By Hironao Oguma

September 27, 2015

Former Latvia President Vaira Vike-Freiberga, who gave up a slice of the Baltic republic’s territory in a 2007 border dispute with Russia, emphasized the importance of national strength when negotiating with Moscow over disputed territories.

Asked what Japan can do about its territorial dispute with Russia, the former leader drew on 17th century French fabulist Jean de La Fontaine.

“The argument of the strongest one somehow seems to be always the best,” Vike-Freiberga said. “In other words, those (who) are strongest win arguments simply by strength.”

“Be prepared in every way,” she said of dealing with Russia as a neighbor. “I think the best way to contain anybody who has unrealistic ambitions, is to make your own country as strong as possible . . . economically, politically and militarily.”

“And to get good allies,” she added.

Four islets that Japan calls the Northern Territories and Russia calls the Southern Kurils are the subject of a dispute between the two nations.

The dispute, which has hampered trade ties, is one of the main reasons the two have never officially struck a peace treaty to end World War II.

Latvia resolved its territorial row with Russia during Vike-Freiberga’s 1999 to 2007 term, eventually concluding a concessionary deal to redraw the border. The dispute had been seen as standing in the way of Riga joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

“We voluntarily gave up on it,” Vike-Freiberga, 77, said of the concession in a recent interview with Kyodo News, “because we thought that as a candidate for NATO, we would have a better chance to be accepted if we didn’t have a border dispute.”

The relinquished swath of land, equivalent to 5 percent of the country, had been “cut off” from Latvia in the 1940s, she said, when it was under Soviet rule. Riga was a satellite of the Soviet Union for decades till it regained independence in 1991.

The border deal generated “a big debate” among the public, the former leader said. “And many felt we should never do it” but many others also “felt they welcomed it and they (the Russians) might as well keep it,” she said, because the conceded land was a “very poor, undeveloped district.”

She said the border demarcation with Russia has not yet been completed, noting it is an expensive project to undertake as it involves large tracts of forest. Border guards from the two countries are collaborating professionally, she added.

On Russia’s argument that NATO’s troop deployment in Latvia and two other Baltic countries since the Ukraine crisis is destabilizing the region, Vike-Freiberga said destabilization is the result of Russia amassing troops in areas bordering the Baltic republics.

She said Russia has even conducted a military exercise under the scenario of how quickly they could occupy a small neighboring country.

“I think we feel much more secure with deployment” of NATO troops, she said.