BBC television programme Hard Talk , aired 06-11-2000, with host Tim Sebastian interviewing Latviaís President, Vaira VÓŪe-Freiberga.
For nearly half a century the Kremlin told the Baltic republic of Latvia what to do, but these days it seems Latvia isnít listening. Despite warnings from Russiaís President, a Latvian court tried and convicted a Soviet veteran of war crimes and investigated a dozen others. Our guest today is Latviaís President. Is her country playing with fire? And does she expect the West to help her put it out?
Vaira VÓŪe-Freiberga , a very warm welcome to the programme.
Are you playing with fire, with the Kremlin?
They think you are.
No, I donít think so.
Mr. Putin has been very direct in his comments to you, hasnít he? "Latviaís oppressive, repressive apparatus is increasingly targeting fighters in the anti-Fascist resistance." Do you have a repressive apparatus?
No, we donít. We have had ten years of independence after 50 years of an oppressive regime, which did constantly oppress people in a variety of ways. Since the renewal of independence weíve made additions to our criminal code, and we now have three articles in our criminal code with no statute of limitations: one on war crimes, one on crimes against humanity, and one on genocide.
Is this revenge?
No, it is justice.
For all these years of oppression?
It is justice.
Why are you picking on Russians, then?
We are not picking on them. We are pursuing people according to evidence that comes to light. It so happens that there are survivors of atrocities committed by some people during the Second World War. Survivors, eyewitness accounts of people from a neighbouring village who recognized somebody. On the basis of this direct testimony, and on the basis of the testimony of the person accused, a trial took place. This person was condemned and in accordance with our laws, is now contesting this first decision. That is his perfect right. There have been several trials. There is no particular movement to it. It is a matter of how much evidence comes to light for prosecutors to start an action against somebody.
Now Madame President, let me read you what Efraim Zuroff, the head of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre in Jerusalem, said. He said "not once of their own volition have the Latvians prosecuted anyone for the murder of Jews, in great contrast to the energy with which they are trying to bring Communists to trial."
There is a very simple reason for it. The people who committed crimes against Jews were tried, executed or sent to 25 years of labour in Siberia immediately after the War.
You say all of them? There were 75,000 Jews who died on Latvian territory.
Well of course, one can never be sure that everybody who committed a crime has been prosecuted on any account, and on either side of any kind of conflict. What I am saying is that a number of people who had collaborated with the Nazis were tried under the Soviet regime, shot or sent to Siberia.
A number were, but a number of others have been left by successive administrations in Latvia.
Not in Latvia they havenít. They have not.
Thatís what the international community says. In 1948 they even asked for Latvia to sign special concessions, special documents in order to show that it had respect for minorities, because of its record.
No, no, youíve got it all wrong, Iím afraid. You really do. We have a law that allows people to be prosecuted. At the moment there is a citizen of Australia that our prosecutors have gathered documents against.
Thatís right. And extradition procedures are being instituted.
But only after pressure from the US Justice Department.
After evidence had been obtained.
There was concerted pressure from the US Justice Department, wasnít there?
Well, I wouldnít say that. I think that our prosecutors simply hadnít had the opportunity to find all the evidence that had been gathered by a full-time investigative team, receiving considerable resources, such as Mr. Zuroffís team, across the world. Where the resources were put, the testimony that he had gathered was transferred to our prosecutors. They immediately set to work. Thereís absolutely nothing like resistance to trying anybody who has committed crimes. Itís complete nonsense.
Forty-one war criminals have been pardoned since Latvia achieved independence, according to the Simon Wiesenthal Centre.
Forty-one individuals have been pardoned among the many thousands that had been accused of a variety of crimes under the communist system, which made out blanket accusations against all sorts of people. If you owned two cows rather than one, you would be...
No, no, no.
But we are not talking about cows here. We are talking about the murder of 75,000 Jews. And there were two Latvian SS divisions, werenít there? So there was a huge degree of complicity with the Nazis, wasnít there?
There was a degree of collaboration on the part of some people, much as you have in any army. When an occupying army marches into a country, there is always collaboration. To the extent that anybody can be proven to have collaborated, even decades ago, Latvia stands fully ready to prosecute them. We have three articles in our criminal code. Lay down the evidence on the table, and prosecutions will be opened.
But nobody is arguing about the criminal code. Theyíre arguing about your willingness to use it against Latvians themselves. Holocaust historian. . .
We have a willingness to use it. Mr. Zuroff may think that we donít have the willingness. I, as President, can assure you we do.
