Vike-Freiberga, Vaira (1937—)

views updated

Vike-Freiberga, Vaira (1937—)

President of Latvia . Name variations: Vaira Vîke-Freiberga; Vaira Vike-Freibergs. Born in Riga, Latvia, on December 1, 1937; daughter of Karlis and Annemarie (Rankis) Vike; University of Toronto, B.A., 1958, M.A., 1960; McGill University, Ph.D., 1965; married Imants F. Freibergs, on July 16, 1960; children: Karl Robert; Indra Karoline.

Clinical psychologist, Toronto Psychiatric Hospital (1960–61); assistant professor, department of psychology, University of Montreal (1965–72); associate professor (1972–77), became professor (1977); director of Latvian Youth Ethnic Heritage Seminars Divreiizdivi (1979); president, Social Science Federation of Canada (1980); chair of NATO special program panel on human factors (1980).

Sworn in as president of Latvia on July 8, 1999, Vaira Vike-Freiberga became the first democratically elected woman president in Eastern Europe. She was born in Riga, Latvia, in 1937, and as a child fled with her family to escape the advancing Red Army, hiding in ditches and enduring the rigors of a refugee camp, where her infant sister died in the winter of 1945. Following the war, the family lived in Casablanca, then emigrated to Canada.

Vike-Freiberga earned her undergraduate and master's degrees from the University of Toronto, then received her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from McGill University in 1965. In the interim, she married and had two children. She was employed at Toronto Psychiatric Hospital and later as a professor at the University of Montreal. Though she became a Canadian citizen, Vike-Freiberga never forgot her beleaguered homeland. She became an expert in Latvian folklore and culture, and lobbied Western governments not to recognize the annexation of the Baltics by the Soviet Union. When the captive nations regained independence in 1991, many émigrés declared their mission complete. Before the decade was out, however, Vike-Freiberga found herself the symbol of renewed hope for her country. Elected on January 17, 1999, following five failed rounds, she took office in Latvia just as the nation was eager for change.

As pointed out in The Economist (August 1999), the new president had several strikes against her. Although fluent in five languages, she spoke no Russian, the mother tongue of a third of the country; she had no political base, having been elected by Parliament as a deadlock-breaking outsider; and she had little day-to-day power, although she did have the authority to call for a referendum in which voters could either vote out the president or Parliament.

Vike-Freiberga is possessed of great charm, intelligence, and popularity, however, which may indeed be enough to overcome any of her weaknesses. Coming to her job as an outsider, she also owed no political favors, another plus. Naming admission to the European Union (EU) and NATO as her first priorities, the new president immediately went to work. One of her earliest promises was her intention to learn Russian herself. "I thought it would be fun," she said, "a challenge to those who have spent 50 years not learning Latvian." Another immediate consideration was the EU's concerns that laws on citizenship and language, established after 1991, discriminate against Russians in Latvia. Addressing the issue early on, Vike-Freiberga rejected a particularly harsh new language law passed in Parliament which demanded that private commercial transactions should be in Latvian. Parliament seemed likely to agree to her softening amendment, which bodes well for her attempt to establish her country on a more even playing field.


"Vaira Vike-Freiberga, a Canadian-European," in The Economist. August 21, 1999.