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Latvia: Vike-Freiberga Senses 'Nervousness In The Air'

Vaira Vike-Freiberga at Forum 2000 on October 9 (RFE/RL) PRAGUE, October 10, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Vaira Vike-Freiberga is president of Latvia, having been reelected in 2003. RFE/RL's Natalia Tchourikova and Kathleen Moore and other members of the press spoke with Vike-Freiberga on the sidelines of the 10th annual Forum 2000 in Prague (October 8-10), a major international venue for exploring ways to avoid conflict. RFE/RL has a close relationship with Forum 2000, whose theme this year is "Dilemmas of Global Coexistence."

Question: First of all, what do you think of former Czech President Vaclav Havel's proposal to create minimum basic standards for cooperation between cultures, as he mentioned in his speech? And secondly, what is your comment on the North Korean nuclear test? Your country is part of NATO.

Vaira Vike-Freiberga: Well, I think we'll start with the simplest case, and that's this nuclear device being detonated. Whether you call it a bomb or anything else, it's quite evident that being able to effect such a detonation means, for all intents and purposes, that you're able to drop the bomb on somebody else's head. That's what it amounts to, and that's extremely serious, since we have in the world a series of agreements about the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons. Particularly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, these were put into effect.

There have been attempts to have diplomatic talks with North Korea, even as recently as the EU-Asian summit in Helsinki a few weeks ago. The prime minister of South Korea said how they still keep trying to bring North Korea to the negotiating table, but alas, for a whole year they have not been responding, they have not been engaging in the six-party discussion that tries to dissuade them from using nuclear weapons.
This is a very bad example, because it means that diplomacy has failed,
persuasion has failed, common sense has failed, and the desire for
having such power has prevailed.

This is a very bad example, because it means that diplomacy has failed, persuasion has failed, common sense has failed, and the desire for having such power has prevailed. There is one country that has done it in defiance of the international community, and the question is how many other countries will be willing to do it in defiance of the international community? What can the international community do about it, and what is it going to do? What is the United Nations going to do about it, what is the Security Council going to do about it? That, I think, is a burning issue.

About the debate this morning, I think that President Havel was posing a rhetorical question. He was not suggesting, if you like, a practical operational test, or something like that, or a document that we could sign. Although who knows, ultimately, it could amount to that. But he was suggesting this, I think, as a basis for dialogue.

In other words, when we are talking about a clash of civilizations and whatnot, when you really look at it seriously, you discover that civilizations do not clash among themselves. As it is already, they have these common elements which are the common moral basis. And there are plenty of them. It's not just the moral minimum. As some said, if each religious system was taken in terms of its spirit, and of its highest aspirations, then actually you wouldn't be talking about the strict minimum, you'd be talking about levels of excellence, and quite satisfactory ones.

The difficulty is with noncompliance with moral ideas. The difficulty is with deliberate disregard for all the basic principles, no matter how fundamental, starting with human life and then going on to human dignity, and freedom, and justice, and everything else which is so often trampled underfoot. And when brutality prevails over good sense, or over morals, again the question is, are we all powerless to face it? Or is there something that we can do, and is there something that we should do?

I think this is the question that we have not been quite addressing this morning, certainly in the course of the day, about the right to protect. It was mentioned once in the course of the day -- about the ability to protect. This, so far, we have not addressed.

Question: Havel raised the question whether this minimum standard for cooperation should be part of the UN documents.

Vike-Freiberga: Well, as somebody pointed out, we already have wonderful documents at the UN, declarations that have been made. And as somebody else reminded us, even the Soviet Union had a wonderful constitution. So just having declarations is not enough, it's the compliance with them that really is the issue.

Georgian-Russian Tensions

Question: Madam President, how much of a concern to you as the Latvian president is the current crisis in relations between Russia and Georgia? And can you imagine a similar situation in which your country would have been involved? How would your country have reacted if Russia had showed such behavior as it showed in relation to Georgia?

