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© Copyright  Louis Gerber  All rights reserved.

Interview with the Latvian president Vike-Freiberga
Riga Castle, June 16, 2005
Article added on July 1 and updated on July 2, 2005

Since President Bush's visit to Latvia in the spring of 2005, this tiny Baltic republic of 65,000 square kilometers and 2.4 million inhabitants has become better known to the world. This is due in part to its energetic and popular president, Vaira Vike-Freiberga.

Born in Riga in 1937, she was forced to live in exile most of her life, like so many other members of the Latvian elite. After growing up in refugee camps in Germany, she went to a French school in the French protectorate of Marocco, and then studied in Canada, where she became a professor of psychology in 1965.

In 1960 she married Imants Freibergs, a computer science professor at the University of Quebec in Montreal. They have two children: their daughter Indra works in the Latvian Development Agency, while their son Karlis was been living in Latvia since 1989 and played a part in the revolution which led to independence in the 1990s.

Since 1998 Vaira Vike-Freiberga is an emeritus professor from the University of Montreal. The same year, she was appointed director of the newly-created Latvian Institute in Riga by the prime minister. In addition to her studies in psychology, Vike-Freiberga is a noted specialist in Latvian linguistic and poetry. 

On June 20, 2003 as an independent candidate, she was elected president of the Republic of Latvia and re-elected again by the 100-member parliament four years later with 88 votes in favor, and only 6 against her.

On June 16, 2005 president Vaira Vike-Freiberga took the time to respond to some of my questions in an exclusive interview in Riga Castle, the seat of the Latvian head of state. For the full transcript check the article Entretien avec la présidente Vike-Freiberga, since the interview was conducted in French.

In the first part of the interview, the president explained that the three official candidates nominated by their respective parties were eliminated in the first round of the election. Since they could not unite the necessary votes of other parties, these three parties badly needed of a new candidate and asked her to became their candidate just two days before the second round of voting. She had only a short time to think about it and agreed, since it seemed her to be "a magnificent occasion, the kind you cannot refuse." Her candidacy was very special in the sense that she did no campaigning and so had no expenses at all.

 Order Latvian sheet music.

The president explained that during the months preceding the first round of the presidential election, the media and the people expressed their dissatisfaction with the official candidates. The three parties probably chose her because, during this phase of debate, a group of intellectuals, artists and scientists created a lobby in her favor, published open letters to the media and to the members of parliament arguing that she, unlike the party candidates, could rally the people's confidence.

Her victory was due to no political or economic pressure group and, therefore, she is considered a completely independent president, something that Vaira Vike-Freiberga was noticeably proud of.

In response to a question about her involvement in politics prior to her presidency, the president responded that she was not only known for her works on the Latvian literature and folklore, but also for her writings and speeches on the Latvian identity, its goals, as well as on the values of an independent Latvia.

During her years in exile, she always took the time to speak to Latvian communities around the world about "the goal we all supported, the idea of a free Latvia, independent and democratic". She always made clear that in order to preserve the Latvian identity, it had to be central in efforts to regain the country's liberty. "This has always been a central theme of my presentations", she remarked with emphasis.

She returned to Latvia as soon as it was possible to speak freely. her intellectual presence in Latvia preceded her election by a decade: in 1988 she had her first chance to address a large public without control of the secret police. She spoke to a special congress in Lielvarde, not far from Riga. Among the guests were intellectuals, people interested in Latvian literature and early activists of an independent Latvia.

Shortly afterwards, she addressed a crowd at the National Theatre for the congress's closure, again without the permission of the secret police. The president did not mention it, but it is important to note that this was where the independence of Latvia was proclaimed in 1918. In other words, this was not just another speech an ordinary theatre. The theatre was full and, of course, she added, "I made a very patriotic speech in favor of the liberty of Latvia".

Asked about her very first trip back to Latvia, she told me that it took place as early as 1969. She was invited by the Academy of Sciences. But the conditions were much different from those she would find twenty years later. Her visit took place during the so-called Soviet "period of stagnation". She was tightly controlled by the secret police. Laughing, she mentioned that even during her meeting with the academy's secretary general, two Chekists (KGB agents) were present.

When, after great difficulties, some of her family members managed to meet her in Riga, they were "accompanied" by a Russian from Liepaja - a coastal city with a military naval base - to the capital. Vike-Freiberga told me that she could not even speak with her grandmother without the presence of this Russian, who afterwards reported on what he had seen and heard.

