RIGA - On July 7, Latvia's longest serving president, Vaira Vike-Freiberga, left office with an emotional goodbye speech to the people, and on the following day handed over the keys to Riga Castle to Valdis Zatlers, who became the nation's third president since independence in 1991.
"The time has come for me to say goodbye as Latvia's president, but at the same time, to say 'see you later' as Vaira Vike-Freiberga, as Vaira, as VVF, or whatever name each one of you has been used to calling me," the former president quipped in a televised address on the night of July 7.
In an emotional moment, she thanked the people of Latvia for their support throughout the years. "I want to express my deepest gratitude to each one of you. For all these years, I have felt you by my side... Your willingness to help this country... I felt your shoulder even when you were not beside me physically," she said.
Vike-Freiberga promised to continue to work for the good of the country after leaving office. "I will be at your service for the rest of my life, and I hope that our paths will cross. I hope to accomplish many good and interesting deeds along with you in the future," she said.
Ever optimistic, she pointed to Ireland as an example of a country that has quickly transformed itself from one of the poorest in the European Union to one of the richest, saying that Latvia should be able to overcome its hard times even faster than Ireland has.
At the same time, she appealed to the workers who have left for Ireland to come back to Latvia. "Latvia misses these people," Vike-Freiberga said. She added that Latvia needs "each one of its people" and expressed hope that upon their return they would be able to "help us all grow, prosper and develop together."
Zatlers was sworn into office on July 8 in the Saeima (parliament), after which he gave a short speech.
"I swear that all of my work will be dedicated to the welfare of the people of Latvia. I will do everything in my power to promote the prosperity of the Republic of Latvia and all who live here. I will hold sacred and will observe the Constitution of Latvia and the laws of the State. I will act justly towards all and will fulfill my duties conscientiously," he pledged.
On July 9, his first full day as president, Zatlers received letters of congratulation from leaders around the world, including Russian President Vladimir Putin and later European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso.
Zatlers, who was unknown before his candidacy was announced May 22, was elected by parliament on May 31, receiving 58 out of 100 votes.
He has generated a large amount of controversy for his lack of political experience and failure to declare all his income while he worked as a leading surgeon.
Corruption watchdogs and media quickly latched on to his acceptance of gratitude payments as a doctor. These so-called "envelope" payments for services are common occurrences in Latvia and other former Soviet republics, where the health care system is considered one of the worst in the world. Almost no medical workers bother to declare the income.
The payments scandal has sparked a wide debate on the matter, as the State Revenue Service and politicians scrambled to understand the convoluted tax laws. The SRS at first said that the payments were not tax liable, then retracted its statement and said that they were.
In the end, the SRS decided on July 4 to impose a fine of 250 lats (357 euros) on the new president, taking into consideration his cooperation with the investigation.
It is widely believed that Zatlers will have to break away from the ruling coalition 's which put him into power 's in order to be an effective president. He is already starting to show signs of doing so. In his opening address, he said that his responsibility is being independent of political party influence, and assured reporters that he will listen to his conscience and the voice of the people.
In what is perhaps an even more telling sign of his growing independence, after casting his vote in the July 7 referendum Zatlers told reporters that "it would give [me] great satisfaction if the nation not only criticized the government but also took part in events and expressed its political will."
Zatlers has placed unification of the country at the top of his agenda. He said that intolerance toward differences in opinion is "like an untreated tumor" in Latvian society. He has also promised to try to strengthen ties with the EU, NATO and the other Baltic states.