Latvia's Ex-President: 'We Have To Worry' About Russia

Apr 1, 2014
Originally published on April 1, 2014 8:45 am

Russia's takeover of Crimea sent shivers through Latvia.

The tiny Baltic state was itself taken over by the Soviet Union in 1940 and did not regain its independence until the Soviet breakup in 1991. Latvia has a population of just 2 million, and roughly a quarter of those are ethnic Russians.

Given this history, Latvia was eager to align itself with the West. In 2004, under then-president Vaira Vike-Freiberga, Latvia joined both the European Union and NATO and is counting on those allies for protection.

The maps at the bottom of this page show the dramatic shift that's taken place in Europe over the past two decades.

On NPR's Morning Edition, Vike-Freiberga said Tuesday that despite having powerful friends, Latvia needs to continue to strengthen its own national security as well.


Interview Highlights

On Latvia's ethnic Russians

We have been working very hard, certainly during my presidency, to convince them that if they have decided to live in Latvia they might as well do so with full political participation which comes with citizenship and the right to vote ... But there are the diehards who think that the renewed independence of Latvia is only a passing thing and that, indeed, the fate of Crimea is what they would hope for (for Latvia) because they came here as conquerors under the propaganda that they are liberating the country from fascism — even in 1940 when (Latvia) was independent and (the Soviet Union) invaded it.

On the notion that Russia has a right to intervene in neighboring countries

I think such ideas should have disappeared with the 1917 revolution when Latvian riflemen helped to overthrow the tsarist regime. The whole point was that we were following (U.S. President) Woodrow Wilson's principles of the right of nations to determine their own fate and that includes those who have the misfortune of living nearby whatever Russian political system is in effect at the time.

We have no predestined wish to be subject to Moscow's dictates. We have been submitted to it by the force of arms. In international law, there is no such concept that has been accepted that one nation can determine how another should be governed.

There are principles — for instance, in the European Union — to which we have all voluntarily subscribed. But it has not been a case of (the EU) enlarging its sphere of influence to include Latvia as a member. It is a completely different thing.

On a fundamental difference between Russia and the European Union

They have the vertical of power in Russia and it doesn't quite work that way in the EU. We'd rather follow the principles of subsidiary and leave quite a bit of decision-making power to each sovereign nation. The vertical of power means that you have one man and his cronies controlling basically all the levers of power and the finance and subsidiary means you try and have as much decision-making delegated at either the municipal, the regional or national levels rather than at the supranational levels such as the EU.

On the likely impact of sanctions against Russia

It remains to be seen how hard any measures taken by the West will bite him. And that is also difficult to predict because we live in such a globalized world where the interconnections in energy supplies and in the flow of financial markets is not as predictable as one would like to see it. If the sanctions should happen to bite sufficiently, something might happen. But otherwise, having once seized (Crimea) it's like a vulture having seized something in its claws. I doubt that, voluntarily, (Russia) would give it up.

On threats to Latvia's security

We have to worry every minute of every day. We have to be ready in every possible way. This is why when we were first given the membership action plan for NATO, we took it very seriously. We're glad to have it... We, at the moment, are not fulfilling our 2 percent of (the proportion of GDP that NATO requires to be spent on defense). I have spoken out in public and said this is wrong. Of course, we had a very serious (economic) crisis in 2008 and 2009... so there was this difficult period when our investment in defense had to decrease but now it has to increase again because, yes, we have to be fully participating partners in our common security, which is a security that NATO offers.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Russia just put more pressure on Ukraine.

GREENE: The state-controlled energy giant Gazprom says it is raising Ukraine's price for Russian natural gas by almost half. The price hike happens to come at a moment when Ukraine's government is broke and reeling from Russia's takeover of its Crimea region.

INSKEEP: Russia's other neighbors are watching all of this carefully. Those neighbors include Latvia, which is today an independent member of the NATO alliance, but which used to be ruled by the Soviet Union.

Latvia's former president, Vaira Vike-Freiberga, wishes the U.S. had responded more forcefully to Russia's moves in Ukraine.

VAIRA VIKE-FREIBERGA: If anything, I would say something a bit more vigorous and a bit faster, I think would've been welcome. But sometimes, one had the feeling here that there's a complete disinterest in the fate of Europe on the part of the American government.

