A Latvian First and Always © 2006 The Washington Post Company
By Nora Boustany Wednesday, March 8, 2006; A16
It was Friday night, June 17, 1999, and Vaira Vike-Freiberga, a clinical psychologist with expertise in Latvian folk songs, was at her desk in Riga when the telephone rang. Would she consider becoming Latvia's president? Let me know quickly, said the caller, a politician; the Latvian Parliament was deadlocked and needed a new candidate.
After consulting with her family, she gave her answer that evening: Yes. By midnight, Parliament had voted. When she walked into the hair salon the next morning for her appointment, she was president-elect.
Such was the latest swerve in the life of a woman who as a child lived in refugee camps in Germany, studied in a one-room schoolhouse in Morocco and immigrated to Canada. There, her life stabilized, and for 33 years she was a lecturer at the University of Montreal's department of psychology.
Along the way, she clung to the identity of the country she had left. "I grew up feeling that our cultural heritage was something precious," she said in an interview at the Hay-Adams Hotel near the White House. "The only common thread of identity was about being Latvian."
She finally returned in 1998 to the country, newly independent half a century after being annexed by the Soviet Union.
Poised, articulate and full of vitality, Vike-Freiberga credits her rise to power to her interest in things Latvian -- and to the media, which from almost the minute she stepped off the plane showed interest in her as a possible leader. Magazines put flattering pictures of her on the cover, writing about her lectures to Latvians on their folklore.
She is in her second four-year term, and she is mentioned as a possible U.N. secretary general, to replace Kofi Annan when his term expires Dec. 31.
During a visit to Washington last week, Vike-Freiberga accepted the Baltic Statesmanship Award. Former secretary of state Madeleine K. Albright said in introducing her Saturday night at a U.S.-Baltic Foundation dinner: "Democracy is known for producing miracles, but this one was a dandy."
"One of the most precious gifts that the Baltic community brings to the community of democracies is a living memory of having lived without freedom," Albright said. "President Vike-Freiberga has proven throughout her career that it is possible to deeply care about your nation's history and culture while still championing the freedoms that are the rightful heritage of all humankind."
Vike-Freiberga was born in Riga in 1937. She was 7 when in 1945 her parents, terrified at the thought of the Soviet army rolling into Latvia, decided to leave. The family landed in a refugee camp in Herrenwiek, Germany, and later lived in Luebeck, Germany. She still recalls the train station there and the three-walled ruin of a flat that relatives provided.
The family survived on rations from a U.N. relief agency. Notebooks, ink and pencils were hard to come by. When she was asked to draw a forest, the only crayons she had were red and blue.
By late 1948, refugee associations were growing tired of supporting refugees. Many were sent to other countries. Her father, an architect, became a hand at a sugar beet farm in Morocco because she, her mother and younger brother could come along.
All through this period, she recalled, her parents taught her that one has to preserve one's identity or lose it. "Remaining Latvian meant remaining who they are," she said. By age 11, she said, she understood that Latvians had a different spirit and had come from a world other than the one she was inhabiting.
In Morocco, Christians, Muslims and Jews lived together. She went to catechism classes taught by a Roman Catholic priest, and when she asked her mother for a white first communion dress, she was told she was Lutheran.
After 5 1/2 years in Morocco, the family immigrated to Toronto. "I was neither here nor there" in the new country, she said. "It took time to integrate." At the same time, she hung on to her Latvian qualities. She began to attend Latvian student dances.
As she advanced in an academic career, identity became a field of professional focus, and she developed her own theories: Natural identity is what you are born as, like a fish in water. Reactive identities are forged when others react to your strange name when all you want is to be accepted. Elective identities are those of her children, born in Canada, yet having a choice.
When she returned home in 1998, she took a job heading the Latvian Institute, whose job was to introduce the country to the world. Now that she is president, national identity remains a prime interest. One challenge is to persuade the Russians in the country, who make up 28.2 percent of the population, to adopt Latvian as their first language while maintaining Russian. Vike-Freiberga is criticized for having given up the study of Russian, which she began when she became president.
Her tiny nation of 2.3 million still has Russia breathing down its neck, with threats to shut off gas and oil. This fall, Latvia will host a summit of the 26 members of NATO. Officials in Russia find Vike-Freiberga antagonistic and too ready to take up Baltic issues with President Bush .
Some Latvians were reluctant to have the country join the alliance out of fear it would anger Russia. Vike-Freiberga has an answer for that: "We, the Latvian people, have not been put by the good Lord on this Earth to make Russia happy. We have our own lives to live and as we see fit. And we wish the Russians joy, and we wish them a happy and prosperous life."
In a relatively short time, she has earned the nickname "Iron Lady of the Baltics." She sees it differently. The chance to serve a country she thought she would never see again is, she said, "a gift from heaven."
© 2006 The Washington Post Company