Vaira Vike-Freiberga

Just a week before Nordicum’s interview with the President of Latvia, the nation had celebrated the 85th year of the Republic of Latvia. Of these years more than half have been shadowed by Soviet rule, but today Latvia is now strongly tied to western institutions. In May Latvia will officially become a member of the EU. Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga perceives the process of integration as a natural course for the small nation of 2.4 million people. “Latvia has always been a middleman between the East and the West.”

Vaira Vike-Freiberga was born in the Latvian capital of Riga on the 1st of December, 1937, but had to leave the country with her parents at the age of six. The family left Riga on the 10th of October in 1944. Just three days later the red army marched into the Latvian capital.

Right after the war Vike-Freiberga grew up in refugee camps in Germany. She says these years were difficult for Latvians. “After the Second World War many Latvians hoped that the West would help Latvia regain its independence, or at least significantly reduce Soviet presence in the Baltic States To our disappointment these hopes were unrealistic. International law was totally ignored, and a period of cold war began,” Vaira Vike-Freiberga explains.

Within a couple of years after World War II the refugee camps of Germany were reduced to a minimum, and Latvians as well as people of other nationalities had to find new places to go. Vike-Freiberga’s family went to Morocco, a French protectorate at that time. Vike-Freiberga’s father worked there as an engineer for the construction work of a hydroelectric plant. In Morocco Vaira learned some French – she says that the first sentence she learned was “Pouvez-vous m’emprunter un livre”, Could you lend me a book?

The family then moved to Canada, to English-speaking Toronto. However, Vaira Vike-Freiberga was more eager to develop her command of French than that of English. Even today she is a Francophile. In Toronto she worked and studied at the same time.

“Latvians appreciate knowledge and they are hard-working people, so there was nothing unusual in getting involved in both. However, from time to time, it was quite difficult to get the money for the rather expensive studies.”

Vike-Freiberga studied clinical psychology, although she had first hoped to become a physician. The family then moved to Montreal, where she made most of her career as a clinical psychologist. Starting from 1965 she was a professor at the University of Montreal.

Visits to the Soviet Union were shocking

In October 2003 Vike-Freiberga spoke of her first visit to post war Latvia, on the pages of the Estonian Postimees newspaper. The visit took place in 1969 and she said she was shocked by how much Riga had changed under the Soviet rule. She managed to meet her grandmother who lived near the town of Liepaja. She was not allowed to travel there, but her grandmother came to Riga. Four years later she visited Latvia again, but this time she was not able to meet her grandmother, who died soon afterwards. This resulted in a further bitterness towards the Soviet system.

However, Vike-Freiberga denies being anti-Russian. “There are Russian families that have lived in Riga for dozens of years, some for even longer. It is just that during the Soviet rule Latvia was systemically Sovietised.”

“We treat our minorities with respect, as we did during the first period of independence between the First and Second World Wars. We no longer hear criticism from the West on issues of human rights or education. Russian criticism is often linked to the internal policy of the Federation,” Vike-Freiberga believes.

Vike-Freiberga’s view of Latvia is not only through rose-tinted glasses. Corruption is still a problem in Latvia, and Vike-Freiberga does nothing to deny this. “Much of the burden comes from the oppressive Soviet system and perhaps because of people having unrealistic expectations, with a willingness to misuse one’s position. Still, the situation in Latvia is far better than it is in Russia. I believe Russians need serious political and historical re-evaluation, a kind of in-depth analysis – this is the precondition for them to understand their life, their own chances in the modern world. By analyzing their past Russians would be stronger in spirit.”

Vaira Vike-Freiberga believes, however, that Russia will gradually slip into the EU, not necessarily as a full member, an event not particularly evident in the years to come, but through varied forms of cooperation

Warm relations with Estonia

Latvia was the last of the Baltic States to organise a referendum on joining the EU. Almost seventy per cent of the population was in favour of joining the European Union. The country was backed by the Lithuanian President Rolandas Paksas and Estonian President Arnold Rüütel. “I believe that, politically, the Baltic States have backed one another quite powerfully, as our political aspirations are mainly similar Economically, however, we are competitors, to a certain extent, and our commercial interests may sometimes vary.”

At the grass-root level Latvia’s and Estonia’s relations are not always as good as one might expect. Estonians tend to be a little arrogant towards their southern neighbour, and Latvians, from time to time, envy the economic success of Estonia. The countries have also had minor disputes on agricultural matters and fishing rights in the Baltic Sea. Vike-Freiberga has, however, taken the Estonian challenge seriously. She emphasises cooperation and has clearly invested in establishing even closer ties with the northern neighbour. In return the Estonian press has been rather polite in its treatment of Vike-Freiberga, as demonstrated by the earlier mentioned Postimees article from October 2003.

