Vol 1, No 3, 12 July 1999
W O M E N I N P O L I T I C S:
Latvia's New President:
Not a Moment Too Soon
Upon taking her oath on 8 July to become Latvia's new President, Dr Vaira Vike-Freiberga inherited from Guntis Ulmanis total political chaos: the prime minister's resignation, EU and international organisations' criticism of Latvia's new Language Law, a looming budget disaster, and an economy mired in recession. Certainly not a great way to welcome a new President; her manoeuvring during this early period will establish her presidency as a boom or bust.
More on President Vike-Freiberga
Vaira Vike-Freiberga's background and experience make her well equipped to deal with the aforementioned challenges. A psychologist and linguist by training, Vike-Freiberga made a name for herself as an academic in Montreal - both at the Francophone Universite de Montreal and Anglophone McGill University.
Her linguistic skills also set her apart from many political heads-of-state across the continent and beyond. Commanding English, French, German, Latvian and Spanish, Vike-Freiberga can communicate the desires, fears, hopes and dreams of Latvia to the world. She has served as an advisor to the Brazilian government from Canada and also headed a NATO research panel.
Her reputation as a leader in the Canadian Francophone community - even as the chair of the French branch of the Royal Society of Canada - cannot be understated: immediately after her election, French President Jacques Chirac invited Vike-Freiberga to visit. The ability to communicate flawlessly in English, French and Latvian makes her an indispensable tool for Latvia towards EU and NATO integration.
In Latvia Vike-Freiberga is also known as a folklorist. She has published many books and articles on the thousands upon thousands of dainas (folk songs) passed on for centuries in Latvia, a subject close to the hearts of many Latvians. Her distance from Latvian politics until now can serve only as an asset - with the public enraged over the crumbling political structure.
Gender not a novelty
Despite press clamouring about Latvia being the first Central and East European country to boast a female head-of-state, there is little novelty in the growing trend. Europe has boasted many outstanding female monarchs, both absolute and constitutional. The election in Iceland of Vigdis Finnbogadottir was a novelty as the first elected female head-of-state, but in her four terms, she proved to be every bit the asset Icelanders saw when they first elected her in 1980.
Vaire Vike-Freiberga joins Mary McAleese of Eire and Ruth Dreifuss of Switzerland as the female elected heads-of-state in Europe. The issue of gender, however, failed to play any role during the presidential election. If mentioned at all, her gender was noted as a positive feature.
The early hurdles
Vaire Vike-Freiberga will not have much time to celebrate upon taking her oath. Several pitfalls and traps await her. The 1999 state budget is in dire need of cutbacks, something the outgoing prime minister made more excuses over than solutions. The drafting of the 2000 budget is likely to be delayed with the governmental crisis, which would seriously impact Latvia's development.
Immediately she is challenged with appointing a new prime minister, due to the resignation of Prime Minister Vilis Kristopans. And of course, the Saeima welcomed her to the post by passing the highly controversial Language Law - which has been met with vocal opposition from the OSCE, European Commission and a whole host of countries. To say this is baptism by fire is quite correct.
However, despite all the calamity around her, Vike-Freiberga will remain a constant in the Latvian political scene for the next four years. Like Guntis Ulmanis, she must provide the stability when the Saeima, or even the public after yet another hung election, chooses a course that does not favour stability. Again, the direction Vike-Freiberga takes in the next few weeks will give a good indication of the direction of her term as President.
But as President Vike-Freiberga said at her inauguration: "We are the inheritors of our past, but we are not slaves who should live in the shadow of our past. We are the builders of our own future."
Mel Huang, 8 July 1999
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