Riga Welcoming First White House Visitor in Style
RIGA, Latvia (AP) _ Sounds of hammers and clanging steel echoed through Riga’s old town on Tuesday as workmen made final preparations for President Clinton’s visit - the first by a U.S. president to a Baltic state.
Scores of American and Latvian flags waved in the breeze along the Vansu bridge, which Clinton will cross on his way into town, passing under a huge banner that reads ″Welcome President Clinton.″
A dozen school children raked leaves and swept sidewalks by the towering Freedom Monument, where Clinton will speak during his one-day stay Wednesday.
″It’s a great honor that an American president comes here,″ said 11-year- old Yuri Chahov, holding a red baseball cap in one hand and a broom in the other.
″I’m helping to clean because I want President Clinton to see that Latvians aren’t just sitting around on their hands,″ he said. ″We’re trying to make our country a better place.″
Nearby, workmen fitted together heavy beams that are part of a makeshift stage for Clinton.
″We’ve been working day and night,″ said one of the men, gasping for breath in the summer heat.
Since the former Soviet Baltic republics broke with Moscow in 1991, residents have grown accustomed to a steady stream of visits by Western heads of state. But Latvians say Clinton’s visit is different.
″He’s more important than the others,″ said Rubenis Laimonis, a 59-year- old pensioner, standing outside Riga’s Little Johnny’s American Pizza restaurant.
Brushing his hand through thick gray hair, Laimonis said he was especially thankful for the wholesale repair of otherwise bumpy city roads, completed in one week for Clinton’s visit. ″American presidents should come more often,″ he said.
As a security precaution, Latvian police finished battening down manhole covers and removing flower pots along the president’s motorcade route.
An old biplane, one of a few aircraft in Latvia’s tiny air force, flew overhead to make a security check.
On cobblestone streets around the capital, Latvians said they hoped Clinton’s visit would bring long-lasting benefits.
″His visit could really help open us up to the West, as far as trade and foreign investment,″ said Alberts Berzuks, a 70-year-old retiree in this country of 2.6 million.
Outside the American Embassy in Riga, 30 elderly Latvians carried placards urging Washington to stand firm against Russia, a country many Latvians see as a threat to their independence.
Latvians are particularly worried about the presence of Russian troops, who number fewer than 10,000 and, according to officials, are withdrawing fast. There are also 2,000 Russian soldiers in neighboring Estonia.
″Russia’s occupation of Latvia continues 3/8″ read one sign at the demonstration. ″Klinton: Don’t sell us out to the Russians 3/8″ read another. Both were written in English, though with a K rather than a C in the president’s name.
Some Latvians said they were concerned that, in a crisis, the United States would leave them at the mercy of Russia. ″Big countries always disregard the interests of small countries,″ said Vita Velmere, a 41-year-old office worker. ″Clinton should be trying to find ways of protecting us from the East, from Russia.″
Members of Latvia’s large Russian-speaking community said they hoped they wouldn’t be overlooked, either.
Russian speakers make up 47 percent of the Latvian population, and have complained about discrimination at the hands of a government dominated by Latvians. ″Clinton should help us, too,″ said Valitina, a 68-year-old Russian pensioner. ″He should try to solve the problems between Russians and Latvians.″
Clinton is expected to address this issue, as well as Baltic security concerns, at a summit meeting with all three Baltic presidents on Wednesday.
After the meeting, Clinton will lay flowers at the Freedom Monument, a 50- foot-high stone column with a sculpture of a woman at the top, her arms outstretched to the sky. He’ll then deliver his address.
While many Latvians hope for big things from the president, others say they’re just happy Latvia will be the focus of world attention, if only for the six hours of Clinton’s stay.
Irina Veide, a 20-year-old student, said she hoped the world attention would improve general knowledge about her country, starting with where it’s located.
″For a start, maybe people will stop confusing the Baltics with the Balkans,″ she said.