By Brian Bonner
December 11, 2014
Ukraine should be more than merely thankful for Latvia and its ex-president, Vaira Vike-Freiberga, who visited Kyiv this week. Its political leaders should do more to emulate her.
When the three Baltic nations, including Latvia, joined the European Union and NATO a decade ago, they showed Ukraine and other ex-Soviet republics that they, too, could chart their own futures away from the Kremlin’s smothering embrace. Freiberga, 77, served as president of the two-million nation of Latvia from 1999-2007. This week, she held a number of meetings in Kyiv, including giving a lecture at Taras Shevchenko National University, sitting down with this journalist and having lunch with Leonid Kuchma and Leonid Kravchuk, two former Ukrainian presidents.
She is known for speaking her mind, and she did not disappoint. Here are some of the highlights of her talks:
Russian President Vladimir Putin, who spurned her invitations to visit Latvia, has adopted the ethnic-cleansing tactics of Josef Stalin against Crimean Tatars and the argumentation of Adolf Hitler in justifying his invasions of neighboring Georgia and Ukraine. She thinks the West has armed lots of people less deserving than Ukrainians, whose leaders have been seeking better weapons from the West since the Russian-backed war started. What’s happening now is Neville Chamberlain-style appeasement.
She confesses her own “foolishness” in 2008 in not expecting such militarism from Putin. By the Sochi Winter Olympics, however, she publicly predicted the possibility of a Russian invasion of Crimea. She now considers Putin “beyond hope” and said the focus of sanctions should be to weaken, isolate and contain Russia. Lower energy prices have helped to put the Kremlin on a financial diet and may curb its conquests. Putin may, however, be “truly beloved” by Russians, despite a human rights record that includes scores of unsolved murders of journalists in Russia. “Anybody who opens their mouth too wide puts their lives at risk,” she says.
The Baltics “jumped through all the hoops — sometimes like circus poodles” to meet all the requirements for joining the EU and NATO. Ukraine, by contrast, considered it “too dangerous to take a position” and wasn’t ready to change its corrupt Soviet habits. Her advice: Radical reforms as quickly as possible.
The West has no right to “trade countries” or accept Russia’s claim to having a “sphere of influence” over its neighbors. Unfortunately, she said, too many Western politicians still mistakenly think of nations behind the old Iron Curtain as within Russia’s zone.
“Finding expertise abroad” for Ukraine is the “only way to convince the public you are not changing one set of oligarchs for another.”
The United Nations is not doing its job because of the outdated, antiquated veto powers of the five permanent Security Council members who likely will never relinquish this power.
Don’t give bribes and don’t take bribes; curtail the power of bureaucrats. “Everybody who has a little authority becomes a little Stalin in miniature.”
Putin has three types of friends in the West: the left that was sympathetic to the Soviet Union, the right that likes strongmen and investors who want to make money in Russia.
American foreign policy is too focused on relations with the leaders of other countries, at the expense of the people of those countries. America’s $3 billion in annual military aid to deposed dictator Hosni Mubarak, for example, “does not buy” America “the loyalty and support of the people of Egypt.” But America was mostly interested in supporting any Egyptian leader who wouldn’t attack Israel.
About the only flash of irritation I encountered was when I asked about the role of Latvian banks in the laundering of dirty money from oligarchs in Russia and Ukraine. She insists that Latvia has put in tough regulations and that its banks closely scrutinize suspect transactions. She also noted that other dodgy havens still flourish in Delaware, London, the Maldives and Cyprus.
Nonetheless, during her two terms as president, Latvian banks were accused of fueling corruption that impoverishes Ukrainians and Russians by accepting suspicious deposits. All in all, however, Ukraine has a strong ally in Vike-Freiberga and would do well to study her success.