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Latvia: Vike-Freiberga, The Country's 'Proper Granny,' Expected To Face Easy Re-Election As President

By Ieva Raubisko

Latvia's parliament is due to elect the country's president tomorrow. Vaira Vike-Freiberga, the current incumbent and presently the only candidate in the vote, is expected to easily win a second four-year term. While praised for her impressive performances on the international stage, Vike-Freiberga is criticized for her lackluster involvement in domestic politics.

Riga, 19 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Latvia's presidential election tomorrow is not expected to bring any surprises. Five out of seven parties represented in the Latvian parliament, the Saeima, have nominated incumbent Vaira Vike-Freiberga as their candidate for another four-year term.

Although other contenders might be put forward before the official voting starts, Vike-Freiberga appears to have secured at least 75 votes in the 100-strong Saeima, which elects the president.

As the presidential vote has approached, experts, politicians, and Vike-Freiberga herself have been looking back at the past four years. In a recent meeting with journalists, Vike-Freiberga thanked parliament for electing her in 1999 and said she is willing to serve another term.

"I would like to first thank the seventh Saeima that was wise enough to elect me as president. I am sure that it was a good decision for Latvia. I am determined to work for another four years, and I hope to perform as excellently as I have done before. I'm not ashamed of the word 'excellence.' In my upbringing, excellence has meant a goal for everyone who wants to be a professional [in his or her field]," Vike-Freiberga says.

Vike-Freiberga's efforts representing Latvia abroad are indeed regarded by many as having been excellent. A fluent speaker of five languages, Vike-Freiberga was forced to flee the Soviet invasion in 1944 at the age of seven and later became a psychology professor at the University of Montreal.

VVF -- as she is often called in Latvia -- has won support and attention on both sides of the Atlantic. Some even see her as taking the baton from former Czech President Vaclav Havel as the moral leader of Eastern Europe.

Latvian political analyst Janis Ikstens says Vike-Freiberga has worked well in foreign policy. He says she would have done a truly outstanding job if not for the lack of progress in Latvia's relations with Russia. On the other hand, he says she doesn't deserve the criticism, since rapprochement with Moscow doesn't depend on Riga's goodwill alone.

According to Ikstens, Vike-Freiberga has created a different and positive image of Latvia abroad: "What is for sure, she has made many foreign politicians, journalists, and also foreign citizens look at Latvia differently. She is good enough at communication with others, not only language-wise but also because of her character. She acts freely in that environment. Moreover, she is one of the few females in a male-dominated environment. This gives her even more of a special status. And she is confident enough to talk with leaders from other countries as an equal."

In addition, Vike-Freiberga has promoted several legislative changes that the international community has regarded as necessary to secure Latvia's accession into the European Union and NATO. One of them was an amendment to the election law that no longer requires candidates running for public office to be fully proficient in the Latvian language.

But Vike-Freiberga has come under criticism for her performance at home. Ikstens says Vike-Freiberga hasn't set clear goals on the domestic front. "She has been very passive," he says. "She hasn't had any special domestic priorities. In principle, Vike-Freiberga has hardly had any fresh initiatives. She lacks her 'own thing.' There hasn't been even one clear priority that she has pursued throughout her presidency all these four years."

Vike-Freiberga rejects such criticism. She says foreign and domestic affairs are interrelated: "Oh, this is a very nice phrasing. 'If she [Vike-Freiberga] is outstanding in foreign politics, she cannot be good at home affairs' because the same person cannot be good at two issues at the same time. But these things are interconnected, and it is not possible to separate domestic policy issues from foreign policy issues. They influence each other."

Vike-Freiberga's most significant domestic achievement, according to Ikstens, has been the creation of the Official Language Commission, which is responsible for developing an official language policy. The issue is one of the most sensitive in post-Soviet Latvia. Of the country's 2.35 million people, 34 percent consider Russian their main language.

Some experts have different views about the Language Commission issue.

Dmitrijs Hanovs, a researcher with the Soros Foundation Latvia, recently told Latvian Public Television that the president shouldn't have assumed such an important role in the work of the commission, since such formations belong to the past. Hanovs believes the president's active involvement in the commission makes her appear less trustworthy in the eyes of Latvia's ethnic minorities.

Despite a number of sensitive issues, Vike-Freiberga remains popular with most segments of the Latvian public. Her favorable rating did dip, however, due to her support for U.S.-led military operations in Iraq.

Miervaldis Mozers, assistant professor at the Department of Social Sciences at the University of Latvia, says Vike-Freiberga's strong support can be explained by the "motherly feeling" many Latvians feel she possesses.

"Latvia as a small child with only 10 years of independence was looking for someone to hold onto -- a dad or mom. And here we have -- I would say -- a proper granny from Canada who has got all the necessary qualities. From the very beginning, we started to credit her with things she didn't actually do or know. [[But] she wasn't familiar, and I think she is still not familiar, with Latvian internal affairs," Mozers says.

Mozers says Vike-Freiberga has made mistakes but has used her wits and intelligence to fashion narrow escapes.