Only the spoken word is valid.

Distinguished alumni of the Stockholm School of Economics in Riga and your better halves!

It is an honour to be invited to be a dinner speaker at the 3rd Presidents dinner, moreover, to follow in the steps of such illustrious speakers as President Toomas Henrik Ilves and President Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga at rather short notice! 

Unfortunately, I am not a President – at least not yet.

I was born in Canada, was a teenager in Germany – but the 1970’s of Toronto honed my Latvian identity as a youth activist leader determined to lobby Canadian politicians for a free and independent Latvia, for freedom and independence in all 3 Baltic States. 

With the same political program in mind, my generation in Canada realized that political impact could be reached with the Latvian, Estonian and Lithuanian youth communities working together, and for a few years this worked for a small group of Torontonian Baltic youth.  

On a student level, our most successful endeavour was organizing so-called “Baltic Bashes” – better seen as a platform for serious partying.  Partying together would surely lead to politicking together.

From a summer ferry party on Lake Ontario to a legendary all nighter at Tartu College on the campus of the University of Toronto, Baltic students got to know, even like each other.  

In fact, I still meet a few of the Lithuanian or Estonian organizers from that era in Vilnius or Tallinn, as quite a few of us moved to the Baltic some 25 years ago!  

These parties gave me a key learning that was reaffirmed both when we organized the Baltic Peace and Freedom Cruise in 1985, even in the 2000’s while developing Statoil’s retail network in the Baltic: namely, when all 3 nationalities party hard together, it tends to end with the same behaviour around 11 p.m.: Latvians are singing somewhere, an Estonian is fighting somewhere else, while a Lithuanian is either fast asleep in the corner of a room, or they have already left.

Thus, my most important riddle for tonight is:  what were your SSE Riga student parties like, and how will this Baltic SSE Riga alumni dinner end?

In the 19th century Canada built a railway to connect Eastern Canada to the Pacific. It is what legends are made of. 

Canada’s Prime Minister - Sir John A. Macdonald - saw this as a political tool to unite the country – as well as the possibility to expand export markets from Quebec to British Columbia. Concept to construction took about 10 years with governments falling over corruption related to the project. In the end construction took 4 years for 1600 km, though with today’s eyes no safety, security or labour rights considerations were taken into account.  Building of the railway required significant numbers of imported Chinese labourers to do the work. Once completed in 1885, the Canadian Pacific Railway, as it was known, changed the dynamics and self-perception of the country.

Gordon Lightfoot wrote a beautiful ballad about this, the Great Canadian Railroad Trilogy. An excerpt:
“For they looked in the future and what did they see
They saw an iron road runnin' from sea to the sea
Bringin' the goods to a young growin' land
All up through the seaports and into their hands
Look away said they across this mighty land
From the eastern shore to the western strand
Bring in the workers and bring up the rails
We gotta lay down the tracks and tear up the trails..”

100 years from now, who will write the ballad of Rail Baltica?

The project will tangibly reconnect North East Europe to the rest of Europe. It will unlock new economic roads; the need for labour beyond Baltic borders will be significant, while the potential for corruption will remain strong throughout.

The Rail Baltica project is actually as old as the Stockholm School of Economics in Riga!

  • In 1994 the Rail Baltica concept first appeared in a joint policy document “Vision and Strategies around the Baltic Sea 2010”
  • A mere 20 years later in 2014 Prime Ministers Ansip, Dombrovskis and Butkevičius signed an agreement to establish the joint venture RB Rail that is mandated to “design, construct and market” Rail Baltica.  The joint venture was a precondition by the European Union to realize the project with significant European funding.
  • I was appointed CEO of this joint venture near the end of 2015.


Some bare Rail Baltica facts for the unaware.

  • it is known as the Project of the Century.
  • as one of the European Union’s top 3 priority projects, Rail Baltica will be a brand-new high-speed electrified railway, with 870 km of European gauge tracks laid in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to link Finland, the Baltic countries and Poland with passenger and freight services.
  • in 2017 it was estimated that the project requires a total investment of 5,8 Billion EURO while measurable socio-economic benefits are estimated at 16.2 billion euro. This means that for every invested EURO the Baltic countries will get at least 6 EURO back!
  • Finally, a strategic intent is that the EU will pay for 85% of the entire project in the form of Connecting Europe Facility grants – with the Baltic countries co-financing 5% each.

My conviction is that the Rail Baltica project is actually the Opportunity of the Century, provided 3 governments, business communities, societies, even media look beyond national parameters to seek a paradigm shift in thinking and acting.

The Rail Baltica story is not about building tracks which in this case is actually quite straightforward, but - to quote Bill Clinton – it’s about the economy, stupid.  An opportunity to look to the future of global infrastructure and respond with concepts, services and products that can position the Baltic region as the key place that offers global solutions. Namely, an opportunity to go beyond the e-stonia story!

