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In 1999 — just a year after retiring from her job as a psychology professor at the University of Montreal — Vaira Vike-Freiberga, PhD, was elected president of Latvia. It came as a surprise to the psychologist, who famously quipped that she would have packed more than one bag on leaving Montreal if she'd known she was about to take the helm of the country.

Though Vike-Freiberga, 61 at the time, was a well-known intellectual, having written extensively about Latvia's identity and culture, she had only lived in the country for a year before her election. Near the end of World War II, Vike-Freiberga, then 7, fled the country with her family and spent four years in refugee camps in Germany and five years in French Morocco before settling in Canada. Since the Soviet Union had occupied and annexed Latvia, her parents and an entire generation of Latvians opted to live in exile rather than under a totalitarian regime.

After leaving school at 16 and working for a year as a bank teller in Toronto, Vike-Freiberga entered the University of Toronto at age 17. After earning bachelor's and master's degrees in psychology, she worked for a year as a clinical psychologist at the Toronto Psychiatric Hospital. In 1965, she obtained a PhD in experimental psychology from McGill University, and spent the rest of her academic career as a professor of psychology at the University of Montreal. She went on to publish 160 papers and 10 books on topics including memory processes, psycholinguistics and psychopharmacology.

While busy with her academic career, husband and two children, Vike-Freiberga did not lose sight of her Latvian heritage. She traveled the world giving talks to fellow exiles about Latvian identity and culture. She was an organizer and lecturer at Latvian youth seminars, exhorting exiles and their children to learn more about their language and folklore. Back in Latvia, Soviet officials banned Vike-Freiberga's books in an attempt to suppress nationalist sentiments.

That all changed in 1986, when Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev allowed people in the USSR to interact more freely with the rest of the world. Latvian intellectuals got to know Vike-Freiberga's work for the first time, and many visited her in Canada. Then, in 1991, Latvia, like many former Soviet states, regained its independence following a failed coup in Moscow.

Initially, Vike-Freiberga did not plan to move back to her childhood homeland. But she changed her mind in 1998 when the prime minister of Latvia offered her a position she couldn't turn down — as director of the Latvian Institute, founded to promote the country's image. Less than a year later, when the country's Parliament needed to pick a new president — and when other candidates from the parties in Parliament couldn't garner enough votes — Vike-Freiberga was nominated. Her lack of ties to any political party helped her win.

In 2007, Vike-Freiberga finished her second four-year term as president. During her tenure, she defined the presidency as much more than a symbolic position: Though she felt pressure to simply sign certain bills submitted by the Parliament, says Vike-Freiberga, she formed her own opinions and made liberal use of her veto power. She also helped the country gain entrance into the European Union and NATO in 2004.

The Monitor caught up with Vike-Freiberga to talk about her path from psychologist to head of state, and her plans for the future.

Many people say that helping Latvia join the European Union was your biggest accomplishment, one that provided unfettered access to a global economy and sparked an era of unprecedented growth. How did you do it?

To be invited to even begin talks with the European Union, a country has to show certain accomplishments and adjustments. We had to take all our legislation and adjust it to fit with the legislation already in place in the European Union, and inevitably there was a certain amount of resistance to many of the steps that needed to be taken. So my job over a period of years was to simply knock people's heads together, where there were strong disagreements about the course to follow, push and prod whenever there were attempts to stall things, try to persuade politicians, civil servants and the general population that we needed to go through the pain to get the gain. Just as important was to travel around Europe, to convince the European Union countries that Latvia was a worthy future member and partner.

How do Latvians perceive psychology?

The Soviet system didn't believe in psychology — it was considered too bourgeois and too individualistic, and thus unwelcome and even dangerous in a totalitarian state. In a socialist state, there shouldn't be any place for it — there is no need for soul searching in a “worker's paradise.”

By now, there are hundreds of psychologists in Latvia. The discipline is thriving, but clinical psychologists are going through the same difficulties that I remember we had in various provinces of Canada — the conflict with the medical profession about them wishing to be the main authority in the licensing of psychologists. There needs to be legislation that allows applied psychology to be certified as an independent discipline, separate from the medical profession and its requirements and criteria. I believe that historically the United States has gone through the same sort of struggle.

Did being a female president bring any special challenges?

