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Speech of Dr. Vaira Vike-Freiberga

President of Latvia
At the US-Baltic Foundation
Celebration of the 15 years of Regained Baltic Independence

Washington, March 4, 2006

Madame Secretary,
Dear Madeleine [Albright],
Excellencies,
Ladies and Gentlemen:

I am deeply touched and honoured by this award [U.S. Baltic Foundation’s Baltic Statesmanship Award] which, of course, I feel, is not just mine but also that of the whole of my country. It has been nearly 15 years since Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania rejoined the community of nations, and since our flags are flying again in front of the United Nations building in New York. You must remember, Madame Secretary, when you were at the United Nations as the Ambassador of the United States how those three flags were missing, and they had been missing ever since the founding of that great institution. Every time I was in New York and walked by that United Nations building I said to myself – the world is represented there, the nations of the world have their flags flying, and one day the flag of my nation must be in that number. And it is.

That feeling of recovering one’s rights, of having one’s very existence recognised by the world, is difficult to comprehend for those who have never lost their independence and their liberty but we who had lost it for so long cherish it all the more and we are all the more committed to ensure that our people and our nation never lose it again, and more than that – we care deeply about freedom and liberty everywhere in the world.

Like many of those here in this room tonight or your parents and grandparents, I fled along with my parents in front of the advancing Soviet army not knowing if ever I would see my native land again. The generation passed away and the next generation passed away and only then did we receive the liberty that we had been waiting for so long. But all these years one generation passed on the flame of hope to the next and to the next, and we knew that if all was right in the world someday that the evil empire would collapse, someday the illegal occupation of our countries would cease, someday our nations would recover their freedom and ability to determine their own fates.

It is a freedom that we were fortunate to achieve without much bloodshed. We achieved it in a Singing revolution, and that Singing revolution was much like the sounds of trumpets of Jericho that made walls crumble. The evil empire crumbled because nations like the Latvians, the Estonians and the Lithuanians had faith in their future, they had faith in their rights and they had faith in the independence that their countries had had and would have again. That determination, that feeling of rightness of what we do has kept us going all the years since and in all the years since we have seen such hardship and so much deep change at such a social cost to so many, we have kept that flame of hope alive because we knew we are on the right path, we knew we were doing the right thing no matter what the cost.

And in that path, and in that change, and in that progress we felt and appreciated the support of all those whose hearts and minds, and skills, and resources were put at our disposal, were ready to support us, were ready to train our young people, were ready to come to Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia to train judges, to train accountants, to train bureaucrats in ministries, to help in any way they could. Many of them are here tonight who for years and years gathered all sorts of goods to wish it as humanitarian aid to your native country or that of your ancestors.

I know how much effort has gone into it, I know how much money has been taken away from your own entertainment, from your own luxuries, from your own life that you might have enjoyed, how many of you have sacrificed even what you deserved because you knew that somewhere across the ocean there were people whose need was greater than your own and because you understood that by very little sometimes so much could be accomplished. Thank you for all that you have done during all these years. All you, Latvian, Estonian, Lithuanian Americans, but all you others, so many of so many different ancestries here in America where generosity is one of the defining characteristics of this nation, where that generosity and your willingness to help and your feeling that you can make a difference in the world – and you did. You helped us to make a difference. Thank you for it.

In the 15 years of the regained independence we have come a very long way. And for Latvia this year, 2006, I am proud of receiving this award but I am also proud of my country hosting the NATO summit which to me is a sign post in evolution of that international body for defence. When I started my tenure as the President, and Madame Secretary will remember our first meetings, it was far from evident that NATO should enlarge at all after having received 3 former satellite countries, and it was certainly far from evident whether any one of the Baltic countries or any two or three should ever be accepted for a variety of reasons, well argued reasons, but also simply because of fear in some quarters that it would annoy Russia, and I spend a lot of my early years of Presidency telling both politicians of various countries including yours, and journalists, that we, the Latvian people, we have not been put by the good Lord on this earth to make Russia happy. We had our own lives to live and we would like to live them as we saw fit and we wish the Russians joy, and we wish them happy and prosperous life and we still do, we would like to see them as good and prosperous and democratic neighbours, and, of course, we would like to see also other nations to enjoy the freedoms that we have been so fortunate to achieve.

We would like to see the day when Belarusians can have a normal life and it grieves us deeply to see these people unable to have even the rudiments of any difference of opinion with the reigning system, any opportunity of free elections at a choice. Young people, various non-governmental organizations, anybody who dares express opposition [is] brutalized, […] attacked, […] arrested in some cases, and [sometimes] disappear and probably be murdered. It is something right next doors to us, and it has to end, it can not go on like that. And it will be up to the people of Belarus to take courage from what has been done next door, and I hope as they get more and more informed about different ways of going about it, that they will follow on a path of those who like the people of Ukraine, like the people of Georgia, like the government of Moldova have decided that they have lost too much time in recent years, they have not taken the courageous steps that three Baltic countries have taken in order to go on with very painful and deep seated reforms, to change their system, to change their way of doing things. It is not easy to change everything radically in one night or even in a few years. There is a cost to it, it certainly takes effort and determination but when you see people going out in the streets […] ready to freeze in a deep cold for weeks then you realize that they have reached a critical point in their lives when they say – this has gone long enough, we too want to enjoy freedom, we too want free and fair elections, we too want our voices to be heard, and we want a chance to express our desires and our wishes the way we see fit.

We wish that for people everywhere – we wish it for people in Iran, we wish it for the people in Iraq to find a way to living with each other and living in peace, we wish for people of Afghanistan to finally also get away from terror that the Taliban are imposing on them, we wish the Middle East to achieve a long lasting peace.

But I think the example of Latvia and our two neighbours should be inspiration to anybody. If you believe in your freedom, if you believe in your rights, you have to be patient, you have to be steadfast, you have to do everything in your part to make your dream come true. We did it, it can be done. You too can do it. Anybody can do it. So, let us do it together.

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Octobr 17, 2008 - President Bush Discusses the Visa Waiver Program
Office of the Press Secretary/ White House News

THE PRESIDENT: Thank you all. (Applause.) Please be seated, thank you. Welcome to the White House. I'm pleased to stand with the representatives of seven countries -- the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, and South Korea -- that have met the requirements to be admitted to the United States Visa Waiver Program. Soon the citizens of these nations will be able to travel to the United States for business or tourism without a visa. I congratulate these close friends and allies on this achievement, and I thank you for joining us here.

I also thank Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of the Homeland -- Department of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff for working hard to make sure this day has finally arrived. Appreciate other members of the administration here and members of the Diplomatic Corps.

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