Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga (also known as Vaira Vikis-Freibergs; born December 1, 1937 in Riga, Latvia) was the 6th President of Latvia and first female President of Latvia. She was elected President of Latvia in 1999 and reelected in 2003. She has been succeeded by Valdis Zatlers, who was elected President of Latvia on 31 May 2007.
Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga was born Vaira Vīķe on 1 December 1937 in Riga, Latvia. At the end of 1944, as Soviet occupation of Latvia begun, Vīķe's parents escaped to Germany. There she received her first education in Latvian primary school at refugee camp in Lübeck, Germany. Then her family moved to French Morocco in 1949. In Morocco she attended French primary school at Daourat hydroelectric dam village where she learned French. Vīķe then went on to attend Collège de jeunes filles de Mers-Sultan in Casablanca. In 1954 her family moved to Toronto, Canada. There she completed Grade 13 and received her high school diploma. In 1958 she was accepted as a student at the University of Toronto. She first achieved a BA in psychology in 1958 and followed it with an MA in 1960, while working full time at the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce as a teller. In 1957–1960 she worked part time as a supervisor in Branksome Hall Boarding School for Girls. In 1958, being fluent in English, French, Latvian, Spanish and German, she worked as a Spanish translator and the next year went on to work as a Spanish teacher for grades 12 and 13 at Ontario Ladies' College. Upon leaving the University of Toronto, Vīķe became a clinical psychologist at the Toronto Psychiatric Hospital in late 1960. She left in 1961 to resume her education at the McGill University in Montreal where she earned her PhD in experimental psychology, leaving the University in 1965.
Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga is married to Imants Freibergs, a professor of computer sciences at Université du Québec à Montréal, who is currently the President of the Latvian Information and Communications Technology Association (LIKTA). They met at a gathering of expatriate Latvians and were married at a low-key ceremony in Toronto. They have two children, Kārlis and Indra, but no grandchildren.
In 1965, she took the post of Professor of Psychology at the University of Montreal where she taught psychopharmacology, psycholinguistics, scientific theories, experimental methods, language and cognitive processes (in French). Whilst working at the University, Vīķe-Freiberga also researched memory processes and language as well as producing several papers on the problems and influences of drugs on the mind. She became a well-known figure on the political speaking circuit and often spoke on radio, TV or in schools in English, French and Latvian. Vīķe served on many councils and organisations in high positions. These include:
In 1994, she was appointed a Member of Council and later President of the Academy I of the Royal Society of Canada. She ceased all activity with this organisation in 1999. She was also a Member of the Killam Research Fellowships and Prizes Selection Committee from 1995-1998. Vīķe-Freiberga served on the Canadian governmental consultative committee on the disposal of nuclear waste in 1996 but continued to teach at the University of Montreal. In June 1998, she was made a Professor Emerita and took this opportunity to return to Latvia.
Whilst in Canada, Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga was active in the Latvian community and had used Latvian folklore, such as the dainas, as part of her research in various academic studies. She wrote many articles on Latvian identity in which she was critical of the Soviet Union and outlined her views of the political future of Latvia and other Baltic states — Lithuania and Estonia. She became a regular lecturer in North and South America, Europe and Australia on the subject of Latvian culture and heritage. During her career at Montreal, Vīķe authored a total of ten books and 160 articles, essays, book chapters and forewords on Latvian culture. In June 1998, she was made a Professor Emerita and took this opportunity to return to Latvia, where she received the offer of the Directorship of the Latvian Institute. In 2004, she was made a member of the Writers’ Union of Latvia in recognition for her writing achievements.
In June 1999, she had been scheduled to give the keynote address to the Third Conference of Baltic Studies in Europe, being held in Stockholm, Sweden; however, as she unexpectedly had just been elected President of Latvia by the Latvian parliament in Riga, she was unable to attend the conference, and her speech was cancelled.
Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga became President of Latvia in 1999. Although not a candidate in the first ballot, she was drafted by the Saeima (Latvian Parliament) and was elected to the office of President of Latvia. She was sworn in on 8 July. Short after her election, the European Union (EU) offered membership to Latvia at the EU Summit at Helsinki 1999. She has been a Member of the Council of Women World Leaders since 1999 and seemed to make foreign policy her main area of activity and is most known for her role in securing North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and EU membership for Latvia. In 2002, Ms Vīķe-Freiberga gave a frank interview to Meriel Beattie of the BBC in which she stressed a positive attitude to ensure Latvia shook off the culture of the days of Soviet Occupation. She asserted her belief in the European identity saying, "Identity is no one single thing that you pin on your chest and say that it identifies you as being English or Latvian. In Latvia we belong to this whole area of Europe where mushroom hunting is a passion as well as a sport". Her approval rating has ranged between 70% and 85%, securing her place as very popular among Latvians. In 2003 she was re-elected for a second term of four years with 88 votes out of 96.
Her views are said to be quite conservative though she has no political affiliation. She is also a strong supporter of the U.S. policy in Iraq and on various occasions she has asked that Russia admit to the Soviet occupation of the Baltic States. One such occasion was her address to a joint session of the United States Congress, in which she thanked the United States for supporting the new democracies of the Baltics and Eastern Europe. She went on to emphasize that history was not being re-written by acknowledging that the Soviets had occupied the three Baltic nations and that, for Latvia, the end of World War II meant the occupation by one foreign totalitarian regime being replaced by the occupation by another foreign totalitarian regime.
Vīķe-Freiberga was sometimes criticised for her relative inactivity in domestic politics. However, given the restricted powers of Latvia's president stipulated in the Constitution of Latvia (see Politics of Latvia), these accusations are often deemed unfounded. She has sponsored a number of bills in Parliament and vetoed over twenty bills. In one internationally noted incident, she returned a bill banning employment discrimination with a tersely worded note saying that sexual orientation had to be added as a prohibited ground of discrimination. On another occasion, in March 2007, she used her presidential powers to suspend two national security laws passed by the parliament a few days before and to initiate a referendum on repealing them.
During her presidency she regularly visited towns and villages to meet her constituents in person, and received many thousands of letters yearly from Latvians. She has initiated a discussion to introduce compulsory voting in general elections to more fully engage Latvian citizens in the political processes of the country. This initiative, however, did not succeed. In April 2005, then United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan named Vīķe-Freiberga as a member of his team of global political leaders helping to promote his comprehensive reform agenda.
After months of speculation that Vīķe-Freiberga would run for the post of United Nations Secretary-General, the three Baltic States finally jointly announced her candidacy on September 16, 2006. When she addressed the UN General Assembly, she pledged that she would face "the challenges posed by the UN reform and promoting human rights, freedom and democracy, including gender equality". Her chances of being chosen were thought to be slim because Russia, a permanent member of the UN Security Council, has indicated it will not support any Eastern European candidate. She withdrew her candidacy on 5 October 2006
Vīķe-Freiberga, however, was believed to enjoy the support of the White House, including President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. It is thought that Riga was chosen to host the NATO Summit in 2006 partly thanks to her relationships with the President and with Dr. Rice.
Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga was succeeded on 8 July 2007 by Valdis Zatlers, who was elected President of Latvia on 31 May 2007. On 18 July 2007 she founded the company VVF Consulting together with her husband. On 14 December 2007 she was appointed Vice-president of the Reflection Group on the long-term future of the European Union.