Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga (born 1937) was first elected to her government position in 1999. A former professor of psychology at the University of Montreal, Vike-Freiberga had returned to her country of birth to direct the Latvian Institute in 1998. Popular and effective in her new political career, she was reelected to Latvia's presidency in 2003.
Vike-Freiberga was born on December 1, 1937, in Riga, Latvia. In 1944, as World War II still raged throughout Europe, her family fled their country, just days ahead of the advancing Russian Red Army. After a harrowing journey, the Vike family settled in a refugee camp between East and West Germany. "I remember every step," Vike-Freiberga recalled to Rafael Behr of the Financial Times. "We were put in a camp that was a huge barrack with snow seeping in and people just lined up in three-tier wooden bunks, no warm food. And then we were put in an unheated train, and it happened to be a cold wave . . . it was January and it went down to minus 35 and we traveled for six days." Vike-Freiberga's infant sister died in such a camp during the winter of 1945.
After World War II ended the German refugee camps began to be dismantled and the Vike family was subject to fresh humiliation and distress as it sought a new home through United Nation (U.N.) refugee agencies. "We had these commissions coming around from all across the world . . . sort of like looking over cattle or slaves at a market, saying we need cotton pickers in Mississippi and coffee pickers in Brazil and quarry workers in Australia. . . . wonderful offers!" The family immigrated to Casablanca, Morocco, where, after a slightly rocky start when Vike-Freiberga's elementary school teacher mistook her lack of French-language skills as an intelligence problem, the family settled in happily enough. An apt pupil, Vike-Freiberga began to master French—she eventually would speak six languages—and her father found work as an engineer. However, Morocco's 1954 independence from France prompted the displaced family to emigrate once again.
Moved to North America
At the behest of friends in Toronto, the Vike family set out for Canada aboard the SS Volcania and landed in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in August of 1954. At that time, many Canadians had an unpleasant tendency to refer to recent European immigrants as "DP's," or displaced people. As her family settled into a rough Toronto neighborhood, Vike-Freiberga found that such disparagement helped to crystallize her national identity. "They forced the label of 'new Canadian' on me," she told Maclean's interviewers Tom Fennell and Blake Lambert. "You might say I became a Latvian because every Canadian in encounters kept (asking) me: 'Ah, who are you?' And I had to answer, 'I'm a Latvian.' " Despite that shaky beginning, Vike-Freiberga went on to forge a long and successful life in her adopted country.
As Vike-Freiberga adjusted to her new home, she briefly considered becoming a physician. Instead, she went into clinical psychology, earning her B.A. and M.A. at the University of Toronto, and her Ph.D. from Montreal's McGill University in 1965. She began working as a professor of psychology at the University of Montreal after earning her doctorate, and remained in that position for the next 33 years. Vike-Freiberga became highly respected in her field, taking on such prestigious roles as vice chair of the Science Council of Canada, president of the Canadian Psychological Association, and president of the Social Science Federation of Canada. Along the way, she also married a fellow Latvian exile, Imants Freibergs, a professor of computer science at the University of Quebec, in 1960. They had two children, Karlis and Indra. For all her professional and personal success in Canada, however, Vike-Freiberga never ventured far from her Latvian roots.
Vike-Freiberga spent a great deal of time researching Latvian folk culture, turning out seven books on the subject and co-authoring several databases of material. She became a leading figure in the Latvian expatriate community, organizing summer camps for youth, and speaking at seminars and conferences worldwide. She first returned to Riga in 1969 and, although dismayed by the changes that Soviet rule had wrought on her hometown, became a regular visitor thereafter. Among the many accolades that her efforts on behalf on the Latvian community garnered were the 1979 Anna Abele Prize in Latvian philology, the 1989 Social Science Prize from the World Association of Free Latvians, and the Latvian Three-Star Order, given to her in 1995. In 1998, Vike-Freiberga would be called upon to do more.
Returned to Latvia
On August 21, 1991, Latvia broke away from the crumbling Soviet Union and declared itself independent once again. Founded in 1918, the country had been continuously occupied by either the Soviet Union (1940-41, 1945-91) or Nazi Germany (1941-1945) for over 50 years. With a population around 2.5 million people, approximately one third of which was of Russian ancestry, and a generation of global isolation to make up for, the tiny country, like other newly liberated Baltic states, now had its work cut out for it. Sophisticated exiles like Vike-Freiberga were among Latvia's best hopes to reintegrate with the world, and many stepped up to the plate. Throughout the 1990s, many expatriates and next-generation Latvians returned to their homeland. Some were overwhelmed by the ugly changes the occupations had brought about, while others were merely hoping to capitalize on the disorder. Still others however, were there to truly lend a hand.
In the autumn of 1998, Vike-Freiberga was asked to become director of the newly founded Latvian Institute. The organization, based in Riga, was designed to promote Latvia abroad. Accepting the position, Vike-Freiberga retired from her teaching post and headed back to the country she had fled 54 years before.
