Vaira Vike-Freiberga: “The most important element for the future of Ukraine is what Ukrainians do themselves”

4 January 2015, 18:33

U.W.: In one of your lectures you said that the EU lacks plan B in its politics, economics, etc. This is seen well in the way it has been dealing with the Ukrainian crisis: there are no back-up policies for cases where the initial ones do not work. How can the EU teach itself to create those back–up options?

Strangely enough, I discovered that the EU does not like to have a plan B in very important situations, because they feel that having a choice will immediately split such a large group. For instance, when they wanted to have a new constitution adopted, I kept saying what if one of the countries vetoes it, because it has a right to do so? The answer was: “Oh no, you mustn’t talk about that, because it will give people the idea that there is an alternative”. Sometimes, the lack of plan B is a tactical choice. They have plan A, want to implement it and take everybody on board.  When one country vetoes it, they start debating plan B publicly.

In case of Ukraine there are a lot of think-tanks both inside the country and abroad debating as to what should be done in this country, what it needs to do and what other countries need to do to help it. I have myself seen four different scenarios of possible developments in Ukraine. All four include actions by the West and manners of handling sanctions, because no one wants a nuclear war. 

The West claims that it does not want a Cold War, but we have it already. Just read and compare Vladimir Putin’s speeches with those of Barack Obama or the NATO General Secretary – they are not from the same universe. So, whether you call a Cold War or whatever, the rhetoric, the narrative is entirely different. Russia has a unique way of looking at things, distorting facts to its own advantage that simply is not accepted by most people in the West.

The invasion and annexation of Crimea was a surprise to the West. They certainly were not expecting that; they thought that the Budapest Memorandum would be respected. Well, it’s not. When it was written, there was absolutely no thought of any plan B either. Still, in all scenarios of Ukraine’s future,  the central and most important element is what Ukrainians do themselves in their country or what is left of it, no matter how much is invaded by the foreign troops.

RELATED ARTICLE: Jan Tombinski on reforms for Ukraine

U.W.: 10 years after the Baltic States entered the EU, we still say “new” and “old” member states. Do you still feel the difference?

Of course… 50 years of Communism is the difference. It surely affected the infrastructure, leaving it in a terrible condition. In Latvia some roads still are. Portugal managed to build more roads then they need when they got European aid. We have so many needs that we haven’t been able to rebuild all old roads even with European aid.

Then, take our scientific labs…  Since during Soviet times most of the top research was done at secret institutes in Moscow, many of our labs do not have sufficient  infrastructure. Many European scientific projects require collaboration with other countries. Some years ago when I finished my presidency, the Commissioner for Science asked me to chair a committee which evaluated the newly created European Research Council (it gives research grants at all levels in Europe). I told them to look at the map of who got the grants – I saw an invisible Iron curtain going through Europe, because all of the centers of excellence were in Western Europe and none in the East. I asked whether it was really true that there are no smart scientists in Eastern Europe. The answer was that they do not meet the Western criteria of excellence, which include collaboration with other universities. Yet someone who lived behind the Iron Curtain was by definition excluded from collaboration with those on the other side.

50 years of Communism have put us behind in many ways and we have worked hard to catch up. Some countries have moved forward faster and have better resources. Poland was supposed to be the “sick man of Europe” at the beginning of accession talks. But it has survived economic and financial crises better than most Western European countries. These things are unpredictable. In fact, Poland is doing rather well compared to, say, Greece or Spain at the moment.

The major division is now between North and South. That is emphasized more often than the line between “old” and “new” countries. Countries like the Baltic States, Poland and Lithuania put Eastern Partnership on their agenda and among priorities in the EU. Latvia takes over the presidency in the European Council on January 1st and it will have Eastern Partnership on its list of priorities. For countries like Greece, Spain, Italy and Portugal, Africa is of the greatest priority. What we need in Europe is solidarity whereby people from Estonia or Latvia go into committees that deal with refugees heading to Italy or Spain from North and Sub-Saharan Africa, while South-European countries are interested in what happens in Ukraine. In other words, Europe is still in a process of integration and 10 years is a short time in history. I think that a lot has been done in that area. I myself think that Europeans do not even appreciate how much has been accomplished within this past decade. But naturally more still needs to be done.

