'Now is that window of opportunity'

  • 2006-11-22
  • Interview by Elizabeth Celms
Since becoming president in 1999, Vaira Vike-Freiberga has helped transform Latvia from a struggling post-Soviet state to a full-fledged member of NATO and the EU. Arguably her greatest accomplishment, however, was to earn Latvia a place on the global stage. A tireless promoter of all three Baltic states, Vike-Freiberga has used her linguistic skills, broad intellect, and indefatigable charm to solidify Latvia's position in the new Europe. On the way, she became one of the world's most influential women, according to the U.S. magazine Forbes. It has even been said that the Latvian president is one of the few leaders who can contact U.S. President George W. Bush directly. In the lead-up to the NATO summit, Vike-Freiberga, who will leave office next summer, shared some impressions of her presidency with The Baltic Times.

Although, constitutionally, the president has limited power, you have been extremely influential as head of state, and have shown that the president can serve as much more than just a 'figurehead' in Latvian society. How do you view the evolving role of the presidency in national and international matters?

Hopefully [the next president] will continue to use all the prestige, if you can call it that, which the position has acquired and the opportunities that the constitution offers the president to the fullest. But the day-to-day use of these opportunities depends, of course, on the personality of the person elected. Our constitution is very laconic on the policies required of the president. It says that the person should be at least 40-years-old and a Latvian citizen, and that's about it. The constitution doesn't really draw a profile of what this person should be like. What this means to me is that the choice should be made on the basis of the candidate's personality, and on the feelings of Parliament and the people.

You came into the presidency as a reputed academic, and you will leave as one of the most respected leaders in Europe. What were some of the events pivotal in your maturity as president?

I think that people have simplified ideas of what politicians look at simply because in a long-standing democracy traditions get established. In my situation, not only had I never participated in politics before, but I was also somebody who never had their own independent country and then got that country - regained that country. So you see my situation is rather different, as there was not a historical period of political development in [Latvia], and everybody entering politics was starting from scratch in one way or another.

Today, we have parliamentarians who have been sitting in Parliament for 16 years, which I think, by the way, is an awful long time for the same person to be there. But that's another story (smiles).
The concept that somebody who has not been busy in politics cannot be a political leader is very misleading. Take myself, for example. Some of my colleagues used to joke that any organization I joined I became the president of. So you can gain these kind of leadership qualities in other fields of life, not just politics. This is precisely what allowed me to simply take the helm of a country in the sense that our constitution allowed it.

I think that [my] ability to make courageous decisions without feeling intimidated is what ultimately earned me the respect of politicians both in Latvia and elsewhere. Also, the sense of intellectual responsibility and thoroughness that I developed as a scientist and a scholar, and the sense of fairness that I developed as a teacher in marking papers 's I always agonized over marking papers, trying to be as fair as I could possibly be 's well, I think that this training, in trying to be fair, comes in useful in politics.

Currently, all three Baltic presidents are expatriates from North America. What does this say about the Baltic people's faith in their president, putting their trust in somebody who was not here during the Soviet period but has returned to their homeland?

The acceptance depends on the individual, their behavior and their ability to integrate and show [society] that they're able to function and catch up with those 50 years, having not been here. And by the way, I wouldn't want to over emphasize [this observation], that three Baltic states depend entirely on imports from abroad, as some have put it. Because after all, these three currently in office are the only three who have come from abroad. [Former Estonian] President Lennart [Meri] had been in Siberia, poor man, and former [Latvian] President Guntis Ulmanis had been in Siberia too as a child. Former Lithuanian President [Algirdas] Brazauskas was a member of the Communist Party in his earlier life. We have had a variety of presidents being elected.

Do you feel you carry a different perception of Latvian society 's their struggles, history, experience 's having not lived through the Soviet era?

