Vaira Vike-Freiberga, the first female president of Latvia, has left a lasting mark on her country and on Europe as a whole. Among the many notable accomplishments of her time in office from 1999 to 2007 are Latvia’s induction into the EU and NATO. Although she proved to be a charismatic and respected president, she stepped into the role with no prior political experience. Vike-Freiberga and her family left Soviet-occupied Latvia as refugees when she was a child. She returned to Latvia in 1998 and was elected president of the Baltic state the following year. Vike-Freiberga has been awarded numerous accolades including the 2005 Hannah-Arendt Prize for political thought, the 2010 Konrad Adenauer Prize for her contribution to the political construction of a united Europe, and the 2013 Knight of Freedom award of the Casimir Pulaski Foundation. World Policy Journal editor emeritus David A. Andelman spoke with the former Latvian president about her time in office and the future of America’s foreign engagement under the Trump administration.
DAVID ANDELMAN: As president, you basically got Latvia into the European Union and NATO. Before we get to the American political situation, could you reflect on Latvia’s current position? Do you see NATO, for instance, as primarily a defense or do you think you can participate actively in this?
VAIRA VIKE-FREIBERGA: They should look back to the record of our participation. I was elected president in July 1999, and one of my first visits was to Sarajevo—an international conference that President Bill Clinton had called. Bosnia was still very unstable, but the then-president of Estonia, Lennart Meri, and I were determined to visit our troops stationed there. They were serving with a Danish NATO regiment in the interior, but we were told that we couldn’t go there because of security considerations. Both of us insisted and finally we were given an armed convoy to accompany us. On the way, we were stopped three times by shady-looking groups, but we had a convoy of armed vehicles around us, and we did get to the place where both Latvian and Estonian troops were stationed together under Danish command. I remember asking the Danish commander what he thought of this collaboration and the first thing that he emphasized was that the Danes had improved their English during this time, just like the Latvians and Estonians had. The collaboration was thus mutually beneficial. Interoperability is, of course, one of the basic tenets of NATO and it includes the ability to communicate. NATO is all about communication and common action. Soldiers from different countries being able to understand each other and to understand the commands they receive can only come from practice and from training. So way back in 1999—that’s five years before we were actually officially admitted into NATO—we already had troops serving together with NATO troops from different countries. The preparation, coordination, and training, the step-by-step implementation of our Membership Action Plan, included our troops being sent all over the place. As president, I had the sad duty to participate in several military funerals for fallen soldiers. So it’s not as if we were sitting there looking pretty and asking to be protected.
DA: That’s a very good point and there’s a lot of discussion now about whether NATO has reached its limits. Should it be enlarged further?
VVF: NATO’s policy is a pragmatic open door policy based on two fundamental and well-balanced principles. The first is that you don’t rigidly close the doors or say, “this closes at 6:00 and for anybody who didn’t get in by 6:00 it’s too bad, goodbye.” And the other elementary principle is that any country that is not a member of NATO does not have a say in what NATO does. NATO must have a policy of developing its own concepts, goals, methods, and strategies. It is up to member nations—and nobody else—to decide whether they feel ready to enlarge or not. While the open door policy remains in force, the political will of current member nations of the alliance always has the last word. I remember how I was always reminded by American congressmen how important their final vote on the question of enlargement would be. In consequence, I did my best to contact as many of them as I could during my presidency and to present as many arguments about the 2004 enlargement as I could. For my part, I labored mightily, not just for my own country, but for the essential importance of NATO for all of us candidates. It is satisfying to see that all our collective efforts were not in vain.
DA: Right, but Article V is the key to the whole situation right now. If one is attacked, everyone is attacked. Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia are the only three former Soviet republics that are members of NATO and any future expansion would have to come from other former Soviet republics. Putin has expressed his desire to reassemble the old Soviet Union as much as possible, and would feel directly challenged if Ukraine or Georgia were admitted. This is something that The United States is very concerned about. How do we want to confront Putin?
