In Russia's Shadow

An interview with Vaira Vike-Freiberga

I think, after all, that Russia understands the seriousness of the deterrents NATO has deployed in the last few years and which it intensified in 2018 and 2019. They understand the commitment of countries on the Eastern borders of the Baltic to spend two percent of their gross national product on defense, even though they are not amongst the richest in the European Union. Far from it.

All of this makes an attack unlikely. Of course, we can only hope and pray that common sense prevails on the other side and they take this deterrent with the seriousness it deserves.

OR: What is your view of Gorbachev?

Vīķe-Freiberga: I have met him personally on a variety of occasions, but that's of course after he was no longer in power. I have also spoken at length with the Latvian delegates to the Supreme Soviet who had audiences with Gorbachev at the end of the 1980's and told him Latvia was preparing to make a declaration of independence. He bawled them out and threw them out of his office. In 1990, these Supreme Soviet delegates went to see Gorbachev again and explained once more that a declaration was coming; he yelled and shouted at them and said this was insanity. He was completely against our independence. Many see the bloody events and shootings in Riga and the tanks driving over civilians in Vilnius in January of 1990 as being actually authorized by Gorbachev. So, no, he is not a hero in our eyes.

OR: What is your assessment of the rise of populist politics within E.U. states? And did you see the seeds of that during your time as President?

Vīķe-Freiberga: No, I did not see any equivalents of the populist or extreme right-wing movements that are now getting votes in a number of European countries. Frankly, during my presidency we had some punks and right-wing extremist youngsters, but we could count them on the fingers of two hands. These were not genuine, full-scale local movements.

What has now spread in Europe, however — and this is just my own assessment — likely stems from legitimate concerns of significant parts of the population about their financial and job security and their quality of life, as well as their loss of trust in the integrity and sincerity of the politicians in power. These concerns have been seized upon by manipulative politicians. One example of this is what has happened with the real, practical difficulties that have arisen in connection with the need to integrate the sudden influx of huge, unexpected numbers of refugees and asylum seekers, combined with the regular flow of economic immigrants. This provoked reactions of anxiety, uncertainty, and unease among many, but it was also used to reawaken blind prejudices like xenophobia and racism that, sadly, lie dormant in every human heart. Such tendencies would normally be countered by an upbringing that teaches empathy and a social climate where tolerance prevails, but also by concrete, practical measures aimed at lowering social tensions.

Take, as an example, the case of countries like Sweden, which until relatively recently used to be stable in its ethnic make-up. Now, every fifth inhabitant — 20 percent of Swedes — was born abroad. That is a huge percentage to absorb in a relatively short period of time. It created — and they admit this themselves — a whole series of practical problems: availability of housing, jobs, language training, educational opportunities, the stress of differing social values and customs.

The reaction of those who consider themselves democrats at heart would generally be a recognition of the problems, together with plans and projects for solving them. Unfortunately, there are other people who would just get mad and look for someone to blame. The sort of people who say nasty things on the Internet and spend all day attacking people would have found a convenient outlet.

That is why the second element in the surprising spread of xenophobia and extremism, I would say, is the availability of social media. There, opinions can be expressed anonymously and can kindle latent hatred and negative emotions. It's like pouring oil over a small fire until it flares up.

OR: Do you see, more broadly speaking, a crisis in the European Union?

Vīķe-Freiberga: Yes, I think it would be fair to say that there is a crisis. After all, this is the first time that a country wishes to leave the Union where until now countries have been standing in line in order to get into it. When I spent two years as vice-chair of a group of “wise men and women” set up by the European Council, we were given the task of reflecting on the future of the European Union until 2030. I have had many other opportunities to reflect on this quite seriously. And I would say that the European Union was born out of a crisis, it expanded under a crisis, and it's constantly been growing and developing, adapting and changing in response to crisis situations.

Right now, we do have a crisis and a number of serious problems that need hard work to be resolved. But my personal conviction is that the Union is strong enough to overcome them. Though the modern world is changing so fast, and because information technologies are so different from what they were even five years ago, we cannot simply extrapolate from the past and rest on our laurels. We have to keep working.

For the past six years I have been President of the World Leadership Alliance — Club of Madrid. And we, as democratically elected former Presidents and Prime Ministers, spend our free time doing what we can to speak out, wherever in the world we get a chance to be heard, about the advantages of democracy. We try to reach out to leaders as well as to general populations. We talk about the advantages of an open, shared, inclusive society. About the benefits that these bring to citizens.

The European Union was built after the catastrophic failures of the first half of the 20th Century in Europe — specifically its failures in democracy. Its democratic deficit, if you like. Its bloody world wars. Its conflicts over resources. The E.U. was built on an absolute commitment to democracy. As long as we keep that, I am confident that Europe can overcome this. Especially if we can convince young people to continue the same commitment.