'Baltic Iron Lady' Eyes Annan's Post

While visiting Israel, George Bush's top choice for the UN quietly acknowledges that she seeks the appointment.

The job is considered to be nearly impossible and the pay is not that good, by international standards - about $33,000 a month. Despite this, 10 months before Kofi Annan is slated to complete his term, the race for the position of United Nations secretary general is in full swing. At least 10 names have already been suggested and some of the candidates have already declared that they would be willing to move to New York if asked to do so by members of the UN Security Council. The decision will finally be made by the five permanent member states of the council: the United States, the United Kingdom, the Russian Federation, China and France. Negotiations will soon begin to appoint a candidate agreeable to all sides.

Despite the fact that, according to tradition, the next secretary general should come from an Asian nation, the Bush administration is now seeking to promote a pro-American candidate. Most pundits agree that neither of the two hottest and best-known candidates in the name game - former U.S. president Bill Clinton and Prime Minister Tony Blair - have a real chance of continuing their international careers from the secretary general's chair. As a result, the White House is now mainly promoting an Eastern European candidate. The two most prominent names in the Eastern Bloc are former Polish president Alexander Kwasniewski and Latvian President Dr. Vaira Vike-Freiberga.

In an effort to improve Latvian-Israeli relations and to improve her chances of being appointed to the secretary general's position, Vike-Freiberga visited Jerusalem last week. In an interview with Haaretz, she did not exactly throw her hat into the ring, but she did declare her clear ambitions regarding the appointment.

"At the moment I'm the president of Latvia, but if by any chance or because of some miracle it happens that the UN Security Council could agree on my candidacy, I think I wouldn't refuse. Because it's an opportunity to work for humanity," the president said.

In general, Vike-Freiberga is now being careful to choose her words in a diplomatic fashion. Despite international press reports claiming that Bush considers her to be the best candidate for the top UN position, she maintains that the subject of her candidacy was not raised in discussions with the U.S. president during his visit to Riga in May, 2005.

"This hasn't come up officially at any level," she explained. "I'm not an official candidate - contrary to some gentlemen from Asia, whose countries have actually presented their candidacy. My name has been mentioned unofficially by various journalists, and Latvia is not putting forth my name as an official candidate."

It is not difficult to understand why Bush would promote the relatively anonymous candidate from Latvia. The story of Vike-Freiberga's life meshes perfectly with the U.S. president's international agenda of promoting democracy throughout the world. She was born in Latvia 69 years ago and fled the nation with her parents after the Red Army invaded Riga.

She remained in a German refugee camp for four years and then moved to Morocco and finally to Canada. In Montreal, she launched an impressive career in psychology and published many articles describing Latvian folk culture. In 1998, she returned to her homeland; one year later she was elected president of the Republic of Latvia. She speaks five languages - Latvian, English, French, Spanish and German - and has begun to study Russian in recent years.

Pro-American opinions

Even if one sets aside Vike-Freiberga's biography, one cannot ignore her very pro-American opinions, as manifested in her decisive support of the war in Iraq. There are still 136 Latvian soldiers posted in the southern part of that nation and Bush will not soon forget her for this contribution.

Now, almost three years after the American invasion and despite the deaths of tens of thousands of Iraqis and more than 2,000 American soldiers, Vike-Freiberga still supports the deposition of Saddam Hussein. "I don't think it's better to live under bloody tyranny, and Saddam Hussein was a great danger for the Middle East. That man is not a loss for the Middle East or to the world. But what is very sad is that the country ... has no traditions of democracy behind it. Now when one tries to build democracy there, it is very much an uphill battle, and because the populations have been divided it is very difficult to establish confidence between them."

The president of Latvia attempted to sound as agreeable as possible with respect to the international consensus on other global issues. During her visit to Israel, she apologized for Latvian involvement in the eradication of Jews during the Holocaust (which occured "to our sorrow and shame"). She expressed moderate opinions regarding the Middle East peace process (senior Israeli officials said that Vike-Freiberga told them that the election of Hamas moved that process two steps backward), and her clear opinion regarding Iran is: "It's a very serious threat for the world security."

According to her, "it is going to be a very difficult challenge to see if the world manages to persuade the Iranian government to desist from what seems to be attempts to get nuclear weapons. Seeing how difficult the situation is in Iraq, everybody hopes and prays that we do not come to that. We very much would like to see the diplomatic discussions continue, for the diplomatic pressure to be put on Iran. And really there is still hope that Iran can be persuaded, and its own interests [lie] in accepting the idea of nuclear power for peaceful means."

It appears that the main stumbling block to Vike-Freiberga becoming head of the UN Security Council concerns relations with Russia. That country has made it clear, more than once, that it would not like to see an Eastern European candidate in the position, and Russia has the power to veto any candidate from the former Soviet Republic or the Eastern bloc. Plus rising tensions between Riga and the Kremlin do not bode well for the efforts of the Latvian president.

During her visit here, she sounded firm in regard to relations between Riga and Moscow, declaring: "For us there is nothing to fix, we fixed our faith in 1991 when we became independent ... We fixed the fact of being occupied. We carried out reforms, we established a market economy, we are growing extremely fast and we have joined NATO so that we will never again have to experience what we had in a previous century - two occupations, one of the Nazi totalitarian rule and one of the Soviet totalitarian rule. For us, we turned the page in history and we are looking toward the future."

Despite the expected veto from Moscow, Vike-Freiberga remains a front-runner in the race for secretary general. Like the newly elected president of Liberia, the chancellor of Germany, or even newly appointed Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, the press was quick to call Vike-Freiberga "the Baltic Iron Lady." Despite the negative connotations associated with that nickname, however, she actually sounds pleased with it.

"It does show a lack of imagination. Since Margaret Thatcher there have been a number of women heads of state, and nobody has invented different labels for them. But it is not a bad one, because otherwise there is a stereotype of women being weak. So if by calling me 'Iron Lady,' they mean I can be strong - then indeed I can be very strong."