It was certainly different in the sense of having lived in a democratic system, which is not the same as dreaming about it or thinking about it, of course. But the cultural ties were maintained in the Latvian exile community. My parents and their generation instilled a sense of sacred duty toward the fatherland in their children. In fact, they almost made us feel guilty if we adopted too much of the local traditions in the sense that our country had been brutally taken over by a foreign power and alien ideology. It was our duty, being Latvian, to devote our lives to seeing Latvia's re-independence realized. It was truly a sense of mission, not just running away from war-torn Latvia. So you see, I could come back [to Latvia] and blend like a fish into water.

Do you believe Latvia has gotten the most it could out of EU membership? How has the nation drawn on its opportunities and utilized EU funds?

Well, we've been running like mad for two and a half years to do this, and we'll have to keep running for quite a while yet, that's very clear. It is not something that is dumped in your lap. It's not handed to you on a silver platter. One has to work for it.
Now is that window of opportunity where it's extremely important that EU money be invested wisely, because we know from previous waves of enlargement that mistakes in those earlier years are costly. There is no paint-by-numbers manual on how to access EU funds and the ideal way to dispose of them. One really has to use one's own judgment.
So far, as president, I am rather pleased by the way things are going. There is one ministry I've not been happy with recently; the Ministry of Education has not been absorbing all the funds it could get. You see, this is the constant battle. We have to keep following each ministry and make sure that they're really on the ball.

Looking back at your tenure, what, in your opinion, was Latvia's greatest struggle while you were president? What did you learn from this experience?

(Pauses) The very first challenge facing me was the question mark over being invited to the Helsinki summit to start negotiations with the European Union. That was a very touchy situation. We had a lot of things to accomplish in that period and it was very hard work. The other obstacle was the enlargement of NATO, which was not at all evident at the time. There was a fair amount of resistance to the Baltic countries being admitted because Russia said that they would not tolerate NATO expanding on their doorstep.
So one of the struggles was to convince all the member countries that it was their decision to make, not anybody else's, number one. Number two, that enlargement was the smart thing to do, and three, that enlargement should include the Baltic countries. When I did the lobbying for Latvia, I always lobbied for all three Baltic states.

You recently backed Prime Minister Aigars Kalvitis as the new head of government, and were quoted by the media as saying that this would be the "best parliament ever." Can you tell me more about your trust in Latvia's 13th government? Do you think they will last four years?

Well they better be, that's what I'm telling them. Parliament better be the best we've ever had, and the government better be the most stable we've ever had because they have the chance. But when people are given a chance they don't always use it. This is why they need reminding.

What do you plan to do after your term ends next summer?

(Smiles) Well, certainly I'll be retiring from Latvian politics. I was not in a political party before [the presidency] and I don't intend to join any parties after my tenure.
As for what I will do, I look forward to being a free woman. I look forward to being able to say anything that I please to whomever I please without having to worry about it being interpreted in a particular way. No, of course this is a dream that will not come true. I will never be a free woman again, I'm afraid.

It just dawned on me recently that, once you've been president, you're branded with it for life. And that means that I shall never again be able to speak as freely and as critically, I think, as I did when I was an academic because I don't want to say things that are, say, damaging to the reputation of my country or something like that. There's a sort of self-censure that will be imposed. But yes, I think that there are a number of things that I will be able to say and they will take the hindmost if somebody is not pleased because I won't have an official position.

Also, I have works in progress that were dropped rather suddenly when I took on the Latvian Institute, I already made the sacrifice then when I said, 'Well, I can do something for my country, which is more immediate than writing these books, which I can do in my old age.'
And if there's any opportunity for lecturing internationally, I will probably take it up because I like being in contact with people and addressing people. I have found that, in many parts of Europe, people find what I have to say inspirational. Well that to me, as a psychologist would say, is very reinforcing.

Will you stay in Latvia?

Well, I have kept my cottage in Quebec on the Rouge River, and I would like to go there for about a month every year. It's sort of the one tie I have with that past slice of my life. I would like to travel, but to travel in a freer way than I have during my presidency - to go out somewhere in a city that I haven't yet been acquainted with and simply wander down the streets, sit at a cafe and just watch the world go by.