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Latvia Elects First Woman President

July 7, 1999

RIGA, Latvia (AP) _ Had she any idea she might be Latvia’s next president, Vaira Vike-Freiberga would have taken more than two suitcases when she returned home after living for five decades in Canada.

And the 61-year-old retired university professor won’t be able to ease her way into the new job, either. After she’s sworn in Thursday, her first task will be to form a government to replace the prime minister and Cabinet, who resigned unexpectedly this week.

Interviewed at her office at the Latvia Institute, a research organization located in the cobblestoned streets of Riga’s old town, Vike-Freiberga dismissed any notion she might be in over her head.

``All that’s happened ... it is hard to believe,″ she said of her surprise election by parliament last month. ``(But) if I didn’t feel fully confident that I have the skills and resources to do this job properly, I never would have considered taking it.″

Since her June 17 election, when her name came up only after a half-dozen candidates were rejected by parliament or dropped out, Vike-Freiberga has shown she is capable of turning a potential weakness into an asset.

As the first woman president in a male-dominated society, she plans to focus on women’s issues.

``Men here are saying to me they’re delighted they will now have a role model for their daughters to show them that there are no doors closed to them,″ Vike-Freiberga said.

She has a quick mind, an engaging personality and speaks French, English, Spanish and German in addition to Latvian. That could help as she lobbies for Latvia’s membership in the European Union and NATO, among the country’s top foreign policy goals.

Although the post is largely ceremonial, Latvia’s president does help form new governments and can refuse to confirm new legislation, in addition to representing the country abroad.

Despite having little political experience, Vike-Freiberga seems to have a deft touch. She promised to begin learning Russian, the language of nearly 40 percent of Latvia’s 2.5 million people, a leftover from the days it was a Soviet republic.

She also says integrating minorities into society should be a top government priority.

``For the first time, at least for many Russians here, the Latvian state appears to be getting a friendly face,″ said Alex Krasnitsky, an editor at the Russian-language newspaper Chas. ``Many are hoping for good things from her.″

Vike-Freiberga’s family fled Latvia at the close of World War II, as Soviet troops invaded the small Baltic nation. She was 7 years old.

The family eventually settled in Canada, where she studied psychology, married and had two children. She recently retired as a professor at Montreal University and gave up her Canadian citizenship to return to Latvia to direct a small research organization.

Few gave her a chance of winning a majority in the 100-seat parliament, or Saeima, after several well-known intellectuals raised her name as a potential presidential candidate.

Her nomination, eventually endorsed by a cross-section of left- and right-wing parties, finally garnered 53 votes.

Political problems abound. The government she helps form will be Latvia’s eighth in as many years of independence from the former Soviet Union.

``It’s very tricky, very complicated for her.... It will be a baptism by fire,″ said political analyst Nils Nuiznieks.

Still, Latvians seem ready to give her a chance to lead their country away from its communist past and into the 21st century.

Her husband, Imants Freibergs, will return to Canada after the inauguration. Most likely he’ll retire from his job teaching at the University of Quebec, sell their home in Montreal, and return to Latvia with, among other things, a few more suitcases of her clothes.

Vike-Freiberga is currently living in one cramped room of a relative’s small apartment. But that will soon change: After her inauguration, she’ll move to a seaside villa near Riga, and her office will be in a 14th century castle.

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