Economically, most Baltic policy makers and businesses mainly see Rail Baltica as a source of turnover for construction companies in the next 10 years. It is such a narrow vision -  as Rail Baltica is an opportunity to develop a brand new economic corridor with new economic opportunity in the region, but, again, that takes common vision and the ability to act in common.

Let me highlight one potential area of opportunity with you: Innovation and Digitalization are the two guiding lights for infrastructure development in Europe today.

  • Simply put, by 2026 Rail Baltica’s locomotives will most likely be operated by Artificial Intelligence. A key success factor for that is the ability to establish a precise and seamless interface between languages with what we call mechanical translation today. A Baltic company, Tilde, is already leading in this area; how can we structurally embed this knowledge in such a way that the Baltic region has a global first-mover advantage when the challenge of languages is addressed.
  • By 2026 Passengers’ travel habits will expect to have door-to-door service that includes all imaginable types of transportation. Say, for a trip from the University of Klaipeda to the University of Tartu, in one virtual place you should have the facility to order and pay for what you need: trains, buses, taxify or car-sharing, ensure storage for your bicycle or baby stroller, pre-order meals or other services on board and make sure meeting rooms at the other end are booked for your lecture!
  • The logistics business already needs a one-stop safe and secure paperless solution for crossing borders, dealing with customs, verifying content in containers, deploying drones in terminals or ordering last-mile solutions – again without language being a barrier.

To the best of my knowledge, nobody is really focussing on developing such cross-border tools. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania all have great companies that excel in fintech and technological innovation. The Rail Baltica project should be able to mobilize the relevant institutions and companies at one table to forge a way forward and establish the region as global leaders in transportation innovation and digitalization.

To date Rail Baltica’s owners, three Transport Ministries, are focussed on building tracks, and won’t discuss any other common opportunity. At best, there is strong competition between the national legacy railways, which from - say a Chinese vantage point - may seem silly in light of the size of the companies and countries involved.

Writing about the Baltic in the late 1990s, right after independence a British journalist remarked that “The past has a way of walking around in the present, behaving as if it were alive.”1

A year into leading the Rail Baltica project, I realized that 20 years since its inception, in the national subconscious issues of the past are still very much alive and affecting the ability to collaborate or communicate together. Each country has psychologically submerged the Soviet occupation differently and each one has a deep need to prove itself first as a nation.  In fact, while one aspires to be seen as part of the Nordic region, another prefers the Vishegrad group while the third is torn between North and East.

In this sense the Rail Baltica Global Project became a steep Baltic learning curve.

Our behaviour is quite tribal. Each nationality, nationally even each ministry of a different political persuasion, looks at the other with fierce pride and claims that their way is the right way – and then proceeds to fence-in ones own position against any other initiatives.  National understanding, thus history, plays a large role here.

Why would one possibly unilaterally trust an Estonian, Latvian or Lithuanian opinion (take your pick)? Each nation prefers to be known on its own merits, not a shared one. The only winners in this form of cooperation are lawyers - as all turn to them to find or create common ground.

Thus if nothing else, I urge those in the audience that have the power and position to at least work towards common governance standards and procurement principles to do so!

In Oslo, Brussels or Chicago I am often to explain why the Baltics behave as they do. My key observation is that: 
Estonia looks to Finland,
Lithuania looks to Poland,
And Latvia looks around.

Let us recall that the only time Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians have ever united in recent history was for the unique peace demonstration of civil disobedience, the Balic Way in 1989.

Soviet occupation and its military presence was the force to unite against. So what can we truly unite FOR?

I urge you all to embrace your geographic neighbours, find good reasons to unite, to invest together, to co-create and strengthen the global position of this part of North East Europe.

As recipients of SSE Riga education, you are a unique group of leaders, big and small that should be the standard bearers for Baltic, even European, cooperation, delivering on regional strength by national diversity with future-driven, value based business behaviour.

Many of you work in a Baltic environment, some even beyond – all over Europe or other parts of the world. I am sure you have the ability to seek new solutions with strong collaboration and negotiation skills. At a minimum as alumni, start by contributing to strengthening these aspects for future SSE Riga students.

As our dinner's second course is next on the agenda, let me share one of my most significant Baltic failures.

When Statoil united its retail organization in the Baltic, I was responsible for marketing. This was a time when the service stations sold a lot of fresh food - like a mini-Stockmann. I had the bright idea that we could do one pan-Baltic promotion for Christmas, based on a food offer. You know - agree on the food, promote the hell of out it and get a lot of foot traffic in the stations.

We never agreed. None of the Balts have turkey for dinner. Estonians prefer blood sausage, Latvians - pork and Lithuanians - fish. I see that tonight Lithuania has maintained its historic position (fish); while, as usual, Latvia and Estonia were able to compromise and settle on veal.

Thank you for your attention and bon appetit!



1 Anatol Lieven: The Baltic Revolution: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and the Path to Independence