‘You cannot believe anything President Putin says’

Latvia’s former president talks to Kathimerini about Ukraine, Russia’s relationship with the USSR, and the EU’s future

‘You cannot believe anything President Putin says’

Born in Latvia a couple of years before the start of World War II, Vaira Vike-Freiberga experienced the suffering of Soviet barbarism and its impact on the independent Baltic states first-hand. As a child refugee she found herself in a camp for displaced peoples in Germany, and as a teenager she was educated in Morocco before relocating to Toronto, Canada.

Her successful professional career in the field of psychology continued with her return to Latvia, where she later became the country’s first female head of state (1999-2007), leading a presidency marked by Latvia’s accession to the European Union and NATO.

Do you think your personal experience has affected your view of the war in Ukraine?

I don’t think that the kind of horrors and crimes against humanity that have been committed in Ukraine since the invasion of February 24 could leave anybody indifferent. And, frankly, I think it would be very narrow of anybody’s heart to only feel sympathy for those who have experienced exactly the same thing as you.

When I look at those scenes, it hurts me. Maybe more than it hurts somebody who is watching from afar and who has not felt, for instance, what it means to be thrown out of your home with just what you have in your hands and to say goodbye forever to all your relatives. There is some hope that they will, those 10 million who had to flee their homes, at some point still see at least some of their relatives alive again.

How did Latvia overcome Russia’s political and ideological influence?

We had to wait 50 years. In 1939, when Hitler marched into Poland on September 1, his partner and friend Stalin at the time marched into Poland from the other side, from the east, on September 17, because in 1938, Hitler’s and Stalin’s foreign ministers, Ribbentrop and Molotov, had signed an agreement about how they would cooperate. Hitler sent arms to the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union sent plans for the gulags, which the Nazis then used to build the concentration camps. You see, they were friends, and they carved up Eastern Europe between themselves. Neither of them meant to keep their word. And that is another interesting thing, you cannot believe anything President Putin says. He kept saying, “We are simply doing maneuvers in our country” when he was amassing his army long Russia’s border with Ukraine. “We are not going to invade.” And when they did invade, he said he did not invade. They were not fighting a war… it’s a “special operation.” They were going to “liberate” the Russian speakers of Donbas. And what are they doing there? Starving them to death, like in Mariupol. They claim that the West had been lying to them by promising that NATO would not be enlarged. Well, here again, I mean, Mr Putin is lying, and Mr Lavrov, from morning to night.

Are we looking at a reunification of the former Soviet Union?

‘He fully expected that they would have a victory parade within a few days of invading Ukraine. Now, they are not able to do that’

I think that it is a dream. It is a dream that Mr Putin has. Because when I first met him shortly after his election, the first thing he told me was “what a sad thing” it was that there was a border between Latvia and Russia… and that he thought it was a tragic day when the Soviet Union collapsed. And I told him, “It was the happiest day of my life.” And I am sure that feeling is shared by many, not just the 2 million Latvian citizens, but by millions of others in former Soviet republics.

Do you think that the Russian-speaking population of Latvia could work as a Trojan horse in Putin’s expansion plans?

Well, some of them probably would be willing to because we see how they feel. These public opinion polls – it is very difficult to take them literally because people do not always reveal what they have in their heart to a stranger who asks them something on the telephone or on the street. But surely many of them, especially those who had a grandfather who fought in the Second World War… They had privileges. They had veterans’ privileges. They had special seats in the buses. They had extra pensions. They would be first in line for apartments, of which there was always a shortage.

This is a terrible failing of the Latvian government: We did not have television channels that reached to the very border. The signals were not strong enough to transmit Latvian state television, and the Russian speakers got into the habit of only watching Russian television. So, I am sure that there are many people in villages and some small towns who, instead of watching European and Latvian news, are watching Russian propaganda, and they feel that whatever they are being told, that is the truth.

How effective is Russian propaganda in Latvia regarding the “denazification” of Ukraine?

Whatever he says, that’s it. Anybody who wants to be independent from Russia and who does not want to submit to Russian domination, who is therefore a nationalist, a patriot of their own country, to them is a Nazi. Putin says we can distinguish patriots from traitors, so that in Russia, if you support him, you are a patriot. And if you do not support him, you are a traitor. But in another country, if they support, like the Ukrainians, the independence of their country and its choice to hope one day to be part of the European Union, to one day maybe to be part of NATO, they are not called patriots, they are called Nazis.

Are Europe and NATO taking sufficient measures to protect the Baltic countries?

Everybody tried to deter Russia before it invaded Ukraine. Mr Biden had telephone calls. President Macron visited him and had 16 telephone calls. The German chancellor used to meet Mr Putin every month before she finished her term of office. Everybody tried to deter Russia. So how you deter Russia is a mystery to me. It does not look like something that is easy. I think that there has been a serious waking up of those countries that did not want to think about the Baltic countries and Poland being in any kind of danger from Russia and who kept telling us that we were stuck in the past. We were seen as prejudiced against the Russians because we had seen what they could be like and we had seen how they could break their promises and we could see their propaganda. By the way, ever since our independence, their propaganda has been trying to paint all these countries, all these new countries that got their independence, in as bad a light as they possibly could internationally. Any opportunity was taken, frankly, to be unfriendly to them, but countries like Germany had a different view of things. I worked hard to warn Americans about this, the French, and the Germans and anybody who I met at the time. The adviser to Merkel said: “Oh, but, you know, now we want peace and it would be better to have good commercial relations with Russia. And if we get them into the capitalist world and they become rich, then they will automatically become democratic as well.” You know, complete non sequitur, completely illogical. But that’s how it was.

Do you foresee a full-scale invasion in Ukraine extending to the neighboring countries?

Not at the moment because Putin might have dreamt of that, but mercifully, I think that his forces have suffered sufficient losses in Ukraine. What we see is not an army that is disciplined, that is controlled, that is capable of doing what President Putin had hoped, that they would overtake Ukraine in three days, kill President Zelenskyy, put a puppet government in place and then have a victory parade in Kyiv. His soldiers had their parade uniforms in their rucksacks. Putin fully expected that they would have a victory parade within a few days of invading Ukraine. Now, they are not able to do that. And I think that they will be tied up in Ukraine, God knows for how long, but at least for the foreseeable future, and they will have to recover from the losses that they suffered in Ukraine. I think that psychologically Putin is ready to trample on the head of anybody he can reach. I hope that Europe will remain open to communication, open to free ideas and work together as a unit to defend these values. But one thing that I would like to emphasize is that it is not enough to have treaties and written concepts and agreements. I think that if people do not have in their hearts this feeling that I can feel – what a person in Greece, or the fishermen in Greece are feeling, or fishermen up in the north of Sweden are feeling, or anybody elsewhere in Europe – to sympathize with them if there is a natural catastrophe of such a problem, then this we have to teach our children. Without that sense of sympathy and empathy, it will be difficult.

A Russian tank is seen in front of a destroyed apartment building in Mariupol, eastern Ukraine, on May 4. Vaira Vike-Freiberga warns that Russian President Vladimir Putin has been insincere about his intentions in Ukraine since the very beginning. [AP]

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