Vike-Freiberga: Well, let's say that in our relations with Russia since 1991, we have had tense moments, to put it mildly, on several occasions. Among them, precisely at the moment when the withdrawal of the former Soviet troops was being effected, and it did take the whole of '94, '95, to do that. And there were some very tense moments at the time.

I think that we are reliving in Georgia the sort of thing that the Baltic countries went through 10 years ago. These are tense times. And, if you like, there's a nervousness in the air at the moment. But of course, what I notice from the news we've been getting -- and so far I've only been seeing the news that we get in the international media, because I've been traveling around -- is a reaction to what basically started out as a diplomatic incident, the expelling of people accused of spying, but also, of course, a special case, and that is the arresting of military personnel. And that is an unusual move on the part of Georgia; that has to be admitted.

And therefore a reaction from the part of Russia, which is not the usual one, to say spies being expelled, but a chain reaction of measures which seem to be increasingly getting out of proportion to the original incident which set them into motion. So it's a cause for concern, because among neighbors, we would like to have dialogue and the ability to follow international rules and procedures of international contact. I mean, the breaking of postal services is certainly not in the repertoire of good relations with your neighbors, obviously. Or expelling or deporting people from your country, etc.

Question: To continue the topic of Georgia-Russia relations, what kind of reaction might the international community have toward the problem? And do you think that this is only a problem of Georgia and the region, or do you think that this is a problem of the whole European context?

Vike-Freiberga: Well, cases of xenophobia, and racism, and prejudice, of course, happen everywhere. The United Nations had a special conference on it a few years ago in Durban. Obviously, we discovered cases of prejudice and oppression and mistreatment of a wide variety of groups that I think the world didn't even know existed. But I think among the cases of xenophobia of that sort are the cases against, say, Caucasian people living in Russia. There have been cases of murders, there have been cases of attacks, of beatings, where specifically the attackers have explicitly said this is why they're doing it.

Now, of course, we have skinheads and other extremists in other countries, as well, who occasionally will attack civilians in the street just because they simply don't like them. So we do have, on the one side, worldwide xenophobia, prejudice, violence among youth, particularly, which are specific problems that have to be addressed.

The question is, in this case in Russia, is this being supported by the government? Or is it being tolerated by the government to a greater extent than elsewhere? Because I do want to remind you that it does happen practically everywhere in the world. We have nasty incidents. The questions to look at are, how frequent are they, how systematic are they, and are they being tolerated by the authorities rather than being combated? That is the crucial question.

Latvians Embrace Boring Stability

RFE/RL: Could you comment on the elections in our country...? Latvia seems to be an island of political stability compared to what's going in Central Europe. How did you manage?

Vike-Freiberga: Well, we keep working at it, and working very hard, I must say. It doesn't come by itself. And we're lucky, of course. As a president, I'm very pleased that we have been steering the same course ever since we recovered our independence. We have changed governments, I have named a number of prime ministers, more than I would like, but the coalitions stay basically with the same political orientation, center and right, adopting European standards and values, integrating, catching up to the rest of Europe, which has enjoyed democracy and a free-market economy for far longer than we have.
We have had such an interesting past that, frankly, there's enough for many generations, just in the people walking around.

We're becoming as boring as we can possibly be; I think that really is the idea. We have had such an interesting past that, frankly, there's enough for many generations, just in the people walking around. My generation and the ones even older have lived through too many interesting things in their lives. I think they've seen too much. Some of them have survived the gulags, and my generation has survived the war, and the postwar period in Latvia was no picnic, and neither was the period of Brezhnev and the others.

We have had mass deportations, we have had repression, we have had mass arrests and that period of torture. We have had people going into exile because they were not ready to live in that system. We have been through too much, and now I think people are happy to live boring lives and to have stability.

But there is a movement in Central Europe and elsewhere of countries being split in half. I think the Czech Republic is a case in point. But there are other countries that have that. The presidential elections in the United States; the elections in Italy; I think Trinidad and Tobago, a few years ago, had a parliament with 18 of one party and 18 of the other. And so it goes. In that sense, I think we are fortunate that we are not split evenly. You can have too much equality.

Question: What's the driving force that's uniting the political parties? Is it the trend to become as European as possible?

