The 'iron lady of the Baltics'

'None of us should have a tolerance for terror, because it destroys the fabric of society.'

latvian president 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
latvian president 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga arrived Sunday on her first state visit to Israel, the only country in the Middle East in which Latvia has a diplomatic mission. Diplomatic relations between Israel and Latvia were established on January, 6, 1992. Latvia was the first of the Baltic countries in which Israel opened an embassy, with Tova Herzl, Israel's first ambassador to Latvia, presenting her credentials in Riga in October, 1992. The Latvian Embassy in Tel Aviv was opened in February, 1995. The current Latvian ambassador, Karlis Eihenbaums, has worked hard to strengthen ties between the two countries on many levels. Relations between Latvia and the Arab world are not very developed, said Vaike-Freiberga, primarily because Latvia - which has been a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union (EU) since the spring of 2004 - has put a priority on developing relations with NATO and EU countries.
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For all that, she believes that Latvia should have an embassy in one of the Arab countries - "probably Egypt, and we should do it soon." Egypt was chosen firstly because it is a regional power, and secondly because of its trade relations with Latvia. The threat of global terror is one of the subjects that Vike-Freiberga will be discussing with Israeli leaders. "We feel nobody is protected from terror by definition," she said. "It might strike anywhere at any time. Everyone should feel equally affected." Characterizing terror as the denial of the laws and principles of civilization, Vike-Freiberga declared: "None of us should have an indulgence or tolerance for terror, because it destroys the fabric of society." Vike-Freiberga has frequently been compared to Margaret Thatcher, to whom she bears some resemblance. It is thus that she is often referred to as the "Iron Lady of the Baltics," though Israelis reading her biography would probably liken her more to Golda Meir than to Britain's former prime minister. Having fled from her homeland as a child to escape the invading Red Army, Vike-Freiberga spent much of her adulthood documenting, preserving and disseminating Latvia's cultural heritage, an endeavor which took her on speaking engagements to many parts of the world. She has written about almost every sphere of Latvian culture, and her essays, books and short stories on Latvian folklore, poetry, literature, music and other subjects were eagerly snapped up and reprinted throughout the Latvian diaspora. Born in December, 1937, Vike-Freiberga left her homeland in October, 1944, escaping with her family on one of the last boats. Initially, they lived in a Latvian refugee camp in Germany. Later they went to Morocco, where they remained for a few years before moving to Canada when Vike-Freiberga was 16. From the presidential suite of her Jerusalem hotel room on Sunday night, Vike-Freiberga recalled that when she came to Morocco at the age of 11, she picked up French very quickly and became like a fish in water in the French milieu and won many scholastic achievement awards. One reaction on the part of one of her teachers, she said, remains indelibly imprinted on her mind: "What a shame that a foreign child is getting all the prizes." More than half a century later, she said, she can still recall how deeply offended she was at being singled out as a "foreign child." "It put in me a feeling of resistance," she said. This feeling of being different, she said, was reignited in Canada, where everyone asked her where she came from and where she got her funny name. At the time, she said, she thought Canadians were very rude - until she realized that "everyone from Canada came from somewhere else," and that in some kind of clumsy way they were trying to be friendly. In July, 1960, six years after her arrival in Canada, she married fellow Latvian emigre Imants Freiberg, a computer expert, who shared her passion for the preservation of Latvia's cultural heritage. When Latvians were eventually allowed to visit the West, the couple's home was both haven and hotel for numerous Latvian intellectuals, many of whom became their close friends. A highly respected academic in the field of cognitive psychology - and eventually vice president of the Canadian Science Council that advises the government on science policy - Vike-Freiberga was in high demand at international conferences, which enabled her to meet with Latvian emigres scattered in different parts of the world. Many of these had assimilated and gradually lost their native language, but all dreamed, Vike-Freiberga said, of one day returning home to a free, independent and democratic Latvia. Vike-Freiberga finally visited Latvia in 1969 - with the permission of the Soviet authorities. It had been 25 years since she had left her native country. She was kept under constant surveillance, but nothing, she said, could mar the joy of her homecoming. This was the first of many visits. However, it was not until 1998 that she returned for good. That year, she was made Professor Emeritus of Montreal University. A YEAR later, with no political background and no history of being part of the Communist regime, she became the first woman to be elected president of Latvia by its 100-member parliament. She is now in the penultimate year of her second term which she will complete in June, 2007. Under Latvian law, a president can serve only two terms. The president is the only Latvian citizen who is not permitted to have dual nationality. When she was first elected, Vike-Freiberga had to surrender her Canadian citizenship. Technically, she can get it back next year. But she's not sure how ethical that would be. Much as she loves Latvia, she found it difficult to give up her Canadian citizenship. "A part of me was there - my life, my work," she said. "But I couldn't give up the chance to come back to my native country. When I left Latvia, I didn't know if I would come back at all." Now Vike-Freiberga's named is being mentioned as a possible successor for Kofi Annan, when he completes his term as UN secretary-general. "It's not the sort of job where they ask for candidates to apply," she said. Although it has been widely reported that she has the support of US President George W. Bush, she doubts whether the five members of the UN Security Council who have the power of veto would elect someone from Eastern Europe, and a woman, to boot. Is gender important in national and international politics? "Gender becomes less important as we have more equality," she said, noting that the recently elected leaders of Germany, Chile and Liberia are all women. "It's a good sign," she continued, "that those countries recognize that half the population is female. Now it's time for the UN to have a woman as its head." Vike-Freiberga has enjoyed her period as president, she said, not only because it enabled her to be actively and closely involved with her country's development and destiny, but also because the position affords her the opportunity to meet with so many people. "When you're president, you can shake everyone's hand. I like that." Yet the job, she admitted, required making certain adjustments, among them being surrounded by bodyguards, even when she went for a walk along the beach near her home just to unwind. Although this is her first trip to Israel, it is her husband's second. He was here eighteen months ago for a technological conference, "and he raves about Israel." Asked how Latvia will relate to a Hamas-led PA government, Vike-Freiberga responded: "In order to enter into the diplomatic community, Hamas should change the ground rules it plays by. It should renounce terrorism as a legitimate means for accomplishing its aims and should address the aims of the Palestinian people in the normal way of elected representatives." She also asserted that in the process of negotiations with Israel, Hamas cannot start by denying Israel's right to exist, because on that basis, "it's a still-born negotiation." Further questioned as to whether Latvia would follow Russia's lead in its treatment of Hamas, Vike-Freiberga said: "Mr. Putin has his own ideas on a number of things. He's pursuing policies that the Soviet Union used to pursue in many ways."