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Interview of President Vaira Vike-Freiberga of Latvia
President Vaira Vike-Freiberga was among the first heads of state (the third, to be precise) to congratulate Viktor Yushchenko on his victory at the presidential election. She arrived in Kyiv to attend the inauguration ceremony in an excellent mood, wearing a stylish jacket and an orange rose on the lapel.
Vaira Vike-Freiberga was born in Riga in December 1937; later, her family emigrated to Germany.
Mrs Vike-Freiberga was educated at a Latvian school in a refugee camp in Lubeck, Germany, and later at a French school in Casablanca, Morocco. When she was sixteen, her family moved to Canada where she received higher education (B.A. in English, M.A in psychology and Ph.D. in experimental psychology). From 1965 to 1998, she was a professor of psychology at the Universite de Montreal. She was president of the French Language Department of the Canadian Academy of Sciences, and actively worked in national and international organizations. She was chairperson of the NATO Human Factor science programme in Brussels.
She has authored many scholarly books, papers and articles in English, French and Latvian, some translated into Swedish, Polish, Russian and Lithuanian; she is a co-author of several data bases of daynas, Latvian folk songs.
Mrs Vike-Freiberga is fluent in Latvian, French, English, German and Spanish.
In October 1998, she was appointed director of the Institute of Latvia.
Elected President of the Republic of Latvia in June 1999; re-elected as President of the Republic of Latvia for another four years in June 2003.
Mrs Vaira Vike-Freiberga was interviewed by Valeriya BONDARENKO, a freelance journalist.
Excellency, this rose is truly a work of art.
It is. And it does reflect my mood. It’s symbolic too — it’s the way I perceive Ukraine.
Do you know this country well? And if you do — is there anything that impresses or surprises you most?
I have a direct, you can say, a family link with Ukraine. My brother lives in Canada and is married to a Ukrainian woman, and consequently, the Ukrainian theme is constantly present in my family. Besides, our countries are rather close neighbours, and for me, as president, the future of a neighbouring country is of a great interest. The thing that did surprise me in Ukraine was the magnitude of your Orange Revolution — and even more so, the positive result of this revolution.
Did you think it would end differently?
I used to think that the Ukrainians in their majority were rather phlegmatic people and would accept any winner of the election with indifference. But the people of Ukraine erupted and protested and asserted their will. Also, I found it surprising that there were so many people who came out into the streets, and that they courageously braved all the rigours of the protesting, the inclemency of the freezing weather, threats of clashes with the riot police and the tremendous pressure of the “administrative resources” that were used at an unprecedented and shocking scale by those who were then in power. But these “administrative resources” did not work. The just and brave decision of the Supreme Court came as another surprise. And, of course, I was greatly impressed by the inauguration, by Maydan — I felt how powerful was its positive energy.
How would you describe Latvian-Ukrainian relations at the political level? Did you meet Leonid Kuchma at the time when he was Ukraine’s president?
Soon after I became president of Latvia in September 1999, I, with a Latvian delegation, went to Yalta in the Crimea to attend the summit of heads of states of the Baltic countries and the states of the Black Sea area. It was then that I met Kuchma for the first time. The summit that was devoted to the Baltic-Black Sea cooperation, was a showy affair but at the same time the reception was hospitable, and the initiatives discussed were promising. But these initiatives have never developed into concrete results.
I was enchanted by the Crimea. I think it is one of the most beautiful places on earth. I felt very comfortable being there. The Crimean southern coast in scenic beauty is not inferior to the south of France or Italy, and probably even superior to the French and Italian coasts in some respects. In 2000, I came to the Crimea again, on the invitation of Leonid Kuchma, and had a wonderful holiday there.
There were no intensive political contacts between me and Kuchma since then. Neither were any significant economic relations to speak of developing between our two countries. We have a lot of potential in the sphere of cooperation that has not been realized yet. I’m convinced President Yushchenko’s visit to Latvia will give a boost to new developments. I have invited him to come on an official visit and I hope it will take place some time soon.
Did you meet anyone else from the body politic of Ukraine? When did you meet Mr Yushchenko for the first time?
