Central Europe Review The International OSI Policy Fellowships (IPF) program
Vol 2, No 27
10 July 2000
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Latvian President Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga Setting a Good Example
Interview with Latvian President Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga
Mel Huang

Though Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga became President of Latvia a year ago after inconclusive voting left her as a compromise candidate, she has made a strong impact in Latvian politics and society since then. In what can be referred to as a "baptism by fire," her first major act as President was to veto new provisions in a language law that had been overwhelmingly approved by the Saeima (Latvian parliament). At that time, it was an assertion of President Vīķe-Freiberga's independence , yet it turned out for the best for Latvia in terms of both domestic and international affairs.

Although during the elections some questioned how a person who has lived most of her life outside the country could be a good president, she has brought a tremendous amount of skill and assets to the presidency. Her knowledge of languages has opened many new doors for Latvia.

President Vīķe-Freiberga, once a prominent member of the international Francophone community, charmed French President Jacques Chirac and has brought the Baltics to the attention of Paris. Even the recent lacklustre visit of German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder to the Baltics was livened up by his meeting with Latvia's German-speaking President.

Central Europe Review: First of all, we want to congratulate you on celebrating the first anniversary of your election.

President Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga: Thank you. That is very kind.

CER: How would you assess this past year? What would you say were the biggest accomplishments, maybe even the disappointments of the year?

Vīķe-Freiberga: I think it has been a historical year in many ways. For Latvia, a very important historical landmark was the invitation in December at the Helsinki Summit to become officially a candidate state of the European Union. This now marks an irreversible...[step towards the] reintegration into Western Europe, if you like; or in many ways not Western Europe but Latvia taking up its place in the new Europe of this new century.

I think psychologically we started a new century and a new millennium, because you see a psychological moment of writing your date with a different starting number that will be the same for the next thousand years! This, I think, has raised consciousness in all parts of the world about the fact that we make history every day of our lives. I think it makes us more conscious of the passage of time, about the fact that we are also closing a century in many ways with a sense of relief, and of saying "good riddance" to the 20th century with its Holocaust and its wars - especially in Europe with its conflicts.

And we would like to start the new century with a peaceful Europe, one without dividing lines. One that will see the nations that were left behind the Iron Curtain catch up in their development, rejoin the community of other European nations and form a new and dynamic whole, which I think will be greater than the sum of its parts. That will be something quite possibly unprecedented yet in the history of mankind, a new type of union, I think. I'm very hopeful. I think there is a sense of renewal and of great potential and possibilities that this change of date has made us conscious of, and that coincides with the fact that events are actually happening.

I think for Latvia it has been, again, a landmark year in the sense that it was the first country to elect a woman president in this whole part of Europe, certainly one of the few woman presidents in the world. That, I take as a sign of democratic maturity of our country, its readiness to accept a woman head of state, the deep-rootedness of our understanding of equal rights and equal opportunities.

CER: Would you also cite anything that over this past year in office has perhaps been disappointing in the development of Latvia?

Vīķe-Freiberga: Well, let's say I would have preferred if we had been able to keep the same government that was formed immediately upon my taking office. I think stability in the executive branch of government, of course, is a help in carrying out policies in an effective manner. However, the positive side is that basically the same coalition remained in force. It added on a fourth party, which had already been in a previous government.

So, in spite of the change in government, the governing political forces remain the same, and this ensures a continuity of our policies. And that is extremely important.

There is certainly a continuity in our foreign policy aims. These have remained absolutely constant. They remain so at this date. What we do have periodically is a change of personalities, ministers change portfolios. But we do get cabinet shuffling in most democratic countries anyway, so it is not something to be terribly disappointed about; it is just a fact of life. I think in many ways it is a part of our growth in these democratic structures.

And we have another area in which you might say our glass is half full or half empty depending on how you look at it: our economic development.

We might say on one hand that we would like to see faster growth and a
(with the Russian crisis), what started out as a crisis developed into an opportunity
faster rise in the average standard of living. But if we look at the other side of the coin, we see that Latvia has recovered extremely rapidly from the Russian crisis. With Russia being a large neighbour and important trading partner, when things fell apart in terms of its capacity of payment amongst others, it obviously had a severe effect on our banking system and some of our manufacturers, notably in fish products processing, and so on.

But Latvia recovered, and here, again, what started out as a crisis finally developed into an opportunity. There was a reorientation of our markets toward European Union countries and in many ways this is a healthy sign, since the standards for entering the market there are actually higher. One has to be more competitive.

The fact that Latvia was able to survive the crisis and achieve competitiveness, I think, is a healthy sign. And from macroeconomic and other indicators that we have at the moment, we were already the first Baltic country at the end of last year to mark positive growth. Our two neighbouring countries are still in the minus phase. We expect some four per cent growth in this current year.

So here, again, one could always wish for faster progress, but being realistic and all things considered, I think we're not doing too badly.

