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President Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga on Latvia and Putin

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.

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.

OR: Do you believe that there is a broader crisis within democracy globally? What resistance have you encountered in your attempts to promote it?

Vīķe-Freiberga: I would say that the average citizen has no objection to democracy, if you explain to him or her that the whole point of it is to make sure that they are as much a part of society and in principle have the same rights as anybody else. The principles of inherent equal rights and respect for human dignity — these are principles that only sociopaths reject as such. Unfortunately, it is the practical application of these principles in real life that is truly a challenge, for there is a natural tendency in human beings to seek out privileges and to preserve them at every cost.

When you have reached a critical mass in a society of people who are committed to those principles, then you can have democracy and systems of governance where the rule of law prevails. This takes a collective will and effort based on values accepted by a significant majority. We see too many countries where the rule of law has never existed. Where a person’s life can be snuffed out at any moment and it’s considered normal. Democracy is in many ways a fragile flower that you have to tend carefully. But one of the roots of it is education.

I think in that sense Europe — though it considers itself extremely civilized — has not always acted civilized throughout its history by our current standards of civilization. On the other hand, Europe has been the birthplace of the ideas and ideals on which we have built democracy. Europe is the living proof that ideas and values can evolve and lead to radical improvements in society.

Periodically we hear people debate that there’s a gap of trust between populations and their elected representatives, especially in the European Parliament. What does it boil down to? People want to know: “Can I trust my elected representatives to really represent my interests?” But trust is a subjective thing and is often based on emotions rather than rational considerations. Most of all, people want to know how they can hold politicians accountable for what they promised before the elections and what they delivered afterwards. This takes two-way communication as well as two-way good will, and these are not always easy to achieve.