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Last Updated: Thursday, 29 April, 2004, 10:48 GMT 11:48 UK
Profile: Vaira Vike-Freiberga
By Steven Eke
BBC regional analyst

Vaira Vike-Freiberga's biography is as remarkable as the recent history of Latvia, the small Baltic nation of 2.3 million people, of which she is president.

She was born in Riga, the Latvian capital, in December 1937, when Europe found itself on the edge of conflict.

Vaira Vike-Freiberga
Vaira Vike-Freiberga has helped lead Latvia into the EU

As World War II ravaged Europe, Latvia found itself occupied by the Soviet Union, then by Nazi Germany, then, again, by the USSR.

Ms Vike-Freiberga spent her childhood living in difficult conditions in refugee camps in Germany.

Together with her family, she later moved to French Morocco, before settling in Canada at the age of 16.

There, she embarked on a distinguished academic career, becoming a professor of psychology specialising in the relationship between thought and language.

Earning awards from academic and Latvian organisations worldwide, she was a prodigious author, renowned for, among other works, her collections of Latvian folk songs.

Meteoric rise

In 1998, Ms Vike-Freiberga received an invitation she couldn't refuse - to head the new Latvian Institute, established to raise the profile of Latvia and the Latvians around the world.

She returned to a country facing many problems in its efforts to build a Western-style democracy and market economy.

In a meteoric rise in her new career as a politician, Ms Vike-Freiberga was elected president within a year. She is now on her second, four-year term as head of state.

As recently as 2000, there seemed to be little realistic prospect of Latvia's early entry into either the EU or Nato.

Latvia's progress was uneven. A high level of corruption was causing concern in the West.

There were lingering doubts over the country's commitment to democracy, as well as deep anger among Jewish organisations at the country's apparent dismissal of the crimes committed by those Latvians who collaborated with the Nazis in the war.

Latvia's discriminatory policies towards its Russian minority - 30% of the population - seemed vindictive.

Country transformed

Latvia is now a considerably different country. It is politically stable, democratic and enjoying steady economic growth. The country has carried out a wide-ranging programme of economic and military reform.

That has been accompanied by a crackdown on corruption and efforts to bring Latvian legislation up to European standards.

Even relations with Russia have begun to emerge from the deep-freeze.

Ms Vike-Freiberga has overcome strong "Eurosceptic" sentiment to make membership of the EU a reality.

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