In 1969 the secret police was omnipresent. Their hotel room was bugged and she got nightly phone calls at 1 or 2 am. When she picked up the phone, nobody responded. Whenever she left the hotel, two or three people were visibly following her. "By this atmosphere", she explained, "the regime made clear that I was being very closely watched, as if to say: 'This is a highly-controlled system, so you should understand that it is useless to try to do anything against the system.'"

When I asked the president about her involvement in the "singing revolution" at the end of the 1980s, she told me that she had been to Riga in late September and early October 1988, when she first made a speech without surveillance. At the time, she and her husband, Imants Freibergs, had published a collection of 4500 Latvian songs of the sun, an important part of Latvian folklore. The book was of course published in Canada, she explained, but they got an invitation by the Union of writers to officially present it in Riga. At the time, poets and artistic directors were opinion leaders, the ones who, between the lines, could most freely express what people were thinking. On that occasion, not only the respected painters, intellectuals and scientists were present, but the first traces of what later became the Popular Front could be seen, she told me. At the book presentation, members of the Writers Union began collecting signatures in order to create the Popular Front.

Vike-Freiberga added that she and her husband were professors in Montreal at the time and, therefore, had to return to Canada in order to give their classes. But their son settled in Riga in the summer of 1989 in order to help the newly-created Popular Front. At first, he edited the English edition of its weekly publication, but quickly, together with colleagues, he founded the English newspaper The Baltic Observer (which merged with another paper from Tallinn and is known today as The Baltic Times).

I asked the president about the findings of the Commission of the Historians of Latvia. Had they changed the vision of Latvian history as well as her own perception? Volume 14, The Hidden and Forbidden History of Latvia under Nazi and Soviet Occupations 1940-1991, had just come out, the first volume of the commission to be published in English.

The president responded that the commission's work had brought additional knowledge, especially many details. For instance, she mentioned the fact that for years, it was thought that some 10,000 people were deported in the night of June 13 to June 14, 1941, whereas research by members of the commission shows that the figure was much higher: 15'424 people were deported that night. Historians have found a lot of additional information about the Holocaust, how many people had been killed, where and when. She added that the commission was also about to establish a list of the names of all Jews who perished in the Holocaust.

The president mentioned that when Latvia regained its independence, a lot of historic documents were illegally sent to Moscow. For instance, Latvians would have liked to study the archives of the secret police. But the Russians only left incomplete files about its agents, files which supposedly have been manipulated. Certain people have been added to the lists in order to be discredited. She explained that there are certain ways to find out who had really been an agent, but that it has become very difficult.

I mentioned to her that I read in volume 14 of the commission's book series that the historians had been able to study certain documents in Moscow. Vike-Freiberga explained that there was a brief period of access to documents. Unfortunately at the time, the Latvian government was in transition and Latvian historians lacked the funds to travel to Moscow. She added that they should have borrowed money in order to be able to study the documents, but that of course the historians could not know that the archives would be closed again. Therefore, very few took advantage of the window of opportunity under Russian President Boris Yeltsin.

For centuries, Latvians were under German, Swedish, Russian and later Soviet domination. This has created today's strong nationalism among Latvians which even led to some problems with the European Court of Justice. I pointed out to the president that 15 to 17% of the people living in Latvia do not have the Latvian nationality, even though most of them were borne here. Most of them are Russians who moved here after the Second World War, during the Soviet occupation and colonisation.

Vike-Freiberga responded that Latvia's nationality laws are not very different from the ones in Germany, where Turkish immigrants - sometimes even third-generation residents - do not automatically receive the German nationality. She is right, but I had no time to point out that Germany applies ius sanguinis instead of ius solis, contributing to its serious immigration and minority integration problem; therefore, can rarely be cited as an example to follow.

However, the president came up with some substantial arguments in favor of her position. She pointed out to the fact that, at the moment Latvia regained its independence after decades of Soviet military occupation and that it took Latvians five years more to get the Red Army to leave. In that situation, the president explained, giving the occupiers automatic citizenship would have meant sanctifying the occupation and accepting its legitimacy.

 Order Latvian sheet music.

