Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Vaira Vike-Freiberga Asks Migrants To Return

From EU Business:

Outgoing Latvian leader hopes migrants will return to boost homeland
08 July 2007, 11:07 CET

(RIGA) - In a farewell address to Latvians Saturday, outgoing President Vaira Vike-Freiberga said she hoped the thousands of citizens who now work in Ireland would someday return home to boost the Baltic country.

Vike-Freiberga, who is stepping down after two four-year terms as head of state of the former Soviet-ruled republic, helped steer Latvia into the European Union and NATO in 2004.

In a televised speech, Vike-Freiberga recalled that she had forecast how freedom of movement within the EU would "lure the most energetic and able of our people abroad."

"Latvia misses their absence painfully," she said.

"Every single person is needed by this country. We expect them back dearly. They will return with the capital of knowledge, wealth, experience."

Latvian authorities estimate that about 50,000 people from the Baltic country work in other EU countries, mainly in Britain and Ireland, which is now home to some 22,000 Latvians.

The departures have dented the labour force in Latvia, which has a population of just 2.3 million people.

However, Vike-Freiberga recalled a remark by her Irish counterpart, President Mary McAleese, that migration was "the opportunity for both sides to benefit."

"Ireland has not always been as affluent and successful as it is now," said Vike-Freiberga, adding that it "had to go through some very tough times."

Emigration from Latvia is driven in part by the fact that the minimum wage here -- 90 lats a month (129 euros, 176 dollars) -- is one of the lowest in the 27-nation EU.

In addition, breakneck growth is going hand in hand with rampant inflation, and there are increasing jitters about a "hard landing" for the Latvian economy.

"We will also get through these difficult times, maybe even faster than the Irish whom we so admire," said Vike-Freiberga.

Studies have shown that the gap in wealth between the richest and poorest Latvians is among the greatest in the EU, with the income of the top 20 percent a full 6.7 times higher than that of the bottom 20 percent in recent years.

"We have proportionally more millionaires than in some other more developed countries. Meanwhile, we have many people who live under the poverty line," said Vike-Freiberga.

"The task of the future is to narrow this gap, so that the rich sustain the country, given all the resources that a democracy provides them, and the less fortunate can move forward in society, so that we can create a stable middle class which is a guarantee of democracy," she added.

The highly popular Vike-Freiberga was first elected president in 1999 and won a second term in 2003.

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