Calming the Baltic waters

Latvia’s president, who spent 44 years in Canada, wrestles with the language issue

Tom Fennell February 7 2000

Calming the Baltic waters

Latvia’s president, who spent 44 years in Canada, wrestles with the language issue

Tom Fennell February 7 2000

Calming the Baltic waters

Latvia’s president, who spent 44 years in Canada, wrestles with the language issue

The condition of Latvia’s ancient Riga Castle often mirrors the state of the country. The 700-year-old building in the Latvian capital once housed royalty, suffered bombs during the First World War and fell into disrepair during the nearly 50 years that the Russian army controlled the country. Today, it is home to a returned Latvian expatriate from Canada who lived outside the country for 54 years. Since last June, Latvia’s unlikely President Vaira VikeFreiberga, a 62-year-old ex-Montrealer, has occupied a spacious office located behind a blood-red castle anteroom decorated with pictures of wild and angry dogs. Workers have spruced up the castle, and now Vike-Freiberga is trying to renovate Latvia’s divided political system. As a former Quebecer, she faces a hauntingly familiar task: how to protect the rights of minorities, in this case often despised Russians. “Of course,” Vike-Freiberga told Macleans as guards patrolled the courtyard outside her window, “tension exists in such a situation.”

In an inward-looking place like Latvia, perched on the edge of the Baltic Sea at a latitude similar to Churchill, Man., tension could exist over someone like Vike-Freiberga. Returning exiles who sat out the hard times under communism in the wealthy West are often deeply resented across eastern Europe. But despite a baptism of fire over the Russian issue when she took office last June, and a mini-controversy over her spending habits, she has emerged a winner. Recent opinion polls have given her a

public approval rating of up to 74 per cent.

Although technically a figurehead, Vike-Freiberga has huge influence in a country that has seen eight prime ministers in its nine years of independence since the Soviet Union broke up. Most critically, how she helps steer the country around the shoals of ethnic discord is being closely watched in the region. Latvia counts one million Russians among its 2.5 million people, and its Baltic neighbours Estonia and Lithuania are home to hundreds of thousands of former Russians as well. Moscow still casts a large shadow across the region and has imposed economic sanctions on Latvia over its treatment of its former citizens. To further entrench their independence, the three countries want to join both the European Union and NATO. But before they gain entry, EU officials want to ensure the Russian minority is treated fairly.

Vike-Freiberga faced her first crisis over the Russian question in June, when she sent a language law back to parliament after finding it too discriminatory. A watered-down version of the same law later passed—a move that deeply angered Latvian nationalists, but pleased the EU. “We see our rejoining the fold of Europe,” says Vike-Freiberga, “from which the Iron Curtain had been holding us back for 50 years.”

Considering her past, VikeFreiberga’s willingness to accommodate the Russians is remarkable. On

New Year’s Eve, 1944, the then-sevenyear-old and her family fled the advancing Russian army with thousands of other Latvians. In what would be the first of many temporary homes, they settled in a refugee camp on the border between East and West Germany. From Germany they moved to Casablanca, Morocco, before family friends, who had found their way to Canada, urged them to come, too. They set sail on the SS Volcania, an Italian tourist ship, and arrived in Halifax in August, 1954.

Vike-Freiberga’s first memories were joyful—the lush greenery of Halifax, and the giant ice-cream cone she had at the train station in Montreal as they made their way to Toronto. Their initial home was located in a tough neighbourhood near Toronto’s core where the cruel reality of postwar Canada soon set in. People referred to the incoming Europeans disparagingly as DPs, for displaced people. “They forced the label of‘new Canadian’ on me,” recalls VikeFreiberga, sitting at her desk in front of the red-and-white Latvian flag. “You might say I became a Latvian because every Canadian in encounters kept

telling me: ‘Ah, who are you?’ And I had to answer, ‘I’m a Latvian.’ ”

Vike-Freiberga excelled in school, and after earning a master’s degree from the University of Toronto, she gained her PhD in psychology from Montreal’s McGill University. Starting in 1965, she spent 33 years teaching at the University of Montreal, but even then she never strayed far from her Latvian roots. She produced seven books about Latvian culture and folk songs, including one with her husband, Imants Freibergs, a former professor of computer science at the University of Quebec at Montreal.