Popularity rates quite high

Vaira Vike-Freiberga is a very popular politician in Latvia. Popularity rates have exceeded eighty per cent – a high figure for a post-Soviet country, where people are generally more suspicious about politicians than in the West, and for good reason. However, the ratings of Vike-Freiberga and other top officials dropped due to their strong support of the American war in Iraq, but they recovered relatively soon.

Another very popular politician on her home ground is the Finnish President Tarja Halonen, who visited Latvia just before the EU accession referendum was held in the autumn of 2003. “The backing from an experienced politician like Halonen was of value to our aspiration to join the EU. She could describe the Finnish experiences of the European Union to the general public in a down-to-earth, yet varied manner She held a lecture in the town of Sigulda, just over fifty kilometres from Riga.”

“Our own path to the EU began back in 1999, when at a conference in Helsinki we received an invitation to begin negotiations. We are now taking the final steps and will join the EU in May. The majority of labour is behind us, but we still have to work on border issues and customs and things like that.”

In Vike-Freiberga’s opinion Latvia should also have a more varied economic base. In addition to logistics and transit activities, branches such as molecular biology, genetics, laser physics and ICT should be developed, and some promising enterprises actually already exist in these fields of expertise. “A clear disadvantage is that Latvia uses only half a per cent of its GDP for research and development. In Finland and Sweden the corresponding figure is much higher.”

Vike-Freiberga also says that Latvia’s tourism industry will be developed. “I have said that Latvia is one of the best-kept secrets in Europe, when it comes to tourism. But this is changing. Last August, the Tall Ship’s Race in Riga attracted thousands of people. Riga’s 800-year celebration a couple of years ago was a successful series of events. An increasing number of conferences and congresses are arranged in Riga. For example, the EBRD held a large congress in Riga The rich art nouveau architecture of Riga comes as a surprise to many, but in fact Riga was a wealthy city at the beginning of 20th century.”

The Heart of Latvia

What are the pros and cons of being the President of the Latvian Republic? Vike-Freiberga says she is happy to lead a country currently undergoing a dynamic phase. “This makes my job very interesting. Mentally our most important asset is our newly-gained independence and our belonging to a European family of nations. I would say that the heart and most important symbol of Latvia is the Statue of Liberty holding three stars.”

The stars symbolise the Latvian regions of Kurzeme, Latgale and Vidzeme. The Statue of Liberty – Brivibas piemineklis in Latvian – also depicts Latvian values Values such as work, family and spirituality, carved in stone in an almost pathetic style Nonetheless, the statue, also known as “Milda”, is balanced in style. It was erected in 1935, when the officially independent Latvia was merely a 17-year-old.
“I believe that Latvia has a great deal to offer to Europe in a cultural respect Why not even to countries like Canada, my former home For example, the dance and song festivals of the Baltic States are quite unique. Many people go to these feasts, actively participating and performing. But I also enjoy other cultures, when travelling as a president.”

As cons, Vike-Freiberga says she has too little time for writing, which she did quite a bit of as a professor and researcher of Latvian folk culture. “I have promised, however, to write a profound article on Latvian mythology for the International Encyclopedia of Religions, published by McMillan.”

Vaira Vike-Freiberga went to school in French Morocco, attended university in Canada (B.A. and M.A., Univ. of Toronto, Ph.D., McGill Univ.). She retired as professor emeritus from Universite de Montreal in 1998 after 33 years as professor of psychology. On the 10th of May 2000 she received an honorary degree from Victoria University in the University of Toronto, in September 2000 an honorary degree from the University of Latvia, and in April 2002 an honorary degree from the Kaunas Vytautas Magnus University. In June 2002 she received an honorary degree from the McGill University of Montreal. She was appointed director of the newly established Latvian Institute in Riga by the Prime Minister of Latvia in the autumn of 1998. Vike-Freiberga was elected President of the Republic of Latvia on the 17th of June, 1999 She assumed a four year term as head of state on the 8th of July, 1999. She was re-elected as President for another four years with 88 votes for and 6 against on the 20th of June, 2003.

Vike-Freiberga did was not involved in politics before becoming President of Latvia, but she had acquired extensive administrative experience as past president of the Canadian Psychological Association, the Social Science Federation of Canada and the Association for the Advancement of Baltic Studies (USA). She has also served as Vice-Chairman of the Science Council of Canada and chaired the Human Factors Panel of the NATO Science programme as its Canadian representative. She is currently the President of the Academie des lettres et des sciences humaines of the Royal Society of Canada (Canada’s National Academy).

Klaus Susiluoto