- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 3, 2015

RIGA, Latvia (AP) - Latvian lawmakers on Wednesday chose Defense Minister Raimonds Vejonis as the Baltic country’s next president, placing trust in his security credentials amid unease over a perceived threat from neighboring Russia.

It took five rounds of voting before Vejonis, 48, got the backing of a majority of lawmakers in the 100-seat Parliament.

He will replace Andris Berzins, who didn’t seek another four-year term, to become the tiny NATO member’s fifth president after it regained independence from the Soviet Union.

“The question of security is important because the situation in the region is so unpredictable,” Vejonis told The Associated Press after the final vote. “Russia continues a lot of activities on our borders. We need to strengthen our security in Latvia and the Baltic countries.”

Nominated by the Union of Greens and Farmers, a center-right party that is part of Latvia’s ruling coalition, Vejonis defeated Egils Levits, a judge of the European Court of Justice, in a runoff after two other candidates were eliminated in earlier rounds.

But he failed to get a majority in the runoff, forcing a final round of voting where he ran unopposed and got 55 votes.

A biologist by education, Vejonis served as environment minister before joining Latvia’s National Security Committee in 2011. He was appointed defense minister in the center-right government in January this year.

Vejonis’ experience on security matters was seen as a big plus in a country put on edge by Russia’s intervention in Ukraine. The Russian military has also ramped up its exercises in the Baltic Sea region, unnerving many in Latvia, which like Ukraine has a Russian minority.

“Knowing that security will be top of the agenda for the next two years, he’s qualified quite well,” said former defense minister Artis Pabriks, currently a Member of the European Parliament.

The president is the head of state and commander-in-chief of the armed forces in Latvia, which joined NATO alongside Baltic neighbors Estonia and Lithuania in 2004.

Vejonis is set to be sworn in as president on July 8. It wasn’t immediately clear who would take over his post as defense minister.

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