In the process, Vike-Freiberga became a leading member of the expatriate Latvian community, estimated at 20,000 in Canada. Her son, Karlis, 36, who now works in her press office, moved to Riga in 1989 as a movement known as the Popular Front pushed for independence from Russia. Every year on Nov. 18, the country’s prewar Independence Day, she would address Latvians in cities like Toronto, Montreal or New York. Vike-Freiberga, a former vicechairman of the Science Council of Canada, also won the Social Science prize from the World Association of Free Latvians in 1989.

Finally, in 1998, she moved back to her native country when the prime minister appointed her director of the Riga-based Latvian Institute. That summer, a number of Latvian political leaders began to ask her to run for president. “I’d sit there drinking coffee and then people said, ‘You’d make a good president,’ ” she says, chuckling. “Well,

I said, ‘Yeah, I would. Why not?’ ”

The Latvian president, who serves a four-year term, is not a member of parliament but is elected by the country’s 100 MPs in a secret ballot requiring a majority of at least 51. Vike-Freiberga agreed to stand, but was not a first-round candidate. She was nominated in the second round after her rivals failed to secure a majority. Since her election, Vike-Freiberga, who has given up her Canadian citizenship, has confounded her critics with her popularity. “Without false modesty,” she maintains, “I can say the political deci-

sions I have taken have turned out to be exactly right.”

Opposition politicians do not quite agree. “She does not know Latvia,” says Janis Jurkans, an MP with For Human Rights in a United Latvia, a party widely supported by the Russian minority. “She has to learn more.” And Vike-Freiberga did stumble at first. She was heavily criticized for running up a $45,000 bill on a weeklong visit to New York City where she addressed the United Nations—an expenditure that did not impress the people of Latvia, whose income per person averages just $375 a month.

The media jumped on her excesses, which included staying at New York’s lavish Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. “The press was absolutely convinced that I must make a false move,” says Vike-Freiberga, oudining how she sees their approach:

“First of all, she’s a woman. She comes from the West. She’s an academic. She hasn’t been in politics, licking stamps for

a party and this sort of thing. We’re going to go out and get her.”

Vike-Freiberga, however, survived her initial brushes with controversy. She is learning to speak Russian and received praise from EU officials over her handling of the language law, which passed on Dec. 9. Gone are tough provisions that would have forbidden the use of Russian in almost any public and private enterprise. Now, cabinet ministers can determine when a second, nonLatvian language can be used.

Critics like Jurkans still accuse Vike-Freiberga of failing to address the future of the country’s Russian

population directly. The President herself puts forward a multicultural vision—in which anyone, Latvian or Russian, should be able to live free of prejudice—that sounds pretty Canadian. While she thinks such comparisons are dangerous given the different histories, she accepts that people make them. “As a result of the heavy Russification of the country during the Soviet occupation and how to deal with that,” she says, “they draw the parallels between Quebec and the rest of Canada.” Although she reaches out to Latvia’s Russian minority, Vike-Freiberga does not mince words about the Russians across the border. After 50 years of occupation, she says, they still look backwards, clinging to past glory. “I think if they got over the master-race complex,” she adds, “they could start envisaging themselves as Europeans—a Europe of Èâm

Latvia at a glance

Population: 2.5 million, including one million Russians Area: 64,000 square kilometres Capital: Riga (population 815,000)

Climate: moderate, even in winter, due to maritime effects Geography: hilly, forested land with many lakes

GDP: $15 billion (1997 estimate)

Major industries: heavy manufacturing, including buses and railway cars, wood products, textiles, electronics, agriculture, fishing

peace and dynamic growth.”

Her forthright approach draws praise from people like Innese Birzniece, an MP with the political party Latvia’s Way. “She’s not to be anybody’s puppet,” says Birzniece, who moved to Riga 10 years ago from California. She describes the president as a “world citizen,” adding: “That is a viewpoint that we really need here in Latvia because people have been closed off for 50 years.” Vike-Freiberga is determined to help open them up.

Tom Fennell

Blake Lambert