Vike-Freiberga: Absolutely. I think we're still lagging, in terms of, for instance, average income within the European Union. Now that doesn't exactly make you pleased and thrilled and proud to be in such a position. So the drive to get out of there is extremely strong, and for us it happens to be a priority at the moment. The economic question is a burning one.

UN Secretary-General

RFE/RL: You were a candidate to succeed Kofi Annan as UN secretary-general. You joined the race relatively late, but you did get quite a bit of support. How disappointed are you [that you didn't get the nomination]?

Vike-Freiberga: I'm not disappointed at all. I think it was rather to be expected, but I'm very pleased, pleasantly surprised at the amount of support I got in such a short time. I'm particularly pleased at the expressed support that I have received from individuals from nongovernmental organizations, or from politicians in private, even if their countries actually, at the same time, were ready at the Security Council to go with [South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon], who apparently all the five permanent members could agree on without anybody giving a veto.

It's clear that the United Nations needs a secretary-general who will be supported by all five members of the Security Council; this is why the veto system is in place. This person needs the confidence of the Security Council, and then one can expect that the General Assembly will respect him.

What we need is somebody who can then, hopefully, marshal the support of as many countries as possible to carry out the reforms which are so badly needed, but which are at the moment being resisted rather strenuously.... I do wish him luck in pushing forward with those reforms, which are being strenuously resisted by many countries, but which are equally needed by all of us, including them.

NATO Membership Success

RFE/RL: In several weeks' time, you're going to host the NATO summit in Riga. Does it have any personal significance or symbolism for you?

Vike-Freiberga: Definitely, because when I took office back in '99, the prevailing opinion was that NATO actually needn't continue expanding. There was very much a question in the membership at the time. Was it wise even to include, in the previous summit, to accept the Czech Republic and Hungary and Poland as members of NATO in that expansion? Was it necessary? Was it wise? And certainly, is it necessary and wise to continue this expansion, to think about other countries, and specifically and concretely, should the Baltic countries even be considered? Should they be included?

Because, supposing they are included, is NATO capable of defending them? Militarily, does it make sense to have these three countries? Can they be defended, supposing they are attacked? According to Article 5, are they not going to diminish the security of NATO by being included, rather than adding to the security space?

It took some strenuous diplomatic efforts on the part of the newer members, and for the three Baltic countries it took particularly strenuous diplomatic efforts to convince the existing members of NATO. And we had support from some like Iceland immediately, and Norway and others who were enthusiastic about the idea, but others were less enthusiastic.

So it was a victory to accept the idea that NATO should expand because it's an area of peace and prosperity and tranquility in Europe that we want to benefit from, since we haven't had this benefit in the past. And that yes, doing so is wise, because then you don't have to worry about what happens in your immediate neighborhood, you are extending that space of security beyond.

And is it defensible? Yes, NATO has the largest military capacity of any body in the world in terms of military might and capability. So yes, any part of NATO can be defended militarily; it is defensible. And, of course, ever since then, these countries have been contributing, each in proportion to their size and means.

And we are proud, as the latest members, and the ones about whom there are really doubts as to whether this would be irritating to Russia. [The question was whether NATO should] actually be doing something which would be irritating to Russia. And we had to argue: let Russia worry about itself, and let NATO have a dialogue with Russia, but please, know that the Baltic countries are independent, allow them to express their wish, and then please evaluate them on their readiness to be members in good standing. Which they then did.

So we feel that we passed the test. We have been evaluated, we have been included, it's an accomplishment for us, we're proud of what we have achieved in terms of our security. But we also feel very much relieved, and we sleep easier at night at the thought that there is this security umbrella over our heads which will protect us in case of any sort of danger.

Ukraine's NATO Decision

RFE/RL: At the beginning of the year, there was an expectation that Ukraine would be invited to Riga, and that it would be offered a kind of signal for the start of talks about membership. Now, it's obvious that the Ukrainian delegation won't be present in Riga. Do you feel sorry about that?

