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Latvia: President Stands Firm On NATO, EU

Latvia's square-jawed President Vaira Vike-Freiberga came to Prague to address a class of international students. While she was in town, she visited the headquarters of RFE/RL. Our correspondent Don Hill says she joined a panel discussion there and took some uncompromising stands.

Prague, 31 July 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Latvia's president of just over a year is an ardent advocate of freedom of the press. But she doesn't hesitate to slam journalists who through "political prostitution, paranoid projection" or corruption distort the reality they're supposed to reflect.

During a panel discussion on Friday at RFE/RL headquarters, President Vaira Vike-Freiberga spoke in a I-have-a-dream-like language of a time when all Latvian citizens -- ethnic Russian or native Latvian, men or women -- will have equal opportunity.

But she said firmly that Latvia is on its way into the EU and NATO whether its immense neighbor to the east likes it or not.

The Latvian president was equally firm in language directed at her own compatriots who seek to reopen controversy over Latvia's new language law.

In her first week on the job, she sent Latvia's language law back to parliament on the grounds that it discriminated against the 30 percent of Latvian residents who are Russian speaking.

Last December, Latvia finally passed a language law. It mandates Latvian as the official language and contains some of the imprecise language to which she originally objected. But in answer to a panelist's question today, she said sharply that the law now is the law. All that remains for discussion are implementing regulations. She says those who try to reopen the whole debate are in error.

She was equally blunt on Russia's role in Latvia's efforts to join NATO and the EU. President Vike-Freiberga:

"Well, our path has been set and we've been following it with determination and success. And in this regard it doesn't make one bit of difference who sits in Moscow."

The president said she has a vision for her country of eventually winning the kind of equal opportunity that is the essence of a true democracy. As Vike-Freiberga put it:

"And the world we would like to see is one where each citizen of Latvia, regardless of origin, can envision a future where their belonging to an ethnic group or a particular religion or, for that matter, to a sexual persuasion or choice or gender or anything else about them will not be a barrier."

In her opening remarks as RFE/RL's guest, the Latvian president spoke glowingly of the role of a free press and of RFE/RL's work during the Cold War to bring nonpartisan news to nations under censorship. She said she believes that the Soviet communist empire eventually fell, in part, because the censors couldn't stop the truth riding radio waves.

"Radio waves cut across frontiers and you can't stop them with walls and barbed wire and guard towers. And you can't stop the free word from entering the air waves even though a considerable technology was put in place for doing precisely that."

But Vike-Freiberga slashed at Latvia's own press and broadcasters for projecting biases, fantasies, and prejudices onto the events they describe. That's part of the price one pays for a truly free press, she said. In her words: "There is no free lunch."