By Sannija Jauce
RIGA, Oct 18, 2006 (AFP) – Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II was given a rousing welcome on Wednesday in Latvia, on the second leg of a landmark visit by the 80-year-old monarch to the three Baltic states. Thousands of people waited for hours in the chill autumn air in central Riga to catch a glimpse of the queen as she laid a wreath at the foot of the 2-meter (yard) high Freedom Monument.
Queen Elizabeth II had arrived in Latvia shortly before noon from Lithuania, on the second leg of her first-ever visit to the Baltic states, all former Soviet republics and, for the past two years, members of the European Union and NATO military alliance.
In a speech delivered in Black Head’s House, an ornate building meticulously rebuilt after World War II, when Latvia was occupied in separate waves by the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, Elizabeth II praised the unquenchable thirst for freedom that finally led Latvia and its Baltic neighbours to regain sovereignty in 1991.
She hailed them for overcoming the legacy of occupation and brutality, and noted the “remarkable achievements” they have scored in the 15 years since independence. “Whole communities were destroyed under the successive occupations… A thriving Jewish community was almost completely wiped out in the Holocaust.
“Thousands of Latvians had to endure deportation and appalling conditions in Stalin’s Gulag, others spent long years in exile,” said the 80-year-old monarch, who acceded to the throne on the death of her father, King George I, in 1952 – seven years after Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia had ceased to exist as independent states and been incorporated into the Soviet Union.
All three states are led by former exiles who returned from the West when their countries regained independence as the Soviet Union crumbled. “Who could have imagined, 15 years ago, that Latvia would by now be a member of the European Union and hosting a NATO summit a few weeks from ow?” Elizabeth II said.
Latvia is to be the first former Soviet republic to host a summit of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) when leaders from member states of the alliance meet in Riga at the end of November.
“This visit symbolises not only the renewal of the partnership between our two countries in the last 15 years but the longstanding relationship between Britain and Latvia,” the queen said, recalling that Britain was the first country to recognise Latvia as a republic during a brief period of independence after World War I. Since 1991, renewing ties with “Latvia and indeed with all the Baltic states has felt like the happy rediscovery of a long lost but much valued member of the family,” she said.
Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga said the enduring links between the two countries were built on the foundation of Britain’s unebbing support for Latvians’ quest for liberty. “From its inception, our relationship was enhanced by Britain’sunderstanding of Latvia’s strivings for liberty. The United Kingdom strongly sympathised with our people’s right to democracy and with Latvia’s right to a place in the concert of free European nations,” she said.
After paying her respects at the Freedom Monument, the queen inaugurated a memorial to former mayor of Riga George Armitsted, whose family emigrated from Yorkshire to Latvia at the beginning of the 19th century. Her husband, Prince Philip, unveiled a plaque at Riga’s Anglican church in memory of British soldiers who died in the fight to preserve Latvia’s short-lived independence early last century, and met with Latvian soldiers who have fought shoulder to shoulder with British forces in Afghanistan and Iraq.