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Retired Canadian professor takes Latvia's helm

One of Eastern Europe's first female heads of state will be sworn in

Latvia's new president, Vaira Vike-Freiberga, hopes to change the collective outlook of her small country, nestled among Baltic neighbors Estonia, Lithuania, Russia, and Belarus.

The retired psychology professor from Montreal, who renounced her Canadian citizenship shortly before her election by parliament June 17, says she hopes to inspire Latvians' self-esteem and self-reliance.

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"Latvians who lived abroad have often had a rich range of experiences, and many are valuable human resources. If they come here, they help recover part of the human resources that Latvia lost during the war and [Soviet] occupation," she said in a recent interview.

Latvia isn't alone in choosing an expatriate for president. Lithuania's Valdas Adamkus spent most of his life in the United States before returning to run for office last year.

Aside from being seen as politically neutral outsiders, both leaders hail from NATO-member nations, an alliance their respective countries are eager to join. Unlike in Lithuania, however, Latvia's president plays a mainly ceremonial role.

While there has been a mostly positive public response to her election, some supporters expect the new president to be a kind of strong mother-figure leading the nation out of darkness, an expectation Vike-Freiberga rejects. Still, Latvians clearly need some inspiration.

The nation of 2.4 million witnessed a sharp downturn in industrial output as a result of last year's economic crisis in Russia, one of its biggest trading partners, and gross domestic product slipped 2.3 percent in the first quarter of 1999. Even before last year's economic crash, Latvia's 7.2 percent unemployment rate was higher than that of its Baltic neighbors.

Since Latvia regained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, it has been run by seven different governments.

Vike-Freiberga will be inaugurated July 8, just in time to exercise one of her few real constitutional powers, that of naming a new prime minister to head the eighth government in as many years.

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On Monday, centrist Prime Minister Vilis Kristopans announced that he was resigning as head of a minority coalition government. Mr. Kristopans said his government had been undermined by a cooperation agreement signed over the weekend between his largest coalition partner and an opposition group.

There has been growing dissatisfaction with his economic policies and leadership style. Vike-Freiberga told Latvia's leading daily, Diena, before Kristopans' resignation that "the greatest threat to the present government is the economic situation. If it worsens, it is quite possible that the Saeima [Latvia's parliament] will vote no confidence in the government."

Skeptics warn that in a crisis, the newly elected president, who returned from Canada to live in Latvia only last year, might find it difficult to pick someone to form a new government from among parties with sometimes murky programs backed by even murkier economic interests.

No foreigner to hardship

Vike-Freiberga, however, rejects as nonsense suggestions that, not having lived through the Soviet era, she cannot "really" understand what most Latvians have endured. The president-elect and her supporters point to her track record for adaptability under trying circumstances.

She witnessed wartime air raids as a small child, grew to young womanhood in French-speaking Morocco, where her step-father, a refugee in Germany, found work after the war.

She mastered French after initially being labeled "learning impaired," by her first primary school teacher in Morocco, for her refusal to speak.

Vike-Freiberga later attended the English-speaking University of Toronto in Canada and made an international academic career based on teaching and research at the University of Montreal. She has visited Latvia regularly since 1969.

Vike-Freiberga makes it clear that one of her tasks will be to help dispel the lingering sense of post-Soviet helplessness and despair that affects significant parts of the Latvian population, especially in economically depressed rural areas.

In her first televised press conference, she said that, having seen illiterate rural tribes in Morocco, she could not accept widespread complaining about the country's economic situation. The president said Latvia was doing relatively well compared with much of the world, which should be a reason for pride and self-esteem rather than self-pity.

Building rational, democratic national pride has been a theme in the president-elect's speeches and writings for Latvian communities in North America over the past 25 years. Some of her work suggests that parts of migr Latvian society were traumatized by their exile and predisposed to authoritarian thinking. These views, as well as her interest in then-Communist-ruled Latvia, got her unjustly labeled a traitor by some in her own Canadian-Latvian community.

Women as decisionmakers

Ms. Vike-Freiberga down plays the novelty of her role as a woman president. "It has been noted in the international press that I am one of the first female heads of state in Eastern Europe. But if we go back into ancient Latvian folklore, we see that sex roles in that peasant society were, for the most part, rationally divided on the basis of relative physical strength," she says. "Nobody expected women to plow the fields, but at the same time, nobody said that women could not be equal partners in making decisions."

Assisted by her husband, Imants, a computer-scientist, Vike-Freiberga was among the first to do computer-assisted textual analysis of Latvia's hundreds of thousands of short folk rhymes or dainas in the 1970s and published several books and articles based on this research.

The new president is a very calm and rational person who is accustomed, at least, to the kind of limelight an international teaching and lecturing career brings.

But her accentless mid-Atlantic English turns to ice when it is suggested that her election - or small nations such as Latvia - are somehow quaint or strange.

"The world has been trying to overcome racism, sexism, and ageism and now it is time to overcome the prejudice that there is something wrong with countries being small, or that small nations must be treated in a condescending manner."

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