There is a certain amount of sexism in Latvian society, as in most other countries. I recall one time, when I had to look for a new prime minister, I invited several potential candidates to the castle and interviewed them, and made a point of including two women among them. And the journalists were in an uproar, saying, “What is this? We already have a woman president, and she is contemplating a woman prime minister? Our country would be run by two women at the same time?”

When after interviewing one of these ladies, I got this sort of question at the press conference, I said, “Am I to understand your distress comes from the thought of having the president and the prime minister being of the same sex? Is that what is distressing you?” I said, “Rest assured, in the whole history of Latvia, until my election, both the president and the prime minister have always been of the same sex, and it doesn't seem to have created any particular problems. Why should there be a concern about it now?”

I hear that in 2007 there was an impromptu festival celebrating your service to the country. Can you tell us about that?

The farewell I got from the people was very moving. In an indirect way, it happened because I had come into conflict with Parliament at the beginning of my last six months in office — I had twice vetoed a piece of legislation on internal security that I considered unwise. So, after I gave my goodbye speech to the Parliament in July, the speaker of the house simply said, “And now we are moving on to item No. 2 in our agenda.” He never said, “Thank you, Madame President, for your speech.” He never said, “Thank you for your eight years of service to your country.” And he did not offer me any flowers, which Latvians offer even to men when they leave office.

The whole thing was broadcast on television and the population was outraged. A group of volunteers spontaneously got together and said, since these jokers didn't have either the sense or the good manners to thank the president, we are going to do it, and we are going to invite everybody in Latvia who wishes to thank the president to send flowers to this special hillside in Latvia that has a symbolic link to our traditions.

Post office branches all over Latvia accepted flowers and delivered them by the truck full, and volunteers worked all night to form [the flowers into] a huge stylized sun, a typical motif in Latvian folklore. There were such masses of flowers that they had to extend 50- or 60-meter long rays coming out from the central sun shape. All day long, thousands and thousands of people poured in to offer me flowers in person. Artists performed on an open-air stage to thank me for my work and to entertain the people who came. So what the parliamentarians neglected to do, the people did in a unique and unforgettable way.

What do you see as your role now that you are no longer president?

I am busy with the European Union Reflection Group on the future of Europe; that takes me to Brussels every month for two days. I have also been doing work for the European Commission on Science and Research — I spent six months chairing a committee of experts entrusted with doing an evaluation of the recently created European Research Council and making recommendations to the European Commission about research funding. I'm also participating in the creation of a program by the World Bank Institute for leadership in emerging countries. I am an active member of the Club de Madrid — a club of former presidents and prime ministers who are ready to share their experience and offer advice to interested partners.

What are the biggest challenges for Latvia moving forward?

We made the transition to democracy and a free market economy very rapidly because, unlike the rest of the former Soviet Union, Latvia and its two Baltic neighbors, Estonia and Lithuania, had been independent and open to the world between the two World Wars. They also had a large exile community, which helped to speed along the process of change. The country joined the EU and NATO in 2004, and the economy grew 11.9 percent in 2007. But when the current international financial crisis came, our country was hit very hard. It's still in the middle of that hard landing, and we face a very difficult winter ahead. The government had to turn to the International Monetary Fund and the EU for international loans, the budget has been cut severely, and we will have to work very hard to attract foreign investment and to rebalance the economy.

How did your psychology training prepare you to lead a country?

When I was president, I kept being asked by journalists, “How can a psychologist become a president?” Typically, you think of lawyers being the ones best trained for it, I suppose, or even people coming from political science, administration and business. But I think I had excellent intellectual training for this job — dealing with the public, presenting ideas clearly, understanding the art of persuasion, knowing the way the mind works and how communication works.

That intellectual training and experience as a researcher helped me when I was president. There were so many things I had to learn very quickly about, such as the legal system of Latvia, or the administrative framework of the European Union. I think a PhD in experimental psychology, from a good school, is excellent intellectual training for whatever you are called on to do in life — especially if it involves absorbing vast quantities of information and cutting through all the details to see what is essential.

My message to psychologists is: Don't just confine yourself to the traditional career tracks. When I got my first job as a young master's graduate in Toronto, the opportunities open to psychologists were very narrow: doing diagnostic work at hospitals, doing school psychology and testing. After I got my PhD in experimental psychology, I could only be a professor at a university. In the years since, opportunities for psychologists have expanded tremendously. Let yourself be open to any opportunity that comes your way. If you have had a good education in psychology, you will be well prepared.