VVF: Your rhetoric depends on adopting the premises that the Russians have put forth. I would question it and I would start form a different point of view. First of all, geopolitically, there are potential future NATO members who had nothing to do with the Soviet Union. Most importantly, the Baltic States are not former Soviet republics; we are former free republics who have recovered, not just gained, independence. So that term should be stricken from your vocabulary as far as I’m concerned. We are formerly free republics that suffered illegitimate military occupation in 1940, just like Crimea did recently. We are not an inherent part of the Soviet Union, even though Latvians did participate in the 1917 Revolution. Those Latvian Red riflemen who protected Lenin and remained in the Soviet Union after it was founded (because they earnestly believed in the Bolshevik revolution) were all shot in the back of the head in 1937-38 for their pains, efforts, and loyalty, simply because they were Latvian. Between the two World Wars, Latvia and its two Baltic neighbors were independent republics, founded on democratic constitutions. What President Putin wants for his country is his business. We have our own agenda and we have our own wishes and desires.
As I used to tell my friend Jacques Chirac, who used to worry about us being too assertive and “pulling the whiskers of the bear,” we have no intention of doing anything of the sort. Our small countries do not have armed forces that might pose a danger to the vast Russian Federation with its massive arsenal of nuclear as well as conventional weapons. Our armies are simply an expression of the determination of our people to fight for our freedom and independence, as well as participating in collective NATO security. We tried being a neutral country before World War II and all it gave us was the Secret protocol of the partnership agreement between Hitler and Stalin, and military occupation by both these totalitarian dictators’ armies.
DA: As president, did you have an opportunity to meet Putin directly and talk with him?
VVF: Yes, I got an invitation soon after he was elected to meet him in private, without any prior publicity and going through diplomatic channels. We met in Austria, which is neutral territory. Over 100 security personnel accompanied him on his visit. I brought with me an official translator, my head of chancery, and a high representative of our Foreign ministry, so that I could not be accused of committing treason against my country or plotting something that the government was not aware of. So it was done privately but also properly. The idea was that we would get acquainted and there was great hope that if one showed good will and friendliness, it would be possible to improve the tone of our relationship. At the time Russia was bad-mouthing us as unfit for NATO, unfit for the European Union—unfit to be alive, when you come right down to it.
DA: So you had already applied for membership in both bodies?
VVF: 1995 was when we applied to the European Union and we had already become a candidate for NATO. It was supposed to be a friendly meeting and I came armed with a readiness to discuss issues like the status of non-citizens if he had concrete complaints about the way they were treated. He gave me a long, weepy story about how hard it is for Russians in Latvia. They went to bed in one country, where Russians were dominant, and all of a sudden they woke up in a different country, where they were now a minority. He told how humiliating and inconvenient it was for them to need passports and visas when they traveled between Latvia and Russia. I noted that all those Russians with passports and visas that I had encountered all over the world, with designer shopping bags in hand, did not look a bit inconvenienced or humiliated to me. As for the Latvians, far too many of them had obtained “free” rides and deprived of their passports during the mass deportations to Siberia between 1940 and 1949. They were woken up in the middle of the night, given 15 minutes to pack and sent by the tens of thousands to Siberia while wearing their summer clothes. After that, having a real frontier makes us feel much better. Buying one’s own tickets to Paris or London sure beats getting a “free ride” to do forced labor in Omsk, Tomsk, or Vladivostok.
DA: And what was his response?
VVF: He told us how inhuman it was to have restored Latvian as the official language and how cruel this was to all the “Russian speakers” in Latvia. I told him that, with the exception of former exiles, everybody had had to be a “Russian speaker” under the Soviet occupation, so the term was not particularly helpful. He continued, however, with how much Russia had been wronged and how humiliated Russians in Latvia were about having to apply for a Latvian citizenship after Soviet citizenship disappeared. Just the fee for getting the forms was a burden on older people, according to him. I countered by saying that the citizenship of a democratic country should surely be worth the price of a bottle of vodka, but offered to have the government reduce the fee even further for children and old people. All in all, in spite of his previous commitment to engage in a friendly manner, Putin came with a long litany of complaints and reproaches. We could agree on only one thing, which was that the transition from a centrally planned economy to a market one had destroyed many industries, that privatization of state assets had led to plundering of the same because of its speed and that there had been a serious social cost to the whole transition. The old system, however, had not been destroyed from outside, but had collapsed of its own inner weaknesses. Furthermore, I pointed out that Russia had as much opportunity now to become a democratic country and that surely it was more prosperous in 1999-2000 than it had been in 1989.
DA: You must have been one of the first female heads of state that he dealt with, right?
VVF: Yes, in Sarajevo I was the only woman aside from Madeline Albright, who was the U.S. secretary of state, but not a head of state.
DA: Did he treat you as an equal?
