Next week’s Nato summit in the Latvian capital of Riga, the first to be held on the territory of the former Soviet Union, will remove “the very last traces of the Iron Curtain” from the region, according to Vaira Vike-Freiburga, the Latvian president.
“It’s a very visible way of stamping on to people’s minds, both in Latvia and elsewhere, this change in the map of Europe, this change in the map of the world,” Mrs Vike-Freiburga said in an interview with the Financial Times on Wednesday.
The summit will bring to Riga thousands of visitors from the alliance’s 26 members, headed by US President George W. Bush. Latvia, along with neighbouring Estonia and Lithuania, were among the seven nations that joined Nato in its last enlargement in 2004 – the same year they entered the European Union.
While some Latvians have complained about the cost and inconvenience of the event, most appreciate the symbolic value of flying Nato’s flags on the borders of Russia – successor to the former Soviet Union and a country attempting to re-establish its influence over former subject states.
Riga has this year seen an improvement in relations with Moscow after considerable tensions last year, when the Baltic states irritated Russia by using the 60th anniversary of the end of the second world war to remember their own occupation by the Soviet Union. However, Latvia has still to sign a border treaty with Russia.
Mrs Vike-Freiburga said the government was now trying to secure a treaty that would remove a long-standing cloud over relations.
However, she warned that there were still people in Russia who thought fondly in “anachronistic” terms about the former Soviet Union and about Moscow’s influence over its former satellites. Russia retained instruments, including energy policy, that it was using to further its “political priorities” in the region, the Latvian president said.
She emphasised the value of the mutual defence guarantees at the heart of Nato, saying that Latvia’s efforts to remain neutral between the first and second world wars had ended in the loss of independence.
“If we were invaded...from Mars I would expect the Nato alliance to immediately react and to take all measures to defend us,” she said. “This is absolutely the fundamental principle of the alliance and if ever the alliance falls down on it, the alliance collapses.”
Mrs Vike-Freiburga urged the EU to finalise a mandate to negotiate a co-operation agreement with Russia. Poland, which is locked in a dispute with Moscow over agricultural trade, has been blocking the start of talks, which were due to get under way at tomorrow’s EU-Russia summit.
The Latvian president said: “We want an agreement between the EU as a whole, where we all agree, with Russia as a partner, so that we can rely on certain principles of interaction and of collaboration...so that we don’t have unexpected things popping up constantly. That is not in our interest.”
Mrs Vike-Freiburga, who ran unsuccessfully in the recent race to succeed Kofi Annan as secretary-general of the United Nations, said she would be ready to retire when her term ended next summer but indicated she remained available for a “challenging” post.