CER: Returning to the political aspects: I have commonly written about the political games, the shuffling and unfortunate rhetoric associated with Latvian politics. You have been quite critical of this link, for example, between business interests, political interests and other aspects. Do you feel you are the referee, the supreme arbiter of Latvian politics, of parliamentary and government politics?

Vīķe-Freiberga: I can certainly be a referee at the legislative level. That is the level at which one can directly intervene. In the executive branch of government, in terms of concrete decisions that are taken by either the cabinet or by separate ministries, my leverage or my possibility of influence is more indirect. But in legislation, I do have direct influence.

I can return legislation if I consider it in need of revision. I have done so on four different occasions in the past year. I stand ready to do it anytime I feel the parliament has not taken sufficient account of whatever consideration there might be. By looking at these four laws that I did return, you may notice there are a variety of reasons why I did so.

So, in that respect the President has the possibility of being an arbiter in a very direct sense, in terms of the legislation the President signs or returns to parliament. By the way, I do have the possibility of taking legislative initiatives as well, in other words: I can propose laws. This, of course, is more difficult, because the resources the parliament puts at the disposal of the President's Chancellery are basically limited and barely suffice for the running of the President's Office.

But nonetheless, I think that on occasion - you might see this in the course of next year - I might come forward with some proposals of legislation as a way of introducing precisely this element of establishing equilibrium within various forces and creating some sort of recourse in the cases where there are direct conflicts between opposing interests.

CER: Going back to this link between business interest and politics, do you feel that it is one of the biggest problems facing Latvia's political development?

Vīķe-Freiberga: I think it is a problem in any country. Even in democratic countries, such as Germany and Italy, what we find is a very close link between business interests and politics, and this is what periodically explodes into your regular scandal. That sort of problem is a universal one.

In the case of Latvia, the problem I think is possibly made more intense by the size of the country. In a small country, the forces do not have as much of a chance of evening out. If you imagine a random Brownian movement of various economic interests pulling in various directions, there is some kind of statistical average that sort of works out among them. In a small country, the interests are usually more focused.

At the moment, the transit business has been one line of influence and interest, with another one being, at least until now, a group interested in food products and food processing. These are very specific conscribed interests, but people sell their assets and move into other fields. They are not written in cement, and they can change.

The important thing is to try and maintain the integrity of parliament. Here, again, the integrity of parliament is only as strong as the integrity of any one individual member of parliament. This has obviously been a serious problem in Russia and other countries of the former Communist system. In Latvia, I think we face the same problems in establishing a system of parliamentary independence and parliamentary integrity, where members of parliament represent both political and ideological interests. They represent economic forces; they represent certain [economic] sectors and certain sectors of society.

Another important thing is to ensure that they do so in the manner acceptable in traditional democracies. This is something that one has to be vigilant about in nearly every other country of the world. And in our case, we have to be particularly vigilant, because there is the psychological inheritance of the way business was done in Soviet times.

I think we are now training a new generation of people in both politics and business that have no attachments, but we are still, after ten years, at the tail end of this transition period. So that, for instance, the fight against corruption, is something I envisage will go on for the next few years. We will need to work very intensively.

And this at every level, not just of government and politics but certainly in the ministries and in various regulatory bodies, at the frontier, the border guards, you name it. At every level of society.

CER: Moving on to perhaps one of the most difficult problems in Latvian society: the integration of its linguistic and national minorities. There has been criticism and praise from different sides; everyone seems to have an opinion on Latvia's integration process. Almost nine years after the restoration of independence, do you see integration as running smoothly at the moment, with the ultimate goal of having a fully integrated civil society in Latvia?

Vīķe-Freiberga: I see two steps in the process. One is that I think we are still waiting for a definitive acknowledgement from Russia that this country was occupied by military force in 1940, that this was a breach of international law, that this was a breach of the peace treaty signed
we are still waiting for a definitive acknowledgement from Russia that this country was occupied by military force in 1940
between the Soviet Union and Latvia in the 1920s, that this was an illegal act and everything that followed was against international law. They have not recognised it to this date, and I think this is a serious problem.

To my understanding, it would be extremely helpful if Russia took this step as the legal inheritor of the system. Russia as a country did take it over, therefore, just like post-war Germany took over the reparations and obligations of Nazi Germany, as a matter of fact and of legal obligation and legal continuity, they are the heirs of the Soviet system.

They have not acknowledged the occupation; they have not acknowledged the harm that this occupation has done to the Latvian people. Nor have they acknowledged the fact that there was a deliberate policy of reducing the ethnic Latvian population, a policy of genocide, basically, of which the mass deportations are proof. And the deliberate policy of Russification, of which the creation of cities like Ogre and the mass importation of Russian workers and later their families is also a testimony.

So, there was a deliberate policy of destroying the ethnic sub-structure of this country. And to a large extent it was quite successful. To a threatening extent, Latvia, which had 80 per cent Latvian inhabitants in 1939, was reduced to less than 50 per cent in the late 1980s. It was a very alarming trend.