The Holocaust historian Raoul Hillberg said: "on a per capita basis, the Latvians were represented as heavily as any nation in the destruction of the Jews."
I think he should review his statistics. I do think that the Germans, rather, were the ones who started the process. When they came into Latvia, they set up their camps. They sent in people from other countries. I think that if weíre talking nationalities, then one should review oneís figures.
Why was it that Latvian Waffen SS veterans were allowed to march this year through Riga?
We have a city, Riga, the capital of a country which has recovered its democracy and the right of people to assemble, if they ask for a permit to do so.
Even the Waffen SS? No other country in the world allows them to march through its capital.
We did not have the Waffen SS marching through. We had a group of people who had participated in the Second World War. On the 13th of October we had a group of people from the Red Army, the people who conquered Latvia and submitted it to 50 years of oppression. They marched freely through the streets. At the Victory Monument they put down red flowers. They sang their own chastushkas and their own war songs. We have a free and open society, but we do not have official Waffen SS marching in our streets. We do not.
Maybe not official, but they were members of the former Waffen SS who marched. Are you happy about that?
Well, we have been discouraging them from marching officially. We also have people belonging to the Bartashovits and various other movements at various times who have been marching through our streets. We have extreme right-wing movements from Russia that have asked to stand up in places and as long as they comply with local ordinances, they are allowed to stand or to march. It is no official enterprise of the Latvian government. It is complete nonsense to imply that it is.
No, I was implying that you didnít do anything about it, not that it was official policy. That you could actually do more to prevent this.
Like what? Prevent people, take the right of assembly away from them? Do you do that in Britain? Do you prevent people from marching in the streets?
Nazi marches are not allowed. People carrying banners that show the Waffen SS.
Well, we certainly donít have people carrying SS banners, but we do have Russian extremists carrying sometimes extremist symbols. They just marched into our Parliament, as a matter of fact, a few days ago. Nobody arrested them, by the way.
So when Mr. Putin says that "Latviaís repressive apparatus is increasingly targeting fighters in the anti-Fascist resistance,íí he is wrong, is he?
Absolutely. There has been a handful of people [brought to trial] out of the thousands of people who committed atrocities in Latvia during the Russian occupation. A mere handful.
But the ones you singled out have been Russian. For investigation and trial, they have been Russian, havenít they? Seen from his point of view, you are cracking down on former Communists.
Of the people who marched into Latvia with their tanks on June 17, 1940, most of them happened to be largely Russian, although of course they represented the Soviet Union.
How serious is this row with the Kremlin?
I donít think it is serious. I think the Kremlin is trying to create a problem where there isnít one, in the faint hope that they can still recover the Empire that collapsed because it wasnít able to survive.
You think thatís what Mr. Putin wants to do?
Well, it rather looks like it. What Iím saying is that there is a certain nostalgia and there is a certain resentment for the fact that Latvia did break away from the Empire and is not taking orders from Moscow any more, and I guess to some extent it hurts.
How does this resentment manifest itself?
In the kind of declarations that you have been quoting. And the sort of attacks, for instance, just on the eve of us getting invited as a candidate country for the EU. Before the Helsinki Summit, the Foreign Ministry of Russia circulated an objection to our language law, a language law that I as President had sent back to the Parliament.
You had your own objections with it.
So that it could be brought up to perfection in terms of compliance with international requirements of human rights. Everybody and his expert had examined it. Mr Van der Stoel. . .
From the OSCE.
. . . had just given his considered opinion about it and praised us for the great work and effort that had gone into making this law comply with international and European standards. And at that very moment Russia chose to say that our law attacked every principle of human rights. I think that basically this was a slap in the face to Mr. Van der Stoel, it was a slap in the face to European standards, and it was a slap in the face to international understandings of what human rights mean.
Mr. Putin has written to you directly, hasnít he?
In that regard, no.
There have been no direct contacts of any kind? Telephone?
I have written him a letter of condolences, for instance when the submarine Kursk sank. Also official congratulations on National Day. We have only had official communications of that sort.
Any threats, any intimidation?
None whatsoever? No implied threats from any officials?
So it isnít as bad as you have made out in the past.
I havenít made it out as being bad in the past.
You said that Russia has a questionable democracy. Youíve implied that because the country wasnít very stable it might do anything as far as Latvia is concerned.
I would say that it is unpredictable, yes. It is unpredictable.
So what is the worst that could happen?
