Sunday, November 08, 2009

europe view no 157--VVF for president!


An easterner to the front

Nov 5th 2009

Could a former president of Latvia make it as the European Union president?

OPTIMISTIC Latvians are thin on the ground these days. The combination of fractious politics and a dismal economic outlook blunts the enthusiasm of even the most cheerfully patriotic soul. All the more reason, therefore, to applaud the announcement that the country’s former president, Vaira Vike-Freiberga, is running for the job of president of the European Union.

At first sight, Ms Vike-Freiberga’s chances seem vanishingly slim. And at a second glance they don’t look much fatter. On the plus side, she speaks perfect French. She is a woman. And she has no big enemies. Observers of Latvian politics in the years 1999-2007 (admittedly, not exactly a mainstream hobby in Brussels) remember her as an uncommonly effective president of that country. She proved a powerful bulwark against over-mighty tycoons bent on suborning Latvia’s independent institutions and a strong defender of probity in public office.

If big European countries cannot agree on a big personality from a big country, perhaps they might like a big personality from a small one (Ms Vike-Freiberga’s protocol-heavy grandeur is the stuff of legends among outsiders used to the laid-back style of other Baltic politicians). Her backers recall that she emerged from nowhere in 1999 after a deadlock between Latvia’s powerbrokers. Perhaps she could pull off the same trick in Brussels. Her life story—a refugee who fled the Soviet occupation in 1944, became a professor in Canada and then returned to usher her homeland into the EU and NATO—is captivating. She would bridge the gap between the eastern and western halves of the continent and talk to Barack Obama as one North American to another.Unlike some Baltic politicians, she is not detested in Russia (which matters, apparently). During celebrations in 2005 to mark the 60th anniversary of the end of the second world war she went to Moscow, while her Estonian and Lithuanian counterparts stayed away in protest at what they saw as Soviet triumphalism.

But anyone who overlooks the seemingly insuperable obstacles to her candidacy has probably been over-indulging in Black Balsam, Latvia’s hallucinogenic national drink (it tastes of burnt orange peelings). She has no serious backers, is all but unknown, and comes from a country that is widely regarded as an ill-governed basket case. Indeed, some fear that her candidacy may detract from the chances of Latvia’s real EU star, the energy commissioner Andris Piebalgs, gaining a serious portfolio in the new commission.

But Ms Vike-Freiberga’s Quixotic bid for high office does have two virtues. One is to show that Latvia has impressive public figures as well as the eccentric, inadequate and questionable ones that have tended to be on public display since she left office. That may be something of a morale-booster. Not many east European countries could boast a candidate of her calibre. The other is to highlight the continuing under-representation of people from the ex-communist countries in top jobs in international organisations. Whether in the higher ranks of NATO, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the European Central Bank, or the European Union, the easterners are conspicuous by their rarity or invisibility.

That is partly a matter of time (the post-communist generation will be better candidates than their parents), and partly the result of disunity, bad tactics and outright sabotage from the home side when an east European candidate does have a chance. But at least in part it also reflects an informal cartel among the countries of “old Europe” in dividing the spoils of office. If Ms Vike-Freiberga’s candidacy does nothing more than to shake that up, then it will have been well worth it.

1 comment:

bnr said...

I agree with everything you say - yet wonder if VVF is in touch wth the present reality. Witnessing her comments recently - in answering the question 'why should a young Latvian stay in his/her country' it seemed to myself and neighbours that she needed to change her message - to pay attention to the profound changes that have taken place in Latvia over the last 12 months.