In a lecture at Northeastern University on Thursday afternoon, former Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga compared Russian President Vladimir Putin to Peter the Great, the 17th century czar who acquired territory in Latvia, Finland, and Estonia.
“I hope the popularity the Russian president enjoys today would end soon and Russia could develop a different concept of who it is without having to threaten the rest of the world,” said Vike-Freiberga, who served as president of Latvia from 1999 to 2007. “I wish them luck because I think Russian people would be better for it.”
Vike-Freiberga is currently the president and founding member of the Club of Madrid, an independent nonprofit organization created to promote democracy and change in the international community. She fled Latvia when she was 6, before the country was invaded by the USSR, and then spent four years in refugee camps in Germany. She repatriated in 1998, and was elected President of the Republic of Latvia just one year later. During her tenure as president, she successfully advanced the foreign policy interests of her country, guiding its entry into the European Union and raising the nation’s worldwide recognition through her work at the United Nations.
Her lecture at Northeastern marked the first of several speaking engagements in Boston in which she planned to discuss the future of Europe and the prospect of building peace and security in the pacific.
On Thursday, Vike-Freiberga addressed some 200 students, faculty, and staff who filled the Fenway Center for Northeastern’s inaugural Global Leaders Forum. The new series is sponsored by the university’s Center for International Affairs and World Cultures, which aims to advance interdisciplinary scholarship, programs of study, and transnational linkages.
Vike-Freiberga’s campus visit was the result of her longstanding friendship with Anthony Jones, a member of the board of the directors of the Club of Madrid and an associate professor of sociology at Northeastern who extended the invitation. Her lecture—titled “Where is Russia going after Georgia and Ukraine?”—focused primarily on Russia’s history and concluded with her pronouncement that Russia faces a “bleak” future.
Russia shares a border with Latvia, a small country in the Baltic region of Northern Europe. Vike-Freiberga’s pessimistic view of its future derives in part from her assessment of the Russo-Ukrainian conflict. In March, Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula, which had been internationally recognized as part of Ukraine.
“I don’t think a country can be seen as legitimate by the rest of the world based on how many other countries it can oppress,” Vike-Freiberga said. “I don’t believe such a country is able to develop and respond to the challenges of the modern world,” she added, pointing in particular to terrorism, climate change, and global pandemics.
In the Q-and-A, one student asked Vike-Freiberga for her take on the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, which has beheaded four Westerners in the past six weeks, including a British aid worker whose death was made public on Friday in a video released by the terrorist organization. “They are a fanatical group that has no historical nor political reality but to use military force,” she said. “They have no real future except the one imposed by military force.”
A student who grew up in Georgia, which is located in between Western Asia and Eastern Europe, wanted to know how an ordinary citizen like herself could effect positive change. “The best medicine for the future of any country is to establish a society that is just and inclusive, that does not tolerate discrimination or oppression,” she said.