President fights back on BBC

  • 2000-11-09
  • Ilze Arklina
RIGA - Nov. 6 was a busy Monday for residents of Riga as they tried to find spare time and a TV set to watch Latvia's President Vaira Vike-Freiberga on the BBC show "HARDtalk."

The interview, conducted by Tim Sebastian, was the president's "most difficult task" during her week-long visit to Great Britain last week, she said. The interviewing style was very aggressive, so it "required great self-control," Vike-Freiberga said after the broadcast.

Sebastian attacked Latvia mainly on two issues - alleged ignorance to persecution of Nazi war criminals and the status of Russians after the country's independence.

Vike-Freiberga said Latvia is willing to put war criminals on trial as soon as there is evidence against them.

"Our prosecutors simply hadn't the opportunity to find all the evidence that has been gathered by a full-time investigative team receiving considerable resources, such as [Simon Wiesenthal Center Jerusalem Director] Mr. [Ephraim] Zuroff's team, across the world. When this evidence was received by our prosecutors, they immediately set to work," Vike-Freiberga said denying allegations that Latvia is yielding to pressure from the U.S. Justice Department to sentence alleged war criminal Konrads Kalejs, an 87-year-old Australian citizen of Latvian descent, who has been charged by Latvian prosecutors with crimes against humanity, genocide and war crimes. "There is absolutely nothing like resistance to trying anybody who has committed a crime," she said.

Sebastian quoted Zuroff as saying that Latvia has not prosecuted anyone for the murder of Jews, in contrast to the energy they devote to bringing Soviet war criminals to trial. "We are not picking on them [Soviet war criminals], we are pursuing people according to the evidence that comes to light," Vike-Freiberga stressed.

She said that many who committed crimes against Jews were tried, executed or sent to Siberia immediately after the war.

"But 41 war criminals have been pardoned since Latvia achieved independence," Sebastian went on.

"Forty-one individuals have been pardoned [wrongly] among the many thousands that had been accused of a variety of crimes under the communist system which made out blanket accusations against all sorts of people, like for having two cows rather than one," Vike-Freiberga responded.

"We are not talking about cows, we are talking about the murder of 75,000 Jews under the two Latvian SS divisions, so there was a huge degree of complicity with the Nazis," Sebastian replied.

"When an occupying army marches into a country there is always collaboration, and until the extent that there is evidence we stand fully ready to investigate it," Vike-Freiberga said.

However, when Sebastian quoted a Holocaust historian as saying that, per capita, Latvians were represented as heavily as any nation in the destruction of the Jews, the Latvian president got angry.

"I think he should review the statistics. I do think that the Germans, rather, were the ones that started the process. They came into Latvia, they set up their camps, they sent in people from other countries," she stressed.

In regard to Moscow's assaults on Latvia's policies, Vike-Freiberga stressed that the "Kremlin is trying to create a problem where there isn't one in the hope that it can still recover the empire that collapsed. There is a certain nostalgia and resentment for the fact that Latvia did break away from the empire," she said.

Asked to prove her earlier statements on Russia as questionable democracy, the president said: "Are you willing to bet your bottom pound that you can predict with certainty what Russia is going to do tomorrow or the day after? I don't think Russians are ready to say what they are going to do tomorrow or the day after. I think there is a certain instability in the country.

"I would like to see a Russia that puts all its efforts into setting its house in order, strengthening its democracy, increasing the freedom of its media, improving its relationship with various international bodies. They have a lot of things that should keep them busy for awhile and we are looking forward very much to the day when they grow in strength and in democracy as much as we intend to grow in our democratic institutions in the best wish of civil society. I have great confidence in the Russian people, they did shake off the communist system, so I look forward to their strength, to their determination and to their will," the president said.

"Russians in Latvia have been complaining that they have to learn Latvian to a level which is difficult for them to achieve in order to get top jobs. Is this a discrimination?," Sebastian asked.

"The Latvian language lost its place in society after 50 years of Russification. The law just reinstates the rights of the Latvian language as the state language. It doesn't go much further than that. It is analogous to the law that was passed in Quebec, Canada, in order to [restore] the rights of the French language, to restore the use of French in the public sphere. It's the same in Latvia," the president explained.

However, Vike-Freiberga called "silly" Sebastian's statement that perhaps the language law is being used as an instrument of revenge on Russians for the occupation of Latvia. "How you can say that for your lost life, for your lost future, for the people that have been killed and died of hunger and starvation, that asking them to learn the Latvian language is going to be revenge? This is silly."

The president said she is surprised how little resentment Latvian society has toward its former occupiers. "There is 20 percent of inter-marriage between Latvians and Russians. The percentage of Russians not knowing the language has shrunk in the last five years to only 9 percent. Seventy five percent of Russian parents are sending their children to Latvian schools. They are going to grow up bilingual and able to communicate with their fellow citizens," she stressed.

Asked if she felt bitterness toward Russians after having to flee the country when the Soviets invaded, Vike-Freiberga said: "Bitterness is a luxury that a healthy human being can't afford. And as much I grow my garden and I cultivate my [potted] plants on the window sill, I feel that one has to cultivate tolerance, kindness, to look to the future rather than to the past."

"The president was perfect in answering questions which were mainly based on negative things about Latvia," said Ojars Kalnins, director of Latvia's Institute, an organization responsible for the country's image abroad. The interviewer tried to squeeze out something controversial, but he didn't succeed, Kalnins added.