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Riga Gets Ready

Rob Cameron (df)
November 26, 2006

On Nov. 28, Latvia will become the first former Soviet satellite to host a NATO summit. After decades of Soviet occupation, the Baltic republic is now an EU and NATO member.

NATO heads of state will descend on Riga for two day summitImage: transit-Archiv

Latvia joined both the Atlantic alliance and the European Union in 2004. After decades of Soviet occupation, Latvia, which has a population of 2.3 million, emerged as an independent country in 1991.

Founded on Nov. 18, 1918, Latvians recently celebrated Independence Day on the streets of the capital Riga, where the two-day summit will be held.

At the start of World War II in 1939, the former Soviet Union and Nazi Germany signed a pact in which Latvia was first occupied by the Soviets, then by the Nazis in 1941 and then returned to Red Army control at the end of the war.

Exodus of Latvians for better prospects in EU

Bildgalerie Europa Powerfrauen Vaira Vike-Freiberga: Lettlands Präsidentin
Latvian president Vaira Vike-Freiberga underscored symbolic significance of NATO summit in RigaImage: dpa

During the occupation, when tens of thousands of Latvians had either fled their country, were deported or killed, has left bitter memories and resentment towards the Russians. In the last few years, some 100,000 Latvians have left for other reasons -- in search of jobs and better prospects in Europe. Latvia, one of the poorest members of the EU, joined in the latest wave of expansion of mostly central and eastern European nations in May 2004.

The symbolic significance of holding the summit in Riga was underscored by Latvia's President Vaira Vike-Freiberga.

"It reminds the world that we are not a former Soviet country, we are a former free republic that was illegally occupied for a great many years," she said. "We have now recovered our independence and we are glad of it."

At the same time, there is strong support for NATO membership, even though the small Baltic republic faces no significant military threat.

"(Joining NATO) ensures that we never have a military threat again," the president said. "Latvia tried to be neutral before the Second World War, but nobody respected that neutrality. Now we feel that belonging to a powerful alliance is a sure way of ensuring the integrity of our territory and the sovereignty of our nation."

Re-asserting its independence

As NATO has expanded eastwards, Russia has been watching uneasily on the sidelines.

Asked if the Latvians were trying to irritate Moscow by inviting NATO to meet in Riga, presidential spokeswoman Aiva Rosenberga responded, "I think every country has the right to choose what direction it goes. That's why we are part of the EU and NATO. We want to share the same values. Latvia at the moment has (peacekeeping) missions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia and Georgia. So we are really active members."

George Bush in Lettland
U.S. President George W. Bush, (left) has been in Latvia once beforeImage: AP

Feverish preparations are now underway for Nov. 28 and 29, when the heads of state of 26 NATO members will descend on Riga, a city of 750,000.

"The security services are working to do everything, so that we plan and we're trying to balance security needs and the peoples' needs, so the city is not closed," said Elina Lazdane, head of the NATO summit press center. "We are trying to do everything so that the city will be open and our guests can enjoy that."

Mixed local reactions

Reactions from Riga residents to the big event however, were mixed.

"Yes, it is good to introduce our culture to the world, since so many people do not even know where Riga or Latvia is," said one city native.

"It's quite a pity that you need so much security in order to protect the world leaders who are coming here", said another, who was not looking forward to sections of the city being cordoned off.

Hordes of Latvians plan to avoid such security headaches by heading to the countryside, as the government has given them two days off when Riga takes the world stage.

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