Are you able to predict with certainty? Are you willing to bet your bottom dollar or your bottom pound that you can predict with certainty what Russia is going to do tomorrow or the day after? I donít think Russians are ready to predict what they are going to do tomorrow or the day after. I think there is a certain instability in the country. The conclusions you draw from that are your own.
If you were to face direct pressure of one kind, whether it was economic pressure or military manoeuvres taking place on your border, would you be looking to the West to help you?
Well, I think we would be looking to international law, to international customs, to international agreements governing a civil sort of relationship between sovereign countries. In other words, we would expect the behaviour of Russia towards Latvia to be that of any civilized country towards its neighbour.
History would be very different if countries had always behaved in a civilized manner toward each other.
Yes, but we are talking about the Russia of tomorrow and what we are looking for. . .
Yes, my question was hypothetical.
Yes, and hypothetically I would like to see a Russia that would not be putting on pressure. I would like to see a Russia that puts all its efforts on setting its house in order, strengthening its democracy, increasing the freedom of its media, improving its relationship with various international bodies, entering, for instance, the World Trade Organisation, et cetera , et cetera . They have a lot of things that should keep them busy for a while, and we are looking forward very much to the day when they grow in strength and in democracy, much as we intend to grow in our democratic institutions, in the breadth to which our civil society truly becomes a civil society. I have great confidence in the Russian people. They did shake off the communist system. I look forward to their strength, to their determination and to their will to create a new society.
My question really concerned the fact that you are part of the Membership Action Plan of NATO at the moment, which is a pre-membership body. If you now faced pressure from Russia, would you be expecting specific help from NATO?
I would expect NATO to act in accordance with the principles upon which this Alliance was founded.
But you are not a full member of the Alliance. They donít owe you anything in contractual terms, do they?
This Alliance has certain points of view about events elsewhere. I think Kosovo is not a member of the NATO Alliance, and yet the Alliance was able to take action when it felt that according to the principles on which it was founded, action and intervention were necessary. I would expect it to do no less anywhere else in Europe.
Now that expectation isnít founded on any contractual obligation by NATO. There is no obligation at the moment.
It is not a bilateral obligation. It is an obligation that NATO owes to itself and to what it is as an organization.
You are some way from full membership to NATO.
We are moving very fast. We will be ready for accession in 2002.
NATO says youíve got a long way to go, or at least some way to go.
We have two years.
Youíve got a lot of modernization to do.
With your economy in a difficult position?
Weíre increasing the investment we are putting into defence. We are getting a lot of help from friendly countries. Weíre going to do it.
Modernize to that extent? And buy NATO weapons so that you can operate with NATO forces?
We donít need intercontinental ballistic missiles. We need to create a country that has something to offer to the NATO Alliance. We have three Baltic countries that are ready to collaborate; to create, for instance, a secure air space and secure outer borders. There is a variety of activities that we can contribute to. We have already been contributing for a number of years to NATO peacekeeping operations with success. We will continue to do so.
You mention the language laws that you sent back to have redrafted, because you didnít think they were right. The Russians have been complaining that they have to learn Latvian to a level which is difficult for them to achieve in order to get the top jobs. Is that a kind of discrimination? Are they right in talking about discrimination?
It depends on what you call discrimination. When somebody comes to England and doesnít want to learn English, is that discrimination? It depends how you look at it.
As seen from their point of view.
Well, say a Russian comes to England. Is that discrimination if youíre asking him, expecting him to learn English?
He doesnít need a particular standard of English in order to run a company. Not here. He can run a company in any language he chooses in this country.
Can he register it without knowing English?
Is that right?
I must look into it.
Iíd be very much surprised if you could really find a company . . .
There are no language requirements. He has to pay his bills.
In Latvia we have a language that had lost its place in society after 50 years of russification. The language law simply reinstates the rights of the Latvian language as the state language. It doesnít really go much further than that. It sets up certain requirements for people to use it who otherwise would not. It is analogous to Bill 101 that was passed in Quebec in order to restitute the rights of the French language under the overwhelming majority of an English-speaking continent. It worked in Quebec in order to restore the use of French in the public sphere. Itís doing exactly that in Latvia. Itís not a hardship to learn a language. I think itís an enrichment.
Thereís no sense in which itís being used as an instrument to get revenge on the Russians for what they did to you.
Revenge for what?
For the occupation. For the two Soviet invasions, for instance.
How do you think you can pay back for your lost life, for your lost future, for the people who were killed and died of hunger and starvation out in the steppes? You think that by asking them to learn the Latvian language weíre seeking revenge? Thatís silly. Come on.
No, the essence of my question is how much resentment there still is against the Russians.