I did not have any stable contacts with anyone from the body politic of Ukraine. I met Mr Yushchenko for the first time in Salzburg at a seminar several years ago. Both he and I spoke at the seminar, and during one of the breaks we met and talked about the future of our countries and of Europe. He stood for reforms in his country and development of democracy. He fully understood the importance of the changes that his country had to go through to achieve progress, and in this respect our opinions coincided. I felt he was a person who was prepared to take on himself the burden of responsibility for the future of his country. I developed a sincere liking for his ideas and for him as a person.
When did you feel that your pessimistic assessment of the possible results of the Ukrainian presidential election could be wrong after all?
After the runoff election when the protests began. The whole world was watching the events in Ukraine with a keen interest. Many people in many parts of the world asked themselves, What could we do for Ukraine? A record number of foreign observers came to Ukraine to be present at the runoff election. As far as I know, more than five hundred people came from Canada alone.
As far as Latvia is concerned, Mr Yushchenko had the full moral support and understanding in my country, to a great extent because the Latvians lived through a similar political situation. The events unfolding in Maydan reminded me of the events of January 1991 in Latvia when my country was struggling for independence. Units of Russian special forces attacked the people — several thousand of them — who were protecting the television centre in Riga and blood was spilled. That is why I, like hundreds of thousands of other Latvians, followed the events in Ukraine with a great interest and concern. I was afraid there could be bloodshed, but fortunately it did not happen. No pessimistic predictions were borne out by the actual development of the events.
I think that all the Latvian people rejoiced at the victory of the Ukrainian people. We understand very well what it means to be living under conditions of economic and political stagnation when nothing changes but slogans. We also know that you will not have an easy time in the nearest future. We, in Latvia, were prepared to go through a difficult period of changes, and yet it was not easy to go through the actual experience. We paid a very high emotional price.
Latvia is integrating into the European community in a steady and consistent manner, but not without some problems. Is it Russia that causes some of these problems?
Our relations with Russia remind me of two people who are trying to have a conversation going but who, both of them, have problems with hearing. In the past fourteen years, we did not have any important official meetings at a high level. Even our foreign ministers did not meet. Only one Latvian minister — minister of culture — visited Russia; my predecessor, Guntis Ulmanis, went to Moscow only once, in 1994, to sign an agreement about the withdrawal of Russian troops from the territory of Latvia. Incidentally, the meeting took place with the Americans acting as intermediaries. I met Vladimir Putin only once in 2003 when I attended the celebrations of the three-hundredth anniversary of St Petersburg.
Can, in your opinion, the events of the Orange Revolution influence your relations with Russia in any way? Will both sides start hearing each other better?
It is very difficult to conduct a political dialogue with Russia. They keep their cards, as the poker players say, close to their chest. Yes, the events in Ukraine may play some role in changing our relations with Moscow. If Russia continues to follow the events in Ukraine very closely, the tension between Latvia and Russia may get defused somewhat and there will be no further aggravations in our relations for some time. But on the other hand, Russia’s attitude to Ukraine and to other “problem” — from their point of view — countries may become even more rigid. So there’s nothing much left to do but analyze the situation and wait.
As a president who has been in office for several years now, would you have any advice for Mr Yushchenko?
Mr Yushchenko now faces a new test — the test of being in power. He should be prepared to act tough when the euphoria passes. He’ll have to do a lot of hard and routine work. When he starts working in earnest, then he may expect to face challenges of a new opposition. He will be surrounded by many advisors who will be telling him what to do and how to do it, what to tell on which occasion. The main thing is to listen to all and act on your understanding of the situation, and to take decisions proceeding from what your heart and mind tell you to do. It’s a very difficult test which will determine whether you are truly a leader or only think you are.
It is very important to be able to use the resources of the country to the full, the ones that have always been there, and those that have been acquired recently — natural, human, and political. He will to have to act in accordance with the developing situation; sometimes his decisions and reforms will be painful and may affect the social sphere.
The people who return to everyday life from the barricades may feel disappointed because things are not moving as fast as they expected they would. If the new government adopts the right policy then the enthusiasm and energy produced by Maydan will be maintained at a level conducive to creative efforts. Such energy is similar in a certain sense to atomic energy — it will be of great use only if it is channelled and directed in a proper way. It is like fire which is also orange. Fire can give warmth but it can also burn. You have to keep stoking up your fire with enough fuel to keep it burning but without turning it into a conflagration, and at the same time the failure to provide enough fuel will end in the fire turning into smoke.