RELATED ARTICLE: Pavlo Gudimov on the role of culture in crises

U.W.: At the moment both Ukraine and the EU have to counter Russian propaganda. What methods do you as a psycholinguist see as the most effective to that end?

I think that you need independent newspapers with investigative journalists here that are not paid by local oligarchs or Russia. That is something very hard to find. I used to chair a committee asked to evaluate media plurality and freedom in Europe. The Commission does not regulate that, but it is part of European values, a free and open press. We found that the situation with the free press is not ideal even in well-established democracies. England had a big scandal with the Murdoch empire, the Leveson Inquiry discovered many corrupt deals between the press, politicians and the police.

We recommended that newspapers, for instance, should have mastheads saying who their real owners are rather than specifying offshore companies in the Virgin Islands or Jersey. That sort of information is almost impossible to get. As for diversity of opinion, that is part of democracy. Take France: you pick up a left- or a right-wing paper there and you know where you stand. First, that gives you a choice. Second, you know what it is. Propaganda is something that is fed to you without you being aware of it or without there being alternatives. It is like that in Russia now: everything is under the Kremlin’s control and that is very dangerous, because you can zombie the population. You can literally use neuro-linguistic programming whereby you repeat the same message again and again.

U.W.: Russian propaganda seems to be pretty sophisticated. They create separate groups of people (right or left extremists, peace activists) and provide them with information which is partly true and is sensitive to them. What are ways to deal with these risk groups in society?

That is the concern about how far you can control them without infringing basic principles, such as freedom of expression, assembly and press. To me, theoretically at least, the human mind, just like nature, will not tolerate a vacuum. People feel the need of ideology, a set of values, something they can believe in. This is how the European and Western values have developed, but they did so very gradually. Not so long ago, it was public entertainment in many countries of Europe to watch a hanging or beheading. The abolition of the death penalty in Europe was an important step because it created a different attitude towards human life. So, these things develop slowly over time.

I would say that the real basic pillar of democracy is made up of the accumulation of the best that human minds have produced in the past, selected and adjusted to present days, and re-evaluated by each generation anew. You need a stable, well-educated middle class that can read, understand and analyze information critically. We have had many education reforms that are supposed to teach children critical skills, not just basic ones. But it is not that simple. I personally think that basic skills such as reading, writing, arithmetic, spelling and memorizing poetry, are important to the development of critical thinking when the mind is mature and ready enough for it. Meanwhile, many people are grown-up children looking for guidance. Some look for extremist ideologies because they make them feel more important. There is a case of a French boy who found ads about how to become a Muslim on the internet, converted to Islam at 17 and saw an ad for recruitment of warriors to be trained for the jihad. He went to Syria, I think, or to some place nearby and is now on Youtube with a big beard, in a row of men, cutting off heads of Syrian pilots.  

RELATED ARTICLE: Karen Dawisha: "Russia's objective is to increase the split between Europe and the US"

U.W.: What mistakes, in your opinion, the EU has made in its Russia policy? What should it be now?

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the West in general took a very romantic view of Russia. I have heard it particularly from my good friend Jacques Chirac – he learned Russian when he was young and has great sympathy towards Russia. But France is far enough from Russia. I asked him whether his idea of Russia was of a troika going in the snow, with fur banquets over it and spectacular churches with onion domes. He said, “Yes, this is my image of Russia”. He argued that since Communism had disappeared as a system, the Russians would become like us. We would be nice to the Russians and they would be nice to us. Now, the Europeans say that Ukrainians have to be nice to the Russians and they will be nice to you.  But the sad thing is that they are not. Stalin wasn’t nice, Mussolini wasn’t nice, Hitler wasn’t nice and I am afraid to say that Mr. Putin also is not a nice man.


Vaira Vike Freiberga is the sixth President of Latvia and the first female President of Latvia. She served as President for two terms (1999-2007). During her presidency, Latvia became member of the EU and NATO. She earned her PhD in experimental psychology from McGill University in 1965. She is fluent in English, French, Latvian, Spanish and German. Now she is Head of Club de Madrid – an independent club of 95 former democratically elected presidents and prime-ministers.

This is Articte sidebar