VVF: I don’t think my being a woman entered into it, but being the president of a small country certainly did. After we finished the “official private” talk, we had a joint press conference and President Putin continued harping on how tragic it was for the former Soviet citizens to wake up in an independent Latvia. Instead of going together to dinner, as previously agreed, Putin then just sent everybody out and we two went like a pair of conspirators to a niche behind a curtain. Instead of speaking through our official translators, we now spoke privately in German to each other. He became a totally different man—quite friendly and charming. He had nothing against Latvia, he said, and he had nothing against me, and we could be friends. In that sense, he seemed to be treating me like an equal. But in practice, in terms of official visits, I was invited to Russia only on international occasions when all of Europe was invited. Thus I went to Russia for the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II, like most European leaders of the time, because I thought the fall of Nazism and fascism was something worth commemorating. At an official lunch in the Kremlin given by the president, the Russian generals who were actually survivors of the war said they were really moved by my presence and thanked me profusely for it. I replied that I respected their service as soldiers for their country, which after all had been invaded by the Germans. I said, “my only reproach is that your government did not withdraw you at the end of the war and send you back home, instead of leaving the Red Army to occupy my country for half a century.” And they embraced me with tears in their eyes and said that they felt gratified and grateful that I had no animosity towards them as soldiers obeying orders, that I recognized their sacrifices, the fact that the Red Army fought valiantly and the fact that they had been invaded. The army had not made the decisions about occupation—it was Stalin and the party. And we came to a moment of warm and wonderful human understanding, during which I abstained from dragging into the debate the atrocities committed at times by both sides.
DA: Why did so many Russians stay? Did they stay to someday be of service to Russia?
VVF: I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them did, but I wouldn’t say that this was the motivation of the majority, who stayed largely out of habit and inertia. True enough, the russification of Latvia had been particularly intense, going hand in hand with excessive industrialization, for it had been Stalin’s explicit policy to drive a geostrategic wedge between the three Baltic countries.
DA: Why did he do that?
VVF: So that we could never be free again and so that the Baltic region would be split in the middle. That was the plan. Latvia does not have the natural resources for heavy industry, so everything was imported, large factories were built, and whole small towns of workers were brought in from the Soviet Union to service them. Not just from Russia—when we speak about these people, we must remember that they’re not all Russians. One thing that I told Putin during this private meeting was that once they decided to stay in Latvia, “they are no longer your Russians—they are my Russians.” Many of them have told me to my face that I was their president, not Putin. When the Soviet Union disintegrated, they had a choice, and a great many deliberately made a decision to remain in a free Latvia. Others, such as those who were in the secret service or who had been part of the nomenklatura of the Communist Party, no doubt felt twinges of nostalgia for the old system. But as far as the current situation goes, just look at the list of millionaires in Latvia: at the top of the list you will see mostly Russian names. So they’re not doing badly.
DA: Several people, including the former Lithuanian ambassador to Washington, have said to me that the big problem is that the Russian propaganda machine in this part of the world is enormously strong.
VVF: It is not just about them being strong, it’s about not having alternative sources of information. Closing Radio Europe, for instance, was a big mistake on the part of the U.S. They had very good services in a number of languages and left a vacuum behind them. Opposition forces have no meaningful voice in Russia and the official sources are heavily skewed, presenting very professionally prepared propaganda. Propaganda works, just like advertising works. If you see “Drink Coca-Cola” at every step, even in the middle of the Sahara desert, the next thing you know, the whole world is drinking Coca-Cola.
DA: What is a Donald Trump presidency going to look like from your perspective?
VVF: It’s not going to look very friendly to us based on the statements he has made about NATO partners who do not strictly adhere to the commitments to defense spending. Although we have participated in international missions since before we were members and we continue to participate in NATO missions and training exercises, the size of our effort was affected by the 2008 economic crisis. We had a very bad banking crisis and we had several years of severe austerity. It hit health, education, the civil service, and our military spending. It hit everything. We had an austerity period, yes, and our investment in defense dropped. But I do not think we can be faulted for bad will or laziness. I do hope that Trump will get good advice from the Defense Department, the State Department, and his security advisers. Seeing as how during his campaign he was able to change his opinion between the morning and the evening, our fondest hope remains that he will change some of his statements and some of his conclusions under the guidance and information that he will receive.
DA: Do you think the American military is having enough of a presence in Latvia and in all of the Baltics? Is the United States sending enough “boots on the ground,” or should we be doing more?
