Latvian president says U.S. trip a success

  • 2001-05-03
  • Nick Coleman
RIGA - Returning to Riga from a week-long visit to Washington, an obviously tired President Vaira Vike-Freiberga said she was encouraged by the level of interest in the Baltic states and the subject of NATO expansion she had found in the new U.S. administration.

Speaking at Riga airport on May 1, the Latvian president said she was pleased to have made a strong impression from the start of President George W. Bush's term in office.

"We can be very pleased with the positive reaction to Latvia's intentions," she told reporters. "I think we exceeded all the records for the number of people visited by a foreign leader during Bush's presidency."

She said the visit was important because the United States will have a crucial influence on the decision to enlarge NATO to include the Baltic states. "Those I met in the administration are very interested in NATO expansion and expressed their support."

The administration had stressed that outside pressure, including pressure from Russia, would not influence NATO enlargement, she said. "There will be no spheres of influence, or geographical or historical considerations."

She denied that Latvia's preparations for NATO membership were lagging behind, despite criticisms made by a team of NATO assessors during a visit to Latvia in February. "All aspects of our development were evaluated very highly."

In addition to meeting Bush, Vike-Freiberga met an array of prominent politicians and officials, including Vice-President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell, recently defeated vice-presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman and democratic senator and former first lady Hillary Clinton. During her U.S. Senate campaign, Clinton put pressure on the Australian government to speed the extradition to Latvia of alleged Nazi war criminal Konrads Kalejs.

Vike-Freiberga said she disagreed with recent statements by Lithuania's President Valdas Adamkus and its Prime Minister, Rolandas Paksas, that "NATO entry for one Baltic state is a success for all."

"That might have been true at the time of the last round of NATO expansion," she said. "It might have been useful to test the water at that stage by letting one of us in, but the readiness of all three Baltic states is now comparable. We're working very hard and making steady progress in order to be ready at the next summit - all three of us together."

Vike-Freiberga expressed satisfaction at the success of Latvia's hockey team in beating the United States at the World Championships on the evening of her departure.

"Our ice hockey team has shown our very high standard of preparedness and our ability to defend ourselves," she said.