So basically, what we have in Latvia is that the Latvian population, its survival as an ethnic group, has been threatened. The status of the Latvian language, the status of the independent state of Latvia - which was destroyed by the Soviet occupation - is being threatened and so is the survival of the language, because it had disappeared from public and official domain.

After the recovery of independence, Latvia recovered its sovereignty, it recovered its Constitution, it recovered its democratic traditions. And over the protests of Russia, it has recovered the right of Latvian as the state language. For, at some point, there was the argument that because of this large influx of Russians, we should switch over to a bilingual country. This is completely out of the question: Latvia is the only place in the world where Latvian is spoken. The survival of this language is threatened.

And we cannot allow for, if you like, the enshrining of the occupation, by granting Russian the status of an official language. That is also totally out of the question, and Mr van der Stoel and all international experts have acknowledged this right. The European Commission has acknowledged this right. And I think Russia has to come around to its senses and acknowledge the fact that Latvian is the official language of this land and will remain so. As we join the European Union, this will still remain our official language.

This being so, the fate of individuals who happen to live on Latvian soil and who happen to be Russian-speaking, either of ethnic Russian or of any
our sovereignty is our right by international law; we have recovered it, and we will maintain our claim to it
other origin, I think they have a choice. They can accept the sovereignty of this land and they can accept the fact that this is going to be a country where Latvian is the official language and Latvian culture, as an inheritance from the past, will keep an important role and a dominant role in the future. If this is not acceptable to them, well, we do not have an Iron Curtain, we do not have the Berlin Wall. People are free to leave if they really find it totally unacceptable.

Our sovereignty is our right by international law. We have recovered it, and we will maintain our claim to it, as well as to our official language. We will not step back from that; this is completely out of the question. And there has been, I think, pressure for us to concede in that regard, and I would like to emphasise that this is totally out of the question. There will be no concessions in that regard.

However, in human terms, of individuals and families wishing to remain in Latvia and make their future here, there's absolutely no problem. The Latvian-speaking population is perfectly ready to integrate these people. They have lived with them in harmony for 50 years, albeit under military occupation. The strength of the fact remains that they have not only lived in harmony, but they have intermarried to the extent of some 20 per cent. They do not live in ghettos, but they live in mixed communities in most parts of Latvia, with some exceptions such as Daugavpils, where Latvians are definitely a minority.

And there is no reason for integration not to continue. I have had the privilege of speaking with a great many people who are ethnic Russians, who have told me and assured me that they were born here and grew up here and never for a moment have felt any problems in their relations with their Latvian neighbours and their friends. I have had personal assurances from many people who have come up to me on various occasions and said, "I would like you to know that I have been here all my life, I have never had a problem but do feel and have always felt that I should learn some Latvian so I can communicate with people. I think it is an elementary thing."

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Other people I have talked to said, "In my earlier life I was living in the Russian milieu and I did not see the need to learn Latvian. Now, I have decided I want to become a citizen. I took some lessons. I learned it; it is not really that hard. I am very happy, and now I have become a citizen."

This is the kind of process we want to encourage. This is one of my priorities for the next year for my activities, to pay particular attention to this process of integration.

By the way, the integration concept Latvia has adopted now in parliament goes beyond ethnic and linguistic integration. We would like to build a society, where women play as active a role in politics and business as do men. We would like to have a society where people in wheelchairs and other handicapped people have access, say, to public buildings and also schooling and education and so on. In other words, we would really like to work on programmes of integration of various aspects, really a totally integrated society, which in Soviet times had been sorely neglected.

CER: You mentioned when you became President that you were going to take up the challenge of picking up some Russian. How is that going?

Vīķe-Freiberga: It was very difficult, because as I started taking lessons, the burden of my new office was really so intense. In my first six months, we started out with extremely active diplomatic relationships, bilateral and multilateral relationships, because we were leading up to the Helsinki conference. So ever since I have had extremely intense contacts abroad. I think I made 15 visits abroad in 12 months in office, and this has taken up a tremendous amount of my time.

I have been quite active in a variety of fields here in Latvia. I have participated in a variety of social events, such as visiting the Association for the Blind at Christmas, where many people told me that this was the first time they had received a visit from the President. I have really gone out of my way to be President at various occasions to indicate the national importance of the activities of these various bodies.

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So I simply have not managed to keep up with my Russian lessons. There has, physically, not been the time. But I have started them again, with a teacher who is experienced. My former teacher was a very distinguished man and a literary person, who told me that I should have a teacher that has experience with the first, early levels of the language, because he was floating up in the nuances of literary expressions. And I am just not ready for that yet!

So I started this past month taking lessons with a wonderful lady who has a lot of experience in teaching both Latvian to Russians and Russian to Latvians. And we are starting with very simple things. My husband and I are both taking lessons together, and we are now going to make an effort to do it once a week, because I cannot manage to do it more often. So at least a modest effort to make progress.

CER: And that is a great example for everyone. Thank you.

Mel Huang, 20 June 2000

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