The following appeared in the November 30, 2007 issue of The Diplomatic Pouch (an electronic news column produced by The Washington Diplomat)
"Symbol of the New Europe"
Former Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga, who recently completed two successful terms as the country’s first female president, was introduced as “a symbol of the New Europe” at the second annual Christopher J. Makins Lecture held at the Swedish Embassy last month.
That introduction came from former U.S. National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, who likened Vike-Freiberga’s own rise to power with that of Central and Eastern European nations overcoming first the totalitarian regime of Nazi Germany and later decades of Soviet occupation.
Because of that occupation, Vike-Freiberga’s parents fled Latvia when she was 7, boarding the last ship to escape the capital city of Riga before the Soviet clampdown. “It was a very hard choice that people had to make,” Vike-Freiberga recalled. “Leave everything behind and choose freedom and the unknown; remain within familiar surroundings [but] live under oppression and risk deportation to Siberia.”
Vike-Freiberga’s parents chose the former, living at first in a refugee camp in Germany, then Morocco, and finally settling in Canada, where she became a respected scholar—all the while maintaining close contact with the nation of her birth.
Then in 1999—only a year after returning to an independent Latvia—she was elected president, easily securing re-election in 2003 after an approval rating hovering around 80 percent. (She was succeeded as president by Valdis Zatlers in July 2007.)
Brzezinski also noted that in addition to her dramatic journey, Vike-Freiberga also represents the “new Europe” because she espouses the values of an integrated Europe with “a larger strategic vision.”
Indeed, under her watch, Latvia joined both the European Union and NATO, hosting the NATO Summit in 2006—a major coup for the small Baltic state.
Vike-Freiberga said that Latvia’s embrace of Western models is a natural extension of the country’s deep roots with the West, which stretch back to the Middle Ages. Despite her country’s strong desire for independence that “could not be extinguished” by Soviet occupation, Vike-Freiberga admitted that major reforms such as joining NATO and the EU were not easy.
“It was particularly difficult for the older generation for whom, again, the old system had provided a sort of security—a security in poverty, but also in equality, the familiarity of it that came from long years of living under it and not knowing anything else,” she explained.
Nevertheless, these changes, though painful, were necessary to help Latvia catch up with the rest of Europe after decades behind the Iron Curtain. That’s also why Vike-Freiberga urged NATO and the EU to continue their open-door policy with non-member nations hoping to one day join the bloc.
“We have seen from our own experience how important it is to have guidelines, to have interaction, to have debate, to have assistance, in order to catch up, to leapfrog decades of development in a few short years,” she said, adding that EU membership has also given small countries such as hers an equal footing with larger nations such as Germany and France.
On the NATO front, Latvia has embraced its membership, last year employing more than 10 percent of its active duty military to support U.N., NATO and coalition military operations in hotspots such as Afghanistan and Kosovo.
Vike-Freiberga recalled that when she began lobbying for NATO accession, she often heard the argument: “How dare you even dream of joining NATO when you are situated where you are, right on the border with the Russian Federation, and we know that the Russian Federation hates NATO? They think it’s obsolete…. It should not exist, as President [Vladimir] Putin has told me personally,” she recounted, using the opportunity to take a slight jab at Latvia’s powerful neighbor to the East.
“[W]hen you say you can’t become members because it will make Russia unhappy, what is it you’re really saying? You’re saying that there are nations, entire nations, entire people, populations and billions of people who have been put on this Earth for no other purpose than to make Russia happy? Do 135 million Russians need 1.3 million Latvians to be happy?”
That same argument now applies to other countries such as Ukraine and Georgia, whose allegiance to NATO and the EU has soured their relations with Russia. But Vike-Freiberga argued that decisions about trans-Atlantic defense structures and EU integration should be left to the people of those countries to choose for themselves, whatever the outcome.
And although she disagrees that NATO has become “obsolete” since the demise of the Cold War, she does believe it will have to evolve and adjust its purpose to face a world beset by terrorism, religious and civil strife and other divisions.
“It has to consider how far it will extend its security umbrella. It has to consider how close a collaboration and through what mechanisms it will continue to have with countries that have declared themselves neutral, like Sweden, Finland, Ireland, Austria,” she explained. “How will it collaborate with countries that have already engaged in common military action with NATO forces—countries very far away, like New Zealand, Australia, South Korea, and Japan? And how will it engage other countries in between, in what sort of manner, in what sort of way?
“My feeling is that whatever the concrete mechanisms chosen, engagement should be the word. Openness should be the byword. Readiness to accept and to encourage is the only way to ensure a safer future for us all.”
The lecture was sponsored by the Atlantic Council of the United States in honor of its former president, Christopher J. Makins, who died in January 2006.