Vike-Freiberga: We have been supportive of the forces within Ukraine who consider that it will be a wise move and a good investment in Ukraine's future to continue the reforms within that country. And I think that includes political reforms, economic reforms, and bringing their military strength and their defense forces up to a level where they're compatible with those of NATO.

We have been arguing for an open-door policy for NATO, but it is clear that, much as for the European Union, for a country to become closer to such an international body, there are certain preconditions. And the very first and most important is the expressed wish, of the politicians and the population, to make such a move.

Now, we have [heard] expressed wishes since after the Orange Revolution, from the president and those around him and supporting him, about the desire of Ukraine to come closer to NATO, and have closer collaboration. But this is not the case with his former opponent in the presidential elections, and now the current prime minister. And this means that Ukraine has not internally yet come to complete agreement as to the direction to take in the future.

Ukraine has to, first of all, gain the support of its population, and a sufficient majority of its population, to this orientation, so it can be fully supported by them, so that they can accept the commitment that it means, including the financial commitment in terms of improving their armed forces. And then, of course, all the reforms that go along with this closer collaboration, and possibly eventual membership if such a wish is expressed, and if politically the other members accept it.

This is something that is down the road. But at the moment, I think it's the political will and the popular acceptance of the idea that still has been a stumbling block in Ukraine. This is something that's in the hands of the Ukrainian people. I hope that they have a free choice in this. They are the ones who have the right to decide their future, a right to decide which way they wish to turn, and what is their orientation.

We would welcome them taking the same orientation that we did; that is, toward Western values and those things that have been elaborated within the framework of a free and democratic society and a market economy over the decades since World War II. Whereas we were under the system of totalitarian communism, we feel that we have a lot of catching up to do, and that Western Europe and its achievements could give us a helping hand in making up lost time.

In our case in Latvia, there was a strong commitment of our people to get away from that Soviet past and catch up to the rest of Europe. I think the population has to feel this before it can be ready to mobilize its resources.

RFE/RL: According to a recent survey, the support for Latvia's membership in NATO is almost 80 percent. It has grown steadily since Latvia joined NATO. What do you think is the reason for this support?

Vike-Freiberga: There are a number of reasons for it. I think it's also the idea of potential threats to the country being eliminated. In other words, belonging to a very strong alliance makes you sleep easier, because you know that should anybody decide to attack you, it's not only your own strength that will stand against it. You have the whole alliance to protect you. That is a big deterrent against anybody taking unfriendly measures against Latvia.

I think this is what the population appreciates because of the past that we've had. We tried to be a neutral country in the late '30s, and we were trampled by two totalitarian powers, one coming from the East and the other from the West. Our neutrality was not respected; it was not considered. Geographically, where we are, it simply was not convenient to our neighbors to do so. We are very leery of any kind of treaty that we've signed; we had signed treaties with our neighbors and so on, and they were not respected. We would like to see the sort of double security of an actual military deterrent making sure that our sovereignty never again should come under threat.

EU Expansion Fatigue

RFE/RL: I'd like to ask a question about EU expansion this time. What do you think of the news that increasingly expresses that after Romania and Bulgaria join, there should be a pause for the time being?

Vike-Freiberga: I think there are other countries, like Croatia, that are really proceeding extremely well with their negotiations. And at the moment when they have concluded all the 31 chapters, Latvia's official position is that we should keep the open-door policy and admit them. If, with other countries like Turkey, negotiations go slower, then of course the speed of negotiations will be the determining factor.

It's often not clear what is meant by this closer integration. It could mean a number of different things. For example, we in Latvia consider that our average income is lagging behind that of the other countries, but that's not a reason for us to remain outside. Quite the contrary. Joining the union will hopefully speed up the time that it takes to catch up economically. Similarly, I don't see what the advantage is [in delaying entry]; if the country has fulfilled the negotiations and the criteria, I think it should be admitted.

RFE/RL: One last question. Is it possible for a country, being a neighbor of Russia, to build a stable and prosperous democracy without being a member of a bigger European club like NATO or the European Union?

Vike-Freiberga: We didn't want to take a chance. (Laughs)

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