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NATO summit Chicago: Latvian president meets with Emanuel, tours city

May 17, 2012 10:00:00 PM PDT
President Andris Berzins of Latvia, one of NATO's newest members, was the first leader to arrive in Chicago ahead of the summit.

The 66-year-old former banker became president of the Baltic state a year ago. He has spent plenty of time in the United States and is eager to use Chicago to deepen ties with his NATO allies, a bulwark for freedom in the shadow of Russia's former empire.

At first glance he looks much like the tourists crowding a Friday afternoon architectural tour on the water. But the way staff, ambassadors and security hover, you know this man wields power.

"The visit is good," President Berzins told ABC7. "I feel here like it is home."

The Latvian delegation arrived in Chicago Thursday night for practical and symbolic reasons. Meeting with some of the city's approximately 10,000 Latvians as well as Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel Friday morning is about showing how much NATO means to the tiny country that has been independent for 21 years.

"U.S. is our strongest strategic partner and we are interested to accelerate our economical side of our cooperation," President Berzins said.

But Latvia has some human rights issues. And Chicago 49th Ward Alderman Joe Moore wants to open hearings into the case of Vladimir Vashkevich and Inara Vilkaste, a pair of Latvian tax officials who are allegedly being harassed by President Berzin's government

"We want to protect freedom and democracy," said Alderman Moore.

President Berzins said the subject did not come up in his meeting with Mayor Emanuel.

"I'm convinced he is very concrete and very decisive man," he said of Emanuel.

For Latvia's ambassador to the United States, the fact that there are legal issues at home shows the little democracy is growing just the way a democracy should.

"We think democratic countries have to have such tools, instruments as NATO, said Ambassador Andrejs Pildegovics. "This is the only real capable organization."

Latvia first declared its independence in 1918.


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