HELSINKI, Finland (AP) _ Latvia will decide its own national defense policies, including possible NATO membership, despite the objections of neighboring Russia, Latvia's new president said Tuesday.

Russia has repeatedly objected to having any of its small Baltic neighbors _ Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania _ join the Western military alliance.

But Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga told a news conference during a two-day visit to Finland that the complaints of a ``bigger or louder'' neighbor could not be allowed to shape a nation's policy.

``Each nation has the inherent right of sovereignty in its decision making and ... choosing how it will be defended,'' Vike-Freiberga said.

Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania regained independence in 1991 after 50 years under Soviet rule and now see membership in the European Union and NATO as key foreign policy goals.

Vike-Freiberga, who was sworn in as president last month, was also conciliatory. She said good relations with Russia ``remain exceedingly important'' for her country with its large Russian minority, making up about 40 percent of its 2.5 million population.

As to Latvia's goal of beginning membership talks with the 15-nation European Union, Vike-Freiberga said, ``We have certainly received some signals that are very encouraging.''

Vike-Freiberga, 61, fled Latvia in 1945 and settled in Canada. She returned last year, after retiring as a psychology professor at Montreal University.