Vaira Vike-Freiberga

On July 8, 1999, Vaira Vike-Freiberga took the oath of office as president of Latvia, the first woman to head a post-communist Eastern European state. A distinguished psychology professor with no political experience, she had only recently returned to her homeland after more than 50 years abroad.

Born in Riga in 1937, Vike-Freiberga lived in Latvia until 1944, when she and her family left to escape the advancing Red Army. In 1949, after several years in a refugee camp in Germany, they left for Morocco and immigrated to Canada five years later when she was 16.  She received a B.A. and M.A. from the University of Toronto, and a Ph.D. in experimental psychology from McGill University in 1965. Vike-Freiberga embarked on a distinguished academic career as a professor of psychology specializing in the relationship between thought and language. She taught at the Université de Montréal from 1965 until retiring as a professor emerita in 1998.

In 1998, Vike-Freiberga returned to Latvia to become director of the newly created Latvian Institute, established to raise the profile of Latvia and Latvians around the world. She was elected President of the Republic of Latvia on June 17, 1999, and re-elected to a second four-year term on June 20, 2003.

She was originally not a candidate but the Latvian parliament failed to elect a president in the first round. Vaira Vike-Freiberga was chosen as a compromise candidate, as a highly respected person not affiliated with any of the political parties in the parliament.  Throughout her two presidential terms, she has been very popular among Latvians, with her approval rating ranging between 70% and 85%.

She has been most active in foreign policy. Vike-Freiberga is known for her outspoken criticism of Russia and the active pursuit of Latvia's membership in NATO and the EU.   She was also a strong supporter of the US-led war on Iraq.

During Vaira Vike-Feiberga’s tenure as president, Latvia has demonstrated unprecedented activity in relations with the major European states, including regular dialogue and exchange of visits with the leaders of France and Germany and a gradual improvement in the relations between Latvia and Russia.

Vike-Freiberga is a prodigious author whose publications include Linguistics and Poetics of Latvian Folk Songs, Latvian Sun-songs (with Imants Freibergs,) La frequence lexicale des mots au Quebec and, in Latvian, The Warm Sun (2002), The Chronological Sun (1999), and The Cosmological Sun (1997).

She has received honorary degrees from Victoria University in Toronto, the University of Latvia, and McGill University; and been awarded the Grand Medal of the Latvian Academy of Sciences (1997), the Pierre Chauveau medal for distinguished work in the humanities from the Royal Society of Canada (1995), and the Latvian Three-Star Order (1995).

Vike-Freiberga is married to Imants Freibergs, a professor emeritus of computer science at Université du Québec à Montréal and information technology specialist at the IT division of the University of Latvia and at the President’s Chancellery. They have two grown children.

Source: University Programs and Events Planning Resources, 9/2004