No time should be lost now. Mr Yushchenko has a clear vision of what should be done — and it should be done with no time wasted. The moment the new government is in power, the new programme of Ukraine’s development must be put into action. There will be a strong opposition to reforms, and the more of supporters and allies rally around President Yushchenko the better. Steps should be taken so that even the opposition would work for the benefit of Ukraine.
Excellency, when you attended the summit in the Crimea, you and other participants sat at the very same table at which the leaders of the USA, Great Britain and the Soviet Union had conferred in February 1945. President Meri of Estonia sat at the place where Churchill had once sat, President Adamkus of Lithuania occupied the place where Roosevelt had once sat, and you found yourself in the chair where Stalin had once sat. Did you have any particular emotions or thoughts about it?
I thought about the terrible evil that those three people had done. They, the three of them, divided the world into their spheres of influence, changing the destinies of dozens of countries and millions of people. They had practically unlimited power and they could implement their decisions as they saw fit. It was then that the “soviet” future of the three Baltic states was firmly confirmed. Thus, our dream of liberty and freedom remained no more than a dream for about fifty years.
Nobody has the right to decide for somebody else how that somebody should live. The destiny of each state must be decided by the people of that state, and nobody else. The world must not be governed by the leaders of several super powers, no matter how strong this temptation to rule may be. When I sat in that chair I thought that things that had happened in February 1945 must never happen again.
In one of the interviews you gave you said that “all the wars are connected with the male hormones.” Does it mean that peace is connected with female hormones? The Orange Revolution ended peacefully but both men and women took part in it. How can this peaceful character of our revolution be explained from the “hormones” point of view?
I do not know whether the number of women on Maydan was greater than that of men. I was not there. But this time several men whom I know well in my capacity of president, showed peacemaking zeal — President Adamkus of Lithuania, Kwasniewski of Poland and Javier Solana, Secretary-General of the Council of the European Union.
As far as those hormones are concerned, I, as a psychologist by education, can tell you that there is a psychology aspect in it. Men, young men in particular, tend to be aggressive, and there is some truth in the age-old adage that men like wars, and women take care of their homes.
It does not matter of what sex an official is — in doing a job, it is skills and character traits that matter. Successful people are not, as a rule, slaves of their physiological instincts. Democracy is when people do not follow their biological instincts but are free in the personal and social sense.
Do you have any advice to give to our women politicians?
To make a career on an equal footing with men, it is advisable for women to draw a line that would clearly separate physiology and work, and to establish a stretch of neutral ground, on which negotiations should be conducted. No force should be used either because, as is well known, not always victory is gained by the side that seems to have more force. History shows that even those who won wars and captured immense territories were losers in the long run. And also we should remember that if victory is gained by any means available and by too many resources used, then such a victory is called Pyrrhic.
Do you feel you have changed since you became president? Do you regard yourself as “an iron lady?”
With the passage of years, I grow more cautious. I fully realize that being a president means being a prisoner of the job you do. Any word you say may be interpreted as characterizing you as a politician or expressing the opinion of your country. It is particularly true if your country is a small one and so much depends on every word that is uttered. This “vow of silence” is a heavy burden to carry, and it’s so sad that it must stay with you for as long as you live — even after your term of presidency expires you are not free to speak about so many things. So, in this respect, the longer a woman stays in office as head of state, the “ironer” she becomes, regrettably as it may be.
It is my being with my family, with my husband and children, thanks to whom I have become a personality I am, that helps me to attain harmony and not to be wearing “iron armour” all the time. My family are the “sunny people” of my life to whom I’m very grateful for the light, warmth, patience and support they give me.
Also, reading the Latvian epics and daynas (Latvian folk songs) helps a lot. They are full of sunlight, warmth and folk wisdom, at the depth of which I never stop being amazed.
I have an impression that you assess the events in your life and the people around by the amount of “sunlight” they have in themselves. Have you discovered anything in Ukraine that has the greatest concentration of “sunlight” in it?
It is very significant that in the midst of winter, the orange colour was chosen as the colour of the revolution. There are many songs about the rising sun in the Latvian folklore, and the rising sun is a universal symbol of antiquity. Orange is the colour of the newly-born sun which just appears on the horizon, it’s a powerful and radiant symbol and it can become a symbol of renaissance, of regeneration of your nation.