In Sarasota Talk, Ex-president Of Latvia Warns About Putin

By Billy Cox
March 18, 2014

President Obama’s decision to freeze the assets of seven top officials with the Vladimir Putin regime left at least one of the Russian leader’s old adversaries “seriously underwhelmed” on Monday afternoon.

The Hon. Vaira Vike-Freiberga, who governed Latvia from 1999 to 2007, also told an auditorium of listeners at Ringling College of Art and Design that Russia’s membership in the exclusive Security Council had rendered the United Nations “impotent for all intents and purposes.” Vike-Freiberga’s appearance was sponsored by the Sarasota-Manatee Chapter of United Nations Association-USA.

Vike-Freiberga, who huddled with Putin on several occasions during her two terms in office, said the former KGB agent and Russia will “push as far as they can, and when they are not resisted they will push even further.”

The author of 11 books and the owner of a doctorate in experimental psychology, Vike-Freiberga told listeners in backstage remarks that Western leaders have never encountered the likes of Vladimir Putin.

“It doesn’t take a Ph.D. in psychology to understand that he was power-hungry and fearless and playing poker, if you like, playing chicken with the rest of the world and seeing how far he can get without people finding means to counter his aggression,” she said.

“I would say he’s had excellent training in practical applied psychology. Meaning, for instance, the character of heads of state he meets, and finding their weak spots and playing upon them. He has a great talent and he’s also had great training, I can attest to that.”

The first woman elected to lead any of the post-Soviet satellite states following the 1991 collapse of the U.S.S.R., Vike-Freiberga laid the foundation for Latvia’s membership in NATO and the European Union. The tiny Baltic nation with 2 million residents converted its currency to the euro this year.

Now the first woman to serve as president of the prestigious Club de Madrid — the largest assembly of retired presidents and prime ministers in the world — Vike-Freiberga, 76, said Putin is merely cashing in on a Stalinist-era insurance policy to keep Russia’s expansionist ambitions alive.

She recalled how the U.S.S.R. aggressively imported Russian workers into its eastern European acquisitions during the 1940s while deporting countless natives to gulags.

“The deliberate movements of populations that started under Stalin and have continued under his successors was meant with great foresight to ensure that the Soviet Union would not split apart and to ensure that, should countries regain their independence, one could always play the card of the Russian minority.”

Citing grievances from ethnic Russians in Ukraine, Putin rolled his military into Crimea following a popular uprising against President Viktor Yanukovych last month in Kiev.

Following a hasty referendum on Sunday in which a remarkable 97 percent of Crimean voters advocated annexation by Russia, Putin declared Crimea an independent state.

Vike-Freiberga described the vote as a clumsy relapse into Soviet-style politics in which the Russian Federation “is still somehow living in a sort of time machine.”

“They’ve shaved off the 2 percent that Stalin felt he needed to convince the world that this had been a free vote and an expression of the people. I really don’t think those 2 percent are convincing.

“You ask anybody what is the weather like outside and you will not get 97 percent agreement. Half the people will say it is horrible,” she said, referring to Monday’s torrential rains, “and the others will say it’s fine, I like it this way.”

Counting roughly 27 percent of its population as ethnic Russian, Latvia’s best defense is its NATO umbrella, which also extends to its Baltic neighbors Lithuania and Estonia, Vike-Freiberga said.

As proof, she added, the United States recently sent 10 warplanes to Lithuania, which resulted in a “significant” dropoff of unauthorized Russian incursions into Baltic air space. But she remains wary of Russian pretexts for its actions.

“I think President Putin and his team, apart from being good psychologists, also are heirs to a culture that loves theater and drama and are very good at writing scripts,” she said. “And I think that they have a number of scripts up their sleeves.”

On the other hand, Vike-Freiberga acknowledged her own fallibility with a wry sense of humor.

Latvia’s former president said she came to Florida for “the sunshine and the blue skies.” She added, “We have great foresight in planning my trip.”