Not long after her return to Latvia, various political leaders began sounding out Vike-Freiberga's thoughts on a run for president of the country. Although largely an ornamental position within a parliament-ruled government, the presidency was certainly not without its influence or ability to effect change. Vike-Freiberga was intrigued. "I'd sit there drinking coffee," she recalled to Fennell and Lambert, "and then people said, "You'd make a good president.' Well, I said, "Yeah, I would. Why not?' " When she was nominated by parliament to break a deadlock after none of the slated candidates managed to secure a majority vote, Vike-Freiberga was once again ready to serve her homeland. Having relinquished her Canadian citizenship, she was elected president of Latvia on June 17, 1999.
Two of Vike-Freiberga's top priorities after attaining the presidency were the integration of Latvia into both the European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). One stumbling block to the former was what the EU saw as unfair citizenship and language laws apparently designed to punish Russians living in Latvia. Just one week after taking office, Vike-Freiberga aggressively addressed the problem by sending a language bill that required, among other things, all private commercial transactions be conducted in Latvian, back to parliament, deeming it as excessive. The move drew the ire of some Latvian nationals and the approval of EU officials. Having protected their interests—and her own goals of joining the EU—she then challenged Latvia's Russian-speaking population with a promise to learn Russian herself. As she told the Economist, "I thought it would be fun, a challenge to those who have spent 50 years not learning Latvian." The talented linguist made good on her vow.
Vike-Freiberga's early presidency also drew some grumblings regarding her life in the West and her lack of political background, as well as more substantial criticism regarding her initial government spending habits. She managed to overcome the controversy, however, and focus on her primary goals. Latvian member of parliament Innese Birzniece told Fennell and Lambert that, Vike-Freiberga is "not to be anybody's puppet," and added that the president's status as a "world citizen" was "a viewpoint that we really need here in Latvia because people have been closed off for 50 years." Most Latvian citizens appeared to agree, as Vike-Freiberga's administration proved to be extremely popular.
Vike-Freiberga downplayed her role as one of the first female heads of state in Eastern Europe, preferring to focus on her larger aims and the potential of her country. The International Journal of Humanities and Peace quoted her in an interview with Choices as noting: "I tend to view my commitments as humanistic ones in the fullest sense of the word. For me democracy is a service to human beings regardless of their gender, and in that sense my own gender is not an important issue." Instead, she saw as an "important issue" Latvia's future.
Throughout her first term as president, Vike-Freiberga worked relentlessly to gain Latvia's admission into the EU and NATO. However, even those goals did not make her bend to the will of such influential EU countries as France and Germany when the United States invaded Iraq in the spring of 2003. Dismissing charges of disloyalty to the EU, she firmly backed the U.S. action, citing Latvia's history of occupation. "We certainly have seen the results of appeasement, or rather the lack of them," the Europe Intelligence Wire quoted her as noting. "It's much easier to tolerate a dictator when he's dictating over somebody else's life and not your own."
Achieved Initial Goals
Vike-Freiberga's unflagging efforts were affirmed by her reelection as Latvia's president, with only six opposing votes in parliament, on June 20, 2003. Her popularity among the citizens continued to range between a remarkable 70 and 85 percent. Voters' confidence in their president was affirmed with the March, 2004, induction of Latvia into NATO and the country's May, 2004, entry into the EU. Of the latter victory, Vike-Freiberga told Janis Udris of the Latvijas Vestnesis, as quoted by the Asia Africa Intelligence Wire, "For our nation, that will become a day that must be celebrated and that is holy, because it will mean the completion of very serious, purposeful and long-lasting efforts."
Despite advances on the international front, Vike-Freiberga's work was not yet done. Domestic political turmoil roiled, effective assimilation of Russian residents in Latvia remained unresolved, and the fragmentation of the EU all posed challenges. However, the welfare of her homeland continued to be at the forefront of her actions, as was her determination that Latvia continue to be a free and contributing member of global society despite its tiny size. As Vike-Freiberga told Juris Kaza in the Christian Science Monitor, "The world has been trying to overcome racism, sexism, and ageism and now it is time to overcome the prejudice that there is something wrong with countries being small, or that small nations must be treated in a condescending manner." Vike-Freiberga's second presidential term is set to expire in 2007.
Asia Africa Intelligence Wire, February 6, 2004.
Christian Science Monitor, July 7, 1999.
Economist, August 21, 1999.
Europe Intelligence Wire, June 20, 2003; July 10, 2003.
Financial Times, April 13, 2002.
Houston Chronicle, May 31, 2004.
International Journal of Humanities and Peace (annual), 2002.
ITAR/TASS News Agency, November 30, 2001.
Maclean's, February 7, 2000.
"President of Latvia Vaira Vike-Freiberga," U.S. Embassy Web site, http://www.usembassy.1v/EN/rwbls/home/Riga/Biographies/biography4 (January 2, 2005).
"Profile: Vaira Vike-Freiberga," BBC News Online,http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/pr/fr/-/2/hi/europe/3669691.stm (January 2, 2005).
"Vaira Vike-Freiberga . . . From Morocco and Canada to the Presidential Palace of Latvia," Riika.net,http://www.riika.net/english/president.htm (January 2, 2005).