“I firmly believe that the world can become a better place, if a critical number of people join hands in creating it. Then we can make this Earth a place where every human can live in dignity, where other species are respected for their rights to survive next to us, and where humankind is committed to care for our planet, for it is our common Mother and our common Home.” These are the aspirations of one of the world’s prominent leaders and a democratic president who introduced strategically important social, political and cultural reforms to her country and is now a member of several international organizations.
Vaira Vike-Freiberga is a high-profile Latvian politician and the first female president of her country who assumed office in 1999 and was reelected in 2003 for another four-year term until 2007.
Currently, Vike-Freiberga is the president of the Club of Madrid, a large institution comprised of more than 80 democratically elected former presidents and prime ministers from some 60 countries.
According to Vike-Freiberga, who was chosen by the former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan to propose changes and reformations to the structure of the United Nations and its associated organizations, the UN is in dire need of fundamental changes, because some of its mechanisms are not consistent with the requirements and needs of the present day.
President Vaira Vike-Freiberga is also a famous scholar of interdisciplinary studies and has published several books and articles. She is a recipient of the Dame Grand Cross of the Order of St. Olav from the Norwegian government, Dame Grand Cross with Grand Cordon of the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic, Order of the White Eagle from the government of Poland and Grand Cordon of the Order of the Chrysanthemum from Japan. She is also a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and a member of the Fondation Chirac’s honor committee.
What follows is the text of Tehran Times’ exclusive interview with the former Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga to whom we have discussed a number of issues including Latvia’s position in the European Union, the impacts of Eurozone crisis on Latvia, Latvia’s relations with Russia, the reformation of the UN structure the crisis in Syria and the recent foreign policy developments in Iran. What follows is the text of the interview.
Q: Mrs. President; It was under your leadership in 2004 that Latvia joined the European Union and also the North Atlantic Treaty Organization the same year. What do you think about the importance of Latvia joining these organizations? How can the EU contribute to the growth and promotion of global peace and democracy, as the values which you’ve been advocating for a long time? How did you convince the NATO leaders to admit Latvia as a new member?
A: When I took office as President of the Republic of Latvia in 1999, the future of my country as a potential member of the EU and NATO was very much in doubt. On the diplomatic front, many in the then member nations had serious doubts about the need for any kind of enlargement at all, while others were ready to accept some countries, but not others on geo-strategic grounds alone. In addition to sustained diplomatic efforts and the need to convince our future partners of the wisdom of opening their doors, we had to satisfy extremely stringent requirements for membership and keep carrying out fundamental and serious reforms.
Five years later, we had achieved both goals, thanks to a serious mobilization of all our efforts. These included very hard work on several fronts simultaneously including massive changes in legislation, as well as continued dialogue with our own people about the wisdom and necessity to keep “doing our homework” as efficiently as we could.
Q: You’ve been elected the president of the Club de Madrid which is an organization consisting of more than 80 democratically elected presidents and prime ministers who have stepped down from the office. What are your future objectives as the president of the organization? What do you think about the importance of such a club as the Club de Madrid in our world today? What’s your assessment of the role such an organization is playing in bringing the world’s prominent leaders together and expanding democracy and freedom throughout the world?
A: The Club de Madrid was founded ten years ago at a conference on successful transition to democracy. All of the over 90 members are former Presidents or Prime Ministers of over 60 different countries, leaders who hold high all the basic principles that distinguish democratic from authoritarian systems. They have been leaders at home, as long as the constitutions of their countries and the will of their citizens allowed it, in promoting ever more free, just, open, prosperous and tolerant societies. Now that they are retired from active political office, they are ready to put their knowledge, principles, convictions and experience at the disposal of any country, anywhere in the world, that would like either to start or to pursue their own transitions to just and democratic systems of governance.
My own role as President of the Club de Madrid will be to mobilize as many of our membership as possible to participate in our specific common projects, for all of our members are engaged in a wide array of activities, all of which make serious demands on their time. I will also be active in looking for new partners of collaboration in various projects, as well as for generous philanthropists, who would be ready to support the technical infrastructures and personnel needed to back up the volunteer participation of our members.
Q: How has Latvia’s relationship been with Russia in the recent years, especially following Latvia’s accession to the NATO, which Russia was strongly opposed to? I had read that Russia had sporadically complained against Latvia to the European Court of Human Rights over what they said to be Latvia’s discrimination against the country’s Russian-speaking minority. What’s your take on that?
A: As recent Russian pronouncements about the ongoing events in Ukraine have shown, Russia is increasingly reverting to outdated cold-war rhetoric, most notably in asserting their right to decide the fate of countries unlucky enough to live in their neighborhood. Again and again, the concept of “legitimate spheres of influence” has been invoked by its leaders, as if it were some sacrosanct law of nature which applies to some nations, but not to others. Such imperialistic concepts clearly have never been adopted by the UN or any other respectable international organization, nor does there exist any such concept in international law.
