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President Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga’s Speech at the Conference “Remaking Ukraine – Toward an Age of Global Enlightenment”

Thank you, Governor Dukakis, Chair of BGF. Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen, I shall be as brief as I can, because it’s been a long session. To start with, may I really congratulate the Boston Global Forum and the Michael Dukakis Institute, and all those who participate in presenting this prize, this recognition to president Zelensky and the Ukrainian people for their extraordinary, superhuman bravery in the face of an enormous aggression by a far superior military power.

The question of resisting was an existential one for Ukraine, because president Putin has had his delusional and paranoia imperialistic ideas, and his narrative about it, not quite openly but certainly in private, ever since he came to power in the year 2000. And when I had my farewell visit with the French president Jacques Chirac, and we had a friendly lunch together, towards the end of that lunch the president started telling me how—I don’t know how the question came up—but how Ukraine really was not a separate nation; they never had had a separate state of their own, so that they weren’t really a legitimate political entity, that they were sort of a second class sort of Russians who spoke something that pretended to be a different language but really wasn’t. And I think the president was already manifesting some symptoms of a brain disease that later became quite evident, but he had told me frankly and openly what president Putin had been telling to his friends, to the “Putin-Versteher” (Putin’s sympathizers), starting with chancellor of Germany Gerhard Schröder and many others, his vision of reconstructing a sort of Frankenstein monster where he himself, as the supreme leader of a monster race of Russians, with their special culture and their unique existence, would lead a heritage to history which would sort of be a collage of putting together of Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, without the skirts of course, since he’s so macho, and Stalin, an absolute Frankenstein monster construction but with the idea of the greatness of Russia, which must be reconstructed, and with all these countries that became independent at the periphery of what is now the Russian federation really should not exist. The best thing that could happen to them and President Chirac, the late president actually—I’m revealing this now because it’s important at this juncture in history—the best thing that could happen to them is to be governed by the Russians, who would do a better job. Now this is very serious, and we have now come in 2022 with President Putin saying exactly the same things openly as an excuse for his war, and there are people in the world who have said what is happening now—the atrocities that’s being committed, and the crimes of war, and the destruction—it’s the fault of the Ukrainians who were existing. If they had just simply laid down and accepted this domination, they wouldn’t have to suffer. I think this is something that has to be acknowledged: the right of a nation to its existence, to its sovereignty, to its ability to take its own decisions not to be a vassal, a client state, or a colony, just because some neighbor happens to be larger and have more military power. And [Ukraine] had with full goodwill given up nuclear weapons way back in 1994, which now almost looks like a mistaken time.

So before Ukraine can be built back better, which absolutely needs to be done, it needs to establish control over its territory. It needs to resist. And thanks to everybody here present, who has expressed support to this important idea, because their right to existence, when it’s threatened or harmed, really the the same intent is directed to the other countries that had been under the dominion, either direct or indirect, of the Kremlin and its rulers, be their collectives or singular or whatever, a communist or otherwise or capitalist or oligarchic. So before building better, Ukraine needs arms. It needs heavy armament. It needs moral support. It needs support for all the things that we just heard, so well expressed by doctor Silbersweig, in terms of humanitarian needs. I myself is a former refugee child, a wartime refugee, and somebody who started her schooling in a very improvised, very primitive public school, in a refugee camp in the British occupied zone of Germany. May I emphasize that in this before we come to reconstruction, we have to think about the transition, what happens to the refugees right now, and here again thank you to Dr. Silbersweig for thinking about the many multiple needs that refugees have. May I from my personal experience emphasize the importance of having schools for these children, so many of whom now with their mothers and without their fathers, who have become exiles, that they should have the ability to have schooling in their native language, in addition to going to local schools where they could learn a new language. Children do that very easily. I can testify to that as well but for keeping their identity the children need the ability to have some instruction in their native language, and their parents or in this case their mothers, their grandmothers, and aunts, and the other fellow citizens around them. They need an ability to have a social media, to have an interaction. And here I think the Boston Global Forum, with its emphasis on the digital possibilities of the new world, I think this sort of connectivity is something that will have to be considered in building up, either real, which is always the best thing, but also virtual communities of exiles.

I’ve spent much of my life among Latvian communities in exile on practically every continent except Antarctica, and it obviously prepared me sufficiently well and helped me preserve my Latvian identity, that I was able to return when Latvia did become free, even if it did take half a century to wait for it. And I could take on being president, and there was no problem of transition because of that. And finally about rebuilding, when cities are getting rebuilt, hospitals and so on, I think the greatest advances in everywhere in the world in terms of hospitals certainly will have to be taken into account. And it is a great news to hear from Greece for instance that they have already a vision for concrete places where what kind of hospital they’re going to build back in Mariupol. But may I just add one note of caution, is that the people who leave their homes are those who do it reluctantly. They suffer for it. I remember the pain of losing everything that you love, not just the people you are with, your grandma, your aunts, and your uncles, and so on, but the street on which you live, the tree outside the window, and all that sort of thing. So when cities get to rebuild, please, city planners and those who will be offering international aid, do not forget to consult the former inhabitants who live there, because there they will have an emotional need for something that will remind them of the city that has been destroyed, and something that they held dear, and something that they can hang on to so that the continuity of their identity can be built on upon it.

But ladies and gentlemen, may I as a former refugee, thank you all, and as the former president of a country that waited 15 years to recover its independence, thank you all and everyone for the help you are giving to this country, which is under brutal, unmotivated, and completely irrational attack by a totally delusional man who has brings with him a delusional ideology and sadly seems to have influenced his nation as well. Thank you all.