“Have faith in your ideals, confidence in your abilities and respect for your fellow human beings.” – Vaira Vike-Freiberga
iKNOW Politics: You were the first female President of Latvia. Dr. Freiberga, can you please tell our readers a bit about your background and how it prepared you for this position? How did you preserve your connection to Latvia living abroad for almost fifty-five (55) years?
In 1937, my family and I had to flee from Latvia to Germany, then to Morocco in 1949, and then to Canada in 1954. It was hard to be away from your own country and people all these years, but my family and I preserved our cultural identities and traditions, and were closely involved in the Latvian community existing in Canada. Through these ties, I became very much interested in Latvian literature, specifically folklore. This got me further involved in the research of Latvian identity and political future of the Baltic States. I wrote articles on this issue emphasizing the rights of Latvia to regain its independence. In these articles, I also expressed my political views and positions on how Latvia should develop in the future.
iKNOW Politics: Was it difficult to enter the political arena in Latvia, given that politics was a male-dominated field at that time?
I repatriated to Latvia in 1998; seven years after the country got its independence. Eight month later, I was elected President of the country. It was an interesting and unexpected combination of circumstances. The Saeima (the Latvian Parliament) failed to choose a President after the first round of the election, so it was proposed to choose me for this position, because I was politically independent and had the wide support of the intelligentsia.
My being the first woman president in the region and in all former Communist countries was a bonus. I am proud to say that while serving two terms as a president, I transformed Latvia into a country with stable democratic values, secure position within the NATO alliance, and a steadily growing economy.
iKNOW Politics: You are well-known for your astute foreign policy and your role in integrating Latvia into the European Union and securing Latvia’s membership to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). What challenges did you face in making these objectives a reality? Are there lessons learned you would like to share with other women leaders?
It is well known that I made foreign policy my focus as soon as I became president. When I took office in 1999, the prevailing opinion was that NATO actually should not continue expanding. The question was: should the Baltic countries be included in NATO and whether NATO will be able to defend these countries. It took a lot of diplomatic efforts and behind the scenes negotiations to get the Baltic countries into the organization and to guarantee support of some countries for this.
I also strongly believe in the European identity and the place for Latvia in the European Union. I am truly happy that Latvia now is part of the EU and NATO families of secure nations that have entered into an agreement of solidarity and mutual support to ensure their security, sovereignty and territorial integrity.
iKNOW Politics: You were the first woman ever to be considered for the position of the United Nations Secretary-General. Can you tell our readers about the changes you would bring to the United Nations and its leadership style if you were Secretary-General? Can you speak to the importance of having a woman take a turn at the helm of the Organization?
I was certainly glad and privileged to be considered for the position of the UN Secretary-General. I believe that it is high time for a woman to lead the United Nations and that she would do as good of a job as any male candidate. But I am also happy for Mr. Ban Ki-Moon and I am sure he will do a great job. If I were selected for the position, I would have proposed to give more authority to the Secretary-General in hiring and managing the Secretariat.
It is obvious that you can’t hold someone accountable and to expect certain results without having authority over those who he or she manages. Based on this principle, I believe that reforms within the United Nations should include increasing the Secretary-General’s authority in managing the staff. I would also stop regional rotation in appointing Secretary-Generals, since this principle has not been applied consistently anyways. For example, there has not been a Secretary-General from any of the Eastern European countries, which should have happened by now, if the regional rotation system was applied consistently. In terms of the global UN actions, I would actively work on bringing peace and freedom around the world.
As a survivor of war and a refugee, I know how hard it is to live in a war zone and to be forced to flee your own country. I think the world leaders should pledge and unite in a common goal to save humanity, especially children, from experiencing war catastrophes and facing the brunt of such disasters, and I think, the UN should lead the efforts to achieve this goal.
iKNOW Politics: Do you think that being a part of a global network, such as iKNOW Politics, can help women at all levels of politics and their supporters to succeed in their careers and to mobilize around issues of common concern?
Networking of every kind has always been crucial for success. Modern technologies have opened up new opportunities in this regard and we should not hesitate to make use of them. For women, specifically, such opportunities can make a big difference. The essence of my style has always been to adapt very quickly to the demands of every new situation and I think adapting to the new technologies is a big part of it.
iKNOW Politics: If you were to make one recommendation, what piece of advice would you share with iKNOW members, particularly women candidates and officials, as they progress in their political careers?
Have faith in your ideals, confidence in your abilities and respect for your fellow human beings.