- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 20, 2003

French President Jacques Chirac's "emotional outburst" will not stop Latvia from backing the Bush administration's hard line on Iraq, Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga said in an interview yesterday.
Despite Mr. Chirac's comment Monday that "immature" Central and East European nations "missed a great opportunity to shut up" over the divisive Iraq issue, "We did stick our neck out, and we will not pull it back," Mrs. Vike-Freiberga told editors and reporters of The Washington Times on the final day of a five-day visit to Washington.
Angry reactions continued to pour in from across the region to Mr. Chirac's remarks, made after Central and East European countries broke with France and Germany to support military action, if needed, to disarm the regime of Saddam Hussein.
Ten East European countries, many like Latvia candidates to join both NATO and the European Union, drafted a joint letter earlier this month backing the U.S. tough line against Saddam, delighting the Bush administration but infuriating officials in Paris and Berlin.
Bulgarian President Georgi Parvanov summoned the French ambassador in Sofia to issue a formal protest yesterday over Mr. Chirac's remarks.
"Bulgaria insists on mutual respect between EU members and applicant countries, between big and small states," Mr. Parvanov said. "Pressure by one state on another should not be allowed."
Latvian Ambassador Aivis Ronis revealed that the letter from the so-called "Vilnius 10" had its origins in the group of Central European ambassadors in Washington who have met regularly for two years to coordinate policy on NATO and other matters.
Mrs. Vike-Freiberga noted that the Vilnius 10 letter closely tracked a joint statement issued earlier by the leaders of Britain, Spain, Italy and five other countries. The Vilnius 10 letter was released after Secretary of State Colin L. Powell laid out the U.S. case against Iraq at the U.N. Security Council on Feb. 5.
While saying Latvia firmly backs the United States over Iraq, Mrs. Vike-Freiberga said the public dispute between the United States and two of its leading Western European allies put countries such as hers in a delicate position.
Latvia, which achieved independence just a dozen years ago with the collapse of the Soviet Union, sees its prime security guarantee in a strong NATO that links the United States firmly with Europe.
But the small Baltic country's economic future is just as firmly tied to its membership bid in the EU, which has been badly split by internal divisions over the prospect of war with Iraq.
"It is not a divided Europe that we want to enter," Mrs. Vike-Freiberga said. "What can we say? We'll just have to do as good a trick of rope-walking as we can, since we find ourselves on a tightrope."
As in other parts of Europe, Mrs. Vike-Freiberga's government is running a big political risk in its support of the Bush administration. Polls indicate that 75 percent of Latvians oppose a war with Iraq.
"At the moment, there is a very dangerous situation in Europe if the views of the population are seen as different from the views of the governments," she said. "Certainly, we would hope against hope that war can be avoided."
She said the huge anti-war demonstrations across Europe during the weekend showed that efforts by President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair to rally popular support for military action against Iraq had fallen short.
"Just looking at the size of the crowds, something, somewhere has certainly gone wrong" with the public relations effort, she said.
Mrs. Vike-Freiberga said Mr. Bush acknowledged the political difficulties facing leaders supporting war during a lengthy private meeting at the White House on Monday.
But she said she found Mr. Bush "at ease" with his Iraq policy, saying Mr. Bush argued the United States had "good grounds on the evidence and a moral obligation to act as it has" against Saddam.
She said Mr. Bush also offered a strong statement of support for an enlarged NATO, saying recent disputes had not affected the U.S. commitment to the alliance or the support for Latvia and six other candidate countries to join in the next few years.
Mrs. Vike-Freiberga said it was too early to see any major changes in Latvia's still-testy relations with Russia, just three months after NATO leaders invited Latvia to join the alliance at the summit in Prague.
"It is still psychologically difficult for some in the Russian government to accept" that Latvia and the other Baltic states "are definitively out of their sphere of influence," she said.
A nasty dispute remains over the decision by the Russian state pipeline monopoly Transneft to cut off virtually all oil shipments through the Latvian port of Ventspils.
The Russian company is demanding that it be allowed to buy the port facility before the oil will start flowing again.
Mrs. Vike-Freiberga expressed hope that the divisions within Europe over Iraq can be healed, especially with the signing Tuesday of a tougher joint EU communique on Iraq that was also endorsed by 13 East and Central European candidate countries.
But she added that the experiences of the Baltic states and other post-communist governments in Europe had given them firsthand experience in the need to stand up to a tyrannical government before it is too late. Latvia, which enjoyed 20 years of independence before coming under Nazi and Soviet domination, believes rulers such as Saddam must be confronted.
"My predecessor in 1939 hoped to keep a low profile, and it didn't work," Mrs. Vike-Freiberga said.
"I don't think we can find security by hiding away in a hidy-hole. In our history, we have learned that our only chance for real security is standing with our allies and hoping they will stand by us."


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