RIGA - Former Russian President Boris Yeltsin spoke optimistically about the future of Latvian-Russian relations after receiving Latvia's highest state award, the Tristar Order, on Aug. 22. President Vaira Vike-Freiberga pinned the medallion on Yeltsin during a formal ceremony in the President's Castle.
"I am extremely thankful for such a high award. Forgive me for not coming earlier to receive it. I did not come due to an error in diplomatic channels, but we resolved it with the Latvian president last year in Moscow, during the Victory Day celebrations," said Yeltsin, apologizing for not flying to Riga in 2002 when first invited to receive the medal.
The 75-year-old earned the Tristar Order for his recognition of Latvia's restored independence in 1991, his contribution to the withdrawal of Russian troops and for fostering democracy in Russia.
The former president explained that, due to tense relations between Latvia and Russia, his representatives discouraged him from visiting Latvia in 2002 to accept the award.
During their discussion on bilateral relations, both Yeltsin and Vike-Freiberga agreed that contacts between the two countries were insufficient in various spheres. "I will do everything I can as a pensioner" to improve relations between Latvia and Russia, Yeltsin pledged.
He added that, "after the restoration of Latvia's independence, both countries have already solved dozens of important questions, but more questions remain."
After presenting Yeltsin with the order, Vike-Freiberga delivered a speech on the historical events that occurred 15 years ago, reminding that they did not occur "without great effort."
The president underscored Yeltsin's role in restoring Latvia's independence. "The world saw a man who has understood the course of history, showed himself not only as a democrat but also as a brave politician," she said.
Yeltsin, meanwhile, reminded that he had been the first among Russia's leaders to openly support Latvia's independence.
"In 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev, the head of the Soviet Union, was very surprised about my actions and made a large mistake by ordering the Soviet military to storm strategic points in Latvia. I called him from my car and said, 'If you do not withdraw the army from Latvia, I will go there and offer them to shoot their president,'" Yeltsin stated.
By the time Yeltsin had arrived in Latvia, a few days after the August events, Gorbachev had already ordered the Russian troops to withdraw.
Yeltsin said the situation in Riga was similar to the coup in Russia, and "if reactionary forces had won at that time, both Latvia and Russia would have been back in the Soviet swamp."
Yeltsin and Vike-Freiberga also discussed the two countries' development over the past 15 years.
"Latvia is changing, and Russia is changing. Some 'rotten roots' of the Soviet times have remained there though, but we have to look toward the future and the next generation in a reasonable and pragmatic way to form good neighborly relationships," said Yeltsin.
Latvia's Tristar Order is awarded for services to the state and society, as well as to high-ranking foreign officials visiting Latvia.