In Russia's Shadow

An interview with Vaira Vike-Freiberga

Octavian Report: What was it like taking the helm of state in a newly independent country? What were the biggest challenges you faced?

Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga: As President of Latvia, one is the head of state and commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces. The President names the Prime Minister. The President has right of veto on laws. I returned 35 bills in the eight years of my presidency, which is quite a few. Most of the time, the parliament took very serious notice of the objections that I raised.

We had so many bills to pass in that period as we were preparing for NATO and the European Union that the Parliament was overworked. I would say that one of the major responsibilities of my office was overseeing the legislative process, considering that we have a unicameral system without an Upper House or Senate.

For the country as a whole, the challenges were the obvious difficulties and the social price of shifting from a centralized planned economy — which hadn’t been functioning and which took a long time to collapse — to a free market economy, which manifested itself in the early stages as so-called wild-West capitalism. The advice of foreign economists who told us that we should privatize big state companies with the greatest possible speed was bad advice for Russia, and certainly was bad advice for Latvia.

OR: What were the foreign policies that you helped deal with?

Vīķe-Freiberga: The first really important step was to keep reminding the Western world that we were not, and never had been, under international law, a Soviet republic. That our incorporation into the Soviet Union had been a forceful act of military occupation and annexation, much like that of Crimea by Russia today.

Throughout the decades of our foreign occupation, both the United States and the major European countries did not recognize the annexation of the three Baltic countries. When I had journalists coming and saying, "You, as a post-Soviet republic . . .", I kept telling them, "We are a republic that has recovered its independence after 50 years of foreign occupation.”

In the Western world, all the Russia-friendly movements — what is known as “the Left” in Europe — had been strong for a very long time. The Left is Marxist and traditionally has also been Russia-friendly. However, being theoretically a Marxist is one thing, in economic and social terms. Being a “Putin lover” is something else.

Russia was not happy about the renewed independence of the Baltic countries. This played out in distinctly unfriendly attitudes and outrageous remarks by Russian parliamentarians in the Duma. They would regularly say appalling things such as, "We should nuke the Baltic states out of existence.”

After Mr. Putin came to power, I met him in February of 2001 in Austria. We were having a meeting on neutral ground because he said the political climate was not ripe for an exchange of official visits. And I said, "Well, as far as we are concerned in Latvia, we have absolutely no claims against Russia. We're very happy to have recovered our freedom. We hope that Russia proceeds in developing as a democratic country. So why can’t we have normal and friendly relations?"

Putin said, in effect, "Because you haven't automatically given citizenship to everybody who had arrived in Latvia during the Soviet period." And I said, "But as a country that was occupied during that period, of course we couldn’t do that now that we are independent again. We have a naturalization process that people can go through, as in any country.”

That was our major quarrel. To all intents and purposes, it would have been continuing the occupation if we automatically had given citizenship to everybody who came here as part of the occupying power. The other thing that they wanted is that Russian should become an official language in Latvia, just as it had been in Soviet times. Well, our constitution — adopted in 1921 — was quite clear that in our multicultural society, Latvian should be the official language, because Latvia is the only place in the world where the survival of the Latvian language could be assured. That constitution was renewed when independence was regained and that article on language remains in place to this day.

OR: Do you think that Latvia, at the moment, is at risk from a gambit by Putin, particularly because of the high number of Russian speakers that you have? If so, do you think that NATO and/or the E.U. would come to Latvia's defense in this environment?

Vīķe-Freiberga: Europe does not have any clear mutual defense agreement as part of the Lisbon Treaty, but NATO certainly does. That's Article 5. At the time of the occupation of Crimea, there was a debate within NATO countries about the precise interpretation of Article 5. And I'm glad to say that even among those who sometimes have expressed concerns about the organization we had unanimous support for a literal interpretation of Article 5. Which means that an attack on any NATO member country is an attack on the alliance as a whole.

About the likelihood of Latvia being attacked because of its supposed special vulnerability: Theoretically, anything is possible, but realistically, I do not think it is likely. True, you could argue that Latvia is vulnerable because it has three harbors that don't freeze over in winter, and Russia lacks an overabundance of harbors on the Baltic Sea, but this would hardly be reason enough to risk attacking a NATO country.

As for the proportion of Russian speakers or ethnic Russians and related peoples like Byelorussians and Ukrainians among our population, we have almost exactly the same percentage as the Estonians do. Indeed, one might argue that Estonia could be a more likely target in a scenario where Mr. Putin would claim that he was only defending his “compatriots abroad.” If I were a Russian general asked to recommend to the President a strategic point to attack in the Baltic countries, I just might recommend Narva, right on the Russian border. That city holds the major concentration of the Russian speakers in Estonia, all conveniently located in an easily accessible place, while those in Latvia are scattered all over the country. A Russia concerned about its compatriots abroad could thus gain maximum effect with a minimum of effort. No — seriously — it really would be unwise to attack any NATO country on such thin arguments alone.