Q: Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan had asked you to join him in a group of experts for a comprehensive revision of the UN structure and agenda. What’s your general attitude toward the UN structures, especially the Security Council, in which five countries have the veto power and sometimes take decisions which a great number of countries dislike or feel uncomfortable about? Which parts of the UN structure need a basic reformation and revision in your view?
A: The UN was founded after the Second World War, with a structure that tried to accommodate pragmatically the equilibrium of world power at that time. Over half a century later, the world has changed dramatically and the number of member nations has increased dramatically as well. Yet the structures that govern the UN have remained fundamentally the same and they are becoming more and more out of step with the realities of the world today and to-morrow.
To start with, the Security Council structure is the most behind the times and is in need of serious reforms. The special privileges granted to an inner core of Security Council member states, with veto powers over any decision or action this international body might have voted on, have paralyzed the ability of the UN to intervene effectively in any number of grave international crises. Second, the mechanisms for follow-up, evaluating and eventual closing down of projects that have run their course are inefficient, if not nonexistent. Third, the UN bureaucracy has not been run with the same eye to efficiency, rationality, transparency and fairness as many private foundations, all because political cabals and self-interested coalitions have always managed to impede any serious efforts at bureaucratic reform.
Q: You’re a member of the Global Leadership Foundation, which is an organization aimed at promoting good governance and conflict resolution through peaceful and diplomatic means. Do you support a diplomatic solution to the crisis in Syria? How can this three-year-long conflict finally come to an end? It seems that the terrorists fighting in Syria don’t intend to leave their arms. More than 130,000 people have already been killed and around 7 million are displaced. What’s your viewpoint on the possible solutions for this civil war?
A: When the situation in a country degenerates into civil war, the original reason is always an inability to reconcile conflicting interests in a way that would be reasonably acceptable to both sides. If the stakes are high as they are in Syria, many citizens are ready to fight to the death in the hope of making their cause take the upper hand.
The tragedy in Syria is particularly discouraging because of a variety of factors working against a quick resolution. First, there is very clearly the influence and manipulation by foreign powers, which try to promote their own economic, political or strategic aims by using popular discontent in Syria as a tool. These keep fanning the flames of conflict, supply arms and financial resources, and have not the slightest interest in the welfare of the Syrian people. Second, there are deep and serious divides within Syrian society itself, with a clear lack of tolerance for dissenting opinions and a preference for winning arguments by force. Third, contrary to what happened in a number of Arab countries, President Assad is fiercely clinging to power, is not ready to resign, and is quite ready to massacre his civilian population to keep his authoritarian regime in place. By all evidence, he has still sufficient support in the Army, large parts of which have sided with the President, and have no more regard to the consequences of his actions as he does himself.
And finally, because of the many years of a totalitarian form of governance, Syria lacks human resources and a social climate that would allow the opposition to form a common plan of action and adopt a credible alternative plan for what Syria should be like after the fall of Assad.
Q: Aside from being a politician, you’re a prestigious academic and have written more than 10 books and also specialize in the Latvian culture. What aspects of the Latvian culture are the most prominent dimensions of the Latvian society that have remained unseen or overlooked? I learned that the Baltic tribes which are considered as the ancestors of the present day Latvians settled in your country at around 3,000 BC. So, despite its young age as an independent state, Latvia has got a rich and ancient history. Would you please explain more about it for us?
A: Along with the inhabitants of Lithuania and what was then Ancient Prussia, the Latvian tribes were declared to be the last pagans in Europe and Pope Innocent III declared a Holy Crusade against them, with the same remission of sins as for those who had conquered and tried to hold the Holy Land. After several centuries of fierce resistance, these territories were ultimately conquered, yet their inhabitants kept many of their beliefs and customs alive throughout the centuries.
I personally have been particularly interested in the exceptionally rich oral heritage of Latvia, specifically the lyrical songs or dainas, and this, from a variety of points of view. As the young child of World War II political refugees, I grew up without any other heritage than the non-material cultural heritage of my people. As I discovered the dainas, I realized that they were a veritable treasure trove of poetic beauty, deep wisdom and remarkable intellectual complexity in their structure. My husband, Imants Freibergs and I, along with a large group of helpers, have managed to get a quarter of a million texts transcribed in digitally accessible form and the corpus continues to get one million “hits” a year from its users. I have many publications in English on the dainas and am in the process of writing a book on The Sun in Latvian mythology, which will be the fifth volume in a series of commentaries on the sub-corpus of 4500 Latvian Sun-songs.
Q: How do you think the European Union can contribute to the reconstruction process and restoration of peace and security in Afghanistan and Iraq? These are two war-hit countries, and notwithstanding the factors that triggered the wars in these countries, they need financial and political support from the international community. Is the EU ready to help them stand on their own feet?
A: The EU is altogether the most generous of all international donors and the biggest source of international aid. Its interventions are aimed at alleviating acute humanitarian crises as well as encouraging and supporting self-help and sustainable development.
