You've got gangs. Protection rackets. Inter-gang warfare. People involved in big-money deals, and organized crime," said Mr. Kalnins, with surprising candor.
But as he sees it, that isn't about to scare away many serious investors.
"I'd compare it to Chicago in the 1920s," he said.