VVF: Let us step back a little. President Obama’s administration started out on the wrong foot with its “reset” with Russia, which seemed to imply that the West in general and the U.S. in particular had been at fault. I personally felt that America had not made any serious mistakes in its relations with Russia, unless it were the advice given years ago about the privatization of state assets. But the reset button didn’t quite work, and the Russian name for it pronounced by Clinton turned out to be wrong, so that the whole thing became both prophetic and symbolic in its failure. I didn’t really see what the U.S. had to apologize about to Russia and neither did many other people in Latvia. And then President Obama’s pivot to Asia—of course, America needs to look to both sides, the Pacific as well as the Atlantic. That’s perfectly natural. But at the same time, the pivot distinctly implied abandoning Europe, leaving it to its own devices.
I happened to be in Poland on Sept. 17, 2008, when Washington announced that the recent agreement under President George W. Bush to have missile defense installations in Poland was going to be canceled. September happens to be the month when, after the Stalin-Hitler pact, Hitler invaded Poland on Sept. 1, 1939, and Stalin invaded Poland on Sept. 17 of the same year, followed by the massacre of over 20,000 Polish officers in Katyn. So choosing the night of Sept. 17 to announce such a decision was not just breaking a promise that had been made by the previous administration, it was seen by many Poles as practically a deliberate insult.
DA: Did you prefer President Bush’s policies to Obama’s?
VVF: The policies of President Bush toward Russia were clear. He was firm. His speeches reiterated the policies that had been NATO policies for years and continue to be so. He was consistent and coherent in that policy, and we appreciated that.
DA: What do you think Putin wants going forward?
VVF: Putin is calibrating to gauge how far he can go and what he can get away with. President Obama said at one point that he was calibrating President Assad’s actions in Syria and then drew red lines that he didn’t follow, which, again, was an unfortunate gesture on his part. If you’re not going to follow through, then you shouldn’t draw red lines, but that’s another story. President Putin watches very carefully and calibrates how weak anybody anywhere is. In doing so, he follows a general principle already adopted by Lenin—a strategy that was to watch for weakness in others. From his training in the martial arts, Putin also knows the principle of turning the momentum of your opponent to your own advantage. The Russians themselves have declared that the information war is going to be crucial in the coming years. Khrushchev once said that he would give the West the rope to hang itself by. I think Putin is working at it rather more cleverly than Khrushchev ever did.
DA: You got your PhD in Canada, and after you came back to Latvia the next year you were elected president. How did that happen?
VVF: Latvia is a parliamentary republic where the president is elected by the parliament, so there is no need for any expensive campaigns. My election was followed by the fall of the government, and the new prime minister I then formed a different ruling coalition. I certainly was not a household name at that time, but I had been one of the first exiles to ever set foot back on Latvian soil back in 1969. I did have many personal contacts among the intelligentsia in Latvia. My academic credentials, contacts, and scholarly work on Latvian culture and folk heritage had made me as well known among them as any person from abroad could hope to be under the Soviet system. While my scientific or scholarly work could be neither quoted nor published in Latvia, as time went on I was allowed to speak on the radio during my visits there. Then the “perestroika” was declared official policy and I was able to come to Latvia more often and even have articles published in weekly and monthly newspapers and magazines. I was actually allowed to speak in public and outside of Riga for the first time in September 1988. Also, at the closing ceremonies of an international literary conference, I was invited to sit on the stage of the biggest theatre in Riga, and the President of the Writers’ union took the risk to give me the microphone without prior permission from the KGB. I gave an impromptu speech that galvanized everyone, because it used well-known literary symbols to express exactly what Latvians felt at the time. That certainly made an impact. Slowly and gradually, my name became better known. When I repatriated to Latvia 10 years later as head of the Latvian Institute, I was interviewed by the written media, appeared on television, and spoke on the radio fairly often. The media really made a blitz to give me exposure, without it being a political campaign, for I have never belonged to a political party.
DA: Is there anything else you’d like to say to Americans or to anyone who might read this?
VVF: I would remind Americans that the links built up between Europe and America have profound roots. Intellectually, they go back to the Age of Enlightenment, to the American Revolution, to the French Revolution. American soldiers came to Europe to fight and sacrifice their lives in both World Wars. As long as there remain countries that seek conflict or extension of power and have imperialist aspirations, Europe will continue to be united with America in what it stands for. All of us have to be vigilant and prepared, and not take wishful thinking for reality. Just look at reality and keep reassessing it and calibrating it.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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[Photo courtesy of World Economic Forum]