Too often, the aid distributed by the EU, the UN and any number of private foundations, has been highjacked by corrupt governments, high and low officials, if not bandits and rogue “armies” of every ilk. Too often, foreign aid has enriched the few instead of helping the many. For this reason, a debate has been going on in Europe and elsewhere about the need for making international assistance conditional on the country concerned showing serious efforts to put its own act together. This, in turn, has raised a hue and cry on the part of those, whose philosophy is: “just give us the money unconditionally, so we can spend it just as we like!”
If a country is in a mess, and lives in constant internal conflict, it is very hard for anybody from outside to change it for the better. Of course, one can give advice, and many organizations of which I am a member try to do that in every way possible. But ultimately the inhabitants and citizens themselves must become aware of what is going on, recognize what has gone wrong, where and why and come to the conclusion that fundamental changes are needed for things to become better. If citizens keep on slaughtering each other for reasons that remain obscure to most outside observers and frequently – to their own populations, then the first step has to be a general truce to which all sides have agreed. The case of Northern Ireland is a text-book example of how a long and bloody conflict can be resolved, once enough good will has accumulated on both sides of the divide.
Q: How much had Latvia been affected by the 2010-2011 economic crisis in the Eurozone? I read on the news that Latvia ranked 11th among the EU member states in terms of unemployment. Is your country struggling with the problem of unemployment? How is the economic situation now? Could you find ways to cope with the Eurozone debt crisis?
A: The year the crisis hit Latvia was late 2008, along with the failure of the biggest bank in the country. The real-estate bubble burst, salaries were cut dramatically, many jobs were lost, the government needed international loans, and the IMF became a regular visitor to the country. A severe austerity program was adopted by the government, with the result that today the country has largely recovered and has one of the highest rates of growth in the EU. Unfortunately, this has been accompanied by a substantial reduction in the population, because of economic emigration to more prosperous countries. Nevertheless, on January 1, 2014, Latvia joined the euro zone and continues to increase its exports in an effort to maintain a better balance of payments. Level of unemployment is closely correlated with level of education, with about 1000 jobs in the IT sector going vacant because of the lack of trained specialists.
Q: Riga has been named the 2014 European Capital of Culture along with Sweden’s Umea. What do you think about the significance of this selection? How can it contribute to portraying a better, clearer image of Latvia to the whole European citizens and foster the country’s tourism industry? Overall, what do you think about the annual designations of different European cities as the cultural capital? Can it help bring the European citizens closer together and contribute to their solidarity?
A: Every city that has once been European capital of culture can speak of tangible and intangible benefits derived from that privilege. For Riga, it is an opportunity to put the city and the whole country on the map for those who know little or nothing about it.
In my travels, I keep meeting numerous persons who enthuse about Riga as a beautiful capital with a rich, diverse and thriving artistic and cultural ambiance, much more so than they had expected. Many others have concrete plans to come to Riga soon, and I can personally confirm that 2014 really is the year when it will be exceptionally worth your while to visit the city!
Q: Mrs. President; it was on the reports that Latvia has the biggest number of single-parent homes in the EU. What’s your evaluation of this figure? Is it that the traditional foundation of family has become shaky and unstable in Latvia, or you interpret it in a different way?
A: Since I have left office, I have not been following all the vital statistics on the situation in my country. I get the impression that rates of divorce and numbers of single-parent families keep increasing in most economically developed countries, but I am no expert in the matter.
Q: What’s your viewpoint regarding the new shift in Iran’s foreign policy that has started with the election of moderate President Hassan Rouhani? Have you been observing the course of talks between Iran and the six world powers over Iran’s nuclear program and the interim agreement they’ve reached last November and the deal which is being implemented now?
A: Iran is an important country, with a large population and an exceptionally rich cultural history. I have been saddened to see rough principles introduced in its governance and look forward to the day when the majority of the population will demand a more open, just and tolerant society.
Q: As a final question; you’ve been nominated for the post of UN Secretary General, have held several prominent positions and will continue your efforts in the future. What’s your best wish and desire for the humanity? How can we help the impoverished people in Latin America, Asia and Africa who are waiting for the democratic leaders to take action and help them get out of the crisis they’re grappling with?
A: Too many parts of the world we live in are filled with unimaginable horrors: violence, oppression, injustice, poverty, malnutrition, disease and premature death. Yet there is not a single place on our planet that does not have the potential to root out these evils, one by one, step by step. Different countries, at different times, may take some steps forward, then some steps backward, but definite progress is absolutely certain, so long as there is a clear vision of the inherent value of each and every human life as well as of the infinite potential for good, that slumbers in every human breast. I firmly believe that the world can become a better place, if a critical number of people join hands in creating it. Then we can make this Earth a place where every human can live in dignity, where other species are respected for their rights to survive next to us, and where humankind is committed to care for our planet, for it is our common Mother and our common Home.