The president told me that, when Latvia regained its independence, it went back to its constitution of 1918 and its rights on the international scene, which it had never lost. Therefore, it automatically renewed the citizenship of all legitimate descendants of its citizens of 1939. The others had to go through a  process of naturalization. A process, she added, which has been refined during the years, and made much more flexible. According to the president, today's conditions of naturalization are more open then those in Russia and Germany and rarely differ from the conditions in other countries. She pointed out to the fact that Latvia has signed all necessary international treaties, its parliament has accepted the Acquis Communautaire of the European Union and harmonized its legislation with the EU at the moment it signed the treaty of accession to the EU. There are no more legal problems between Latvia and the EU.

The president explained that many Russians considered the land to be a part of the Soviet Union and were surprised to discover that they had lived in a country called Latvia, among people called Latvians who spoke their own language, something they had never been interested in before. "And now they were astonished to find themselves confronted with people who claimed to regain their rights." 

I could follow her in most of this. But the fact is that Latvia has a problem with a large part of its Russian population. 15 to 17% of the people without the Latvian passport may seem like a controllable situation, but one has to consider that some 50% of the population of Riga is Russian - and roughly one-third of the Latvian population lives in the capital.

The same day as the interview with the Latvian president, I also met the leader of the oppositional National Harmony Party, Janis Jurkans, who served as independent Latvia's first minister of foreign affairs from 1990 to 1992. He had to leave the government over a dispute regarding immigration laws. He discredited himself in the last election by associating himself with the wrong people, to the point that the tourist magazine Riga in Your Pocket called him an "outspoken communist" in a political commentary, which is rarely correct. His wife is a former American banker who became a Latvian banker.

Janis Jurkans considers himself a social democrat, but acknowledges that "harmony" is a product hard to sell nowadays, especially in the Baltic Republics. One may add that the case of Germany shows that social democracy does not work, but that is another story.

However, Janis Jurkans made two good points: First, he stressed that there are tensions between Latvians and Russians, and that people who have no political rights and who think they may have to leave the country in the next few years are not very reliable taxpayers - this may sound familiar to Americans who fought for independence from Britain with the slogan: No taxation without representation. Latvia has a tax collecting problem, Mister Jurkans insisted. A statement heavily contested by several other sources; not the fact that there was tax evasion, as in most countries, but that it concerned mainly Russians.

According to Janis Jurkans, many Russians also fought and voted for Latvia's independence, but felt cheated afterwards. They consider the procedures of nationalization to be humiliating. He has no idealistic vision of President Putin, but thinks that "if you want to have a friend, close one eye", a recipe I could not follow at all regarding Putin.

Second, Mister Jurkans mentioned that the state pension for the elderly is only 60 Lats per month, whereas the minimum monthly salary is considered to be 100 Lats, roughly 150 Euros. "These men and women are our parents after all, and if people call me a social democrat because of that, that's fine with me", he said.

That brings us back to my interview with president Vike-Freiberga. She stressed that an essential priority for her presidency, which ends in 2007 - the constitution only allows eight consecutive years in office - is raising the standard of living. Last year GDP grew by 8.5%, the highest rate in the entire EU, and 7.5% was the average growth rate in the years before. However, she admitted that the country is still very poor; in fact, GDP per capita was about $4700 in 2004. In this situation, the president stressed, it is essential for Latvia to continue its path of growth, notably by maximizing the European funds made available to her country. For Latvia, she insisted, is was crucial that the EU manages to come to an agreement regarding the financial framework from 2007 to 2013. Since the funds made available depend on GDP, it would be unfair towards Latvia to give the country funds based on outdated GDP numbers. Latvia and President Vike-Freiberga count on EU funds to get out of an economic situation characterized by great regional disparities and sectors of the population without work or with very modest financial means.

President Vaira Vike-Freiberga. Photo © Chancery of the President of Latvia.

The official photograph of president Vaira Vike-Freiberga. 
Photo © Chancery of the President of Latvia.

Riga Castle. Photo © Chancery of the President of Latvia.

The Hunting Saloon, Riga Castle. Photo © Chancery of the President of Latvia.

Literature, further reading on Latvia

In English: The Hidden and Forbidden History of Latvia under Nazi and Soviet Occupations 1940-1991. Institute of the History of Latvia, University of Latvia, 2005, 383 p. ISBN: 9984601927.

Deutsch Politik Geschichte Kunst Film Musik Lebensart Reisen
English Politics History Art Film Music Lifestyle Travel
Français Politique Histoire Arts Film Musique Artdevivre Voyages

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© Copyright  Louis Gerber  All rights reserved.