INSKEEP: That's Latvia's former president. Now, like Ukraine, Latvia borders Russia and has a large ethnic Russian minority. And like Ukraine, Latvia worries where that Russian minority's loyalties may lie.

VIKE-FREIBERGA: We have been working very hard to integrate the various aspects of our society into one cohesive whole, where everybody could feel that they are a citizen both of Latvia and of the European Union. We also had as a priority, during my two terms as president, to become members of NATO, and I'm extremely glad that we did, because that makes a difference in the feeling of security that we now have at this moment.

INSKEEP: Let's remind people that when you're a member of NATO, an attack on one country is considered an attack against them all. If something were to happen to you, the U.S. would be there for you and others would be there for you.

VIKE-FREIBERGA: Yes. We had the fighter planes sent from the United States, from Great Britain, from France because the airspace above the Latvia and the other two Baltic states is NATO airspace.

INSKEEP: Are all of the Russians who are in Latvia, are they Latvian citizens?

VIKE-FREIBERGA: No, by no means. We have been working very hard to convince them that if they have decided to live in Latvia, they might as well do so with full political participation, which comes with citizenship and the right to vote. But you see, there are the diehards who think that the renewed independence of Latvia is only a passing thing and that, indeed, the fate of Crimea is what they would hope for, because they came here as conquerors.

INSKEEP: Now, those Russians who are not Latvian citizens, are you saying that is entirely by their choice, there's no barrier to that?

VIKE-FREIBERGA: No. There are certain requirements. For instance, length of residence, basic knowledge of the official language of the country, an ability I think, to know the words of the national anthem and a few requirements of that sort. It's truly not a very stringent requirement.

INSKEEP: But some people are able to meet them, and some are not.

VIKE-FREIBERGA: Some do not wish to meet them, and that's their choice.

INSKEEP: As much as you disapprove of President Putin's seizure of a part of Ukraine, do you think he's gotten away with it?

VIKE-FREIBERGA: So far, he has.

INSKEEP: Do you think he will get away with it?

VIKE-FREIBERGA: It remains to be seen how hard any measures taken by the West will bite him. And that is also difficult to predict, because we live in such a globalized world, where there interconnections both in energy supplies and in the flow of financial markets is not as predictable as one would like to see it. If the sanctions should happen to bite sufficiently, something might happen. But otherwise, of course, having once seized it, it's like a vulture having seized something in its claws. I doubt that voluntarily they would give it up.

INSKEEP: Is there a real danger, do you think, that another part of Ukraine might be taken by Russia?

VIKE-FREIBERGA: There's definitely a real danger. When you look at the number of troops that are massed around the frontiers, I don't think they do that in order to get sort of a Sunday afternoon outing for their soldiers and their equipment.

INSKEEP: And let me come back to your feeling of security or insecurity about your own country. When you think in just the most basic terms about Latvia's security situation, do you say, well, we're a NATO power, that's the end of that, we don't really have to worry at this point?

VIKE-FREIBERGA: We have to worry every minute of every day. We have to be ready in every possible way. This is why when we were first given the membership action plan for NATO, we took it very seriously, indeed. We, at the moment, are not fulfilling, for instance, our 2 percent of GDP. I have spoken out in public and said that this is wrong. We have...

INSKEEP: Oh, 2 percent of GDP for defense spending. That's your requirement.

VIKE-FREIBERGA: Yes. And we haven't - of course, we had a very serious crisis in 2008 and 2009, in terms of cuts in salaries and job losses and whatnot. So there was this difficult period when, indeed, our investment in defense had to decrease, but now it has to increase again, because, yes, we have to be fully participating partners in our common security, which is a security that NATO offers.

INSKEEP: Do you have to be prepared for an actual war against Russia, or are you simply saying that if you fail to build up your defenses, you're just inviting trouble?

VIKE-FREIBERGA: I think that in terms of defense, one has to be as ready as one possibly can for every possible contingency, some of which are more likely and others less likely.

INSKEEP: Vaira Vike-Freiberga is a former president of Latvia. Thanks very much.

VIKE-FREIBERGA: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.