There is amazingly little. Iím amazed to see how little there is. There is 20 percent intermarriage between Latvians and Russians. The percentage of Russians who do not know the language has shrunk in the last five years since weíve instituted our language-learning programmes to only 9 percent. The children are learning Latvian in school. They didnít have to in Soviet times. They do now. Nearly 75 percent of Russian parents are sending their children to Latvian schools when they start school. They are going to grow up bilingual, fully functional, and able to communicate with their fellow citizens. They are going to grow up . . .
Very few stateless Russians are actually registering for nationality.
They are registering regularly. Five thousand in the last few months. They keep registering quite regularly, and they get a 95 percent success rate, once theyíve applied. In fact we invite them to come and register and do it, to make up their minds.
Twelve thousand in the last year. Itís not that many, is it?
Well, we are waiting for them to come. According to some statistics, 60,000 have taken on Russian citizenship. Thatís their choice. We canít force them, can we?
Given what happened to you personally, the fact that you had to flee the country when the Soviets invaded in the closing days of the Second World War, you would have every reason for bitterness against the Russians, wouldnít you?
I find bitterness is a luxury that a healthy human being canít afford. Bitterness drains your psychic energy. Itís a useless emotion. I look forward to the future, I know that people . . .
Can you control your emotions so well?
Well, look. One can try and cultivate the positive emotions rather than the negative ones.
You were a professor of psychology at the University of Montreal.
Yes, and much as I grow my garden and cultivate my potted plants on the windowsill, I feel that one has to cultivate tolerance and kindness. One has to look to the future rather than to the past. A neurotic keeps picking at old wounds, and I think that is unhealthy. I think a nation has to look to the future.
I have no personal resentment against a nation, it doesnít make sense. I have always wanted to be treated as a person, as an individual. I think that the least I can do is to treat others as persons and as individuals, and I encourage my countrymen to approach any other human being as a person and as a human being, first and last.
How vivid are those memories for you, of having to flee?
My own memories are very vivid indeed. And I am sure that other peopleís are . . .
Some of them, yes. But Iíve talked to a number of people who have experienced horrifying things, and you know, they do not bear resentment. They do not seek revenge. And it is amazing, you should come to Latvia and interview some of them. There are some amazing people out there and they do not bear resentment.
Having retired as a professor of psychology in Montreal, you went back to Riga to set up a small information office. Within a very short time you were President of the country. How did that happen?
Itís a long story.
Tell me the short version. You were a compromise candidate in the Parliament, werenít you?
Was this a total surprise for you?
No. I had been approached earlier with the thought that should it happen, that the official candidates of the parties do not manage to gain the support of a sufficient number of other parties, then they possibly might be looking to some compromise candidates outside of politics. And would I be ready to stand? During the whole preceding year I had been approached by the media with questions of that type. And they said: "Would you be ready to run?" and I said: "If I must, yes, I am ready to stand as a candidate." There was no campaign or anything of the sort.
What gave you the confidence to stand as President?
Well, I know I can do the job.
How? As you said yourself, you had been outside politics, you had never been in politics. How did you know you could do the job?
By looking at what it entails, I figured I can do it as well as anybody.
By being careful about what you say every day?
By being diplomatic in concluding interviews like this?
Where did you learn that?
Iíve spent my whole lifetime learning. Hopefully something remains of that experience.
You see yourself as a bridge, donít you, between the West and Latvia. Youíve said so in the past. What of Western attitudes do you want to teach the Latvians?
I suppose in a way, more self-confidence. They have been trampled, you know. And they have been constantly hearing reproaches. The Soviets rolled in with their tanks in 1940, and shot and arrested and deported people because of what they had been earlier in an independent Latvia. They said: "This is all wrong. You donít know how to live. We are going to teach you."
Then the Germans rolled in with their process and their system and their ideas, and said: "You donít know a thing." And they shot people again and put them in uniforms and sent them to the front against the Geneva Convention. They didnít ask them for their opinion, you know. They sent them to the front and put them in SS uniforms, supposedly to make them look like volunteers, and shot the ones who had worked with the Russians.
And then when the Russians came back again, they shot the ones who had collaborated with the Germans. And now that the Soviet Empire has collapsed, people are saying: "We are being reproached for having collaborated with the Communists. But what were we supposed to do? We had our lives to live and there was no choice." This is a people who for half a century have had no choice. And what I would like to encourage is the sense of freedom that comes from finally, at long last, having choices that we can make.
Vaira VÓŪe-Freiberga, thank you very much for being with us on the programme.