Bridge Builders International Organizes 20 Day Good Will Tour For the Former Latvian President
By Ruta York
RENTON, Washington – The former President of Latvia, Guntis Ulmanis arrived in Washington, D.C. on January 29th, 2001 to attend the National Prayer Breakfast.
While in Washinton, D.C. he met with members of Congress and international Parliaments to discuss Latvia’s role in world politics. Following the Washington, D.C. tour, Mr. Ulmanis began a round of meetings in California, Oregon and Washington. Mr. Ulmanis was accompanied by his wife, Aina Ulmane, his secretary Eva Eihmane, Almers Ludviks, Director of Partners Foundation in Riga, and Charles Kelley, President of Bridge Builders International, the host organization responsible for sponsoring the Ulmanis tour.
In San Francisco, Mr. and Mrs. Ulmanis were guests of Dr. Kris and Zinta Zarins. They met with Latvian groups as well as Silicon Valley executives, entrepreneurs, and venture capitalists. Some of the business leaders who showed an interest in establishing technological, trade, venture capital and other exchanges with Latvia are from Intel, Exclaim Technologies and Media Arts Group. Dr. Zarins, Professor of Vascular Surgery at Stanford University, arranged a special luncheon at the Hoover Institution. Among the visiting fellows was George Schults, former Secretary of State during the Reagan administration.
In Oregon, the Ulmanis party was greeted warmly by Uldis and Rita Seja. The group spent half a day with Hewlett-Packard executives in Corvallis and attended a special community forum hosted by Western Seminary in Portland. Other forums were hosted by Bridge Builders International, Corvallis First Baptist Church and the Latvian community. In Portland, as well as San Francisco, those who had been involved with Latvia either by visiting the country, giving funds, building relationships through mail/email, or sending humanitarian aid were honored. Two of Ulmanis highlights were meetings with the former Senator Mark O Hatfield and Portland Trailblazers Basketball player, Arvydas Sabonis, a native of Lithuania.
Following the meeting with the former Senator Hatfield, Ulmanis said he was touched by Senator Hatfield’s kind words, who described Latvians as honest, hard-working people, who held family values in high regard. “We should do everything we can to justify these words,” Ulmanis stated.
The Ulmanis party concluded its tour in Seattle where Ulmanis spoke at the Latvian Community Center, organized by Rolands Strolis, and at the University of Washington where he met with students and faculty. At the Latvian Center among the dignitaries were the Mayor of Bellevue, Chuck Mosher and his wife, Betty, and Svens Goldmanis, Mercer Island City Councilman. The city of Bellevue and Liepaja have been sister cities for many years and Chuck and Betty Mosher and the Seattle Latvians have established a close working relationship. Another highlight was when Dr. Guntis Smidchens, of the Baltic Studies Department of the University of Washington, arranged to have President Ulmanis meet with his Latvian language class. The University of Washington is the only University in the United States that teaches Latvian via the Baltic Studies Department.
Ulmanis spoke eloquently and reiterated the successes that Latvia has achieved, but also touched on some of its problems, since becoming an independent state. Ulmanis said that Latvia used to be considered as a window to Europe, but now it is an open door through which the free market economy flows back and forth. More than several hundred new business have started up in Latvia in recent years. Computer technology is very strong since Latvia was one of the countries in which Soviet computer technology was developed. Today Latvia leads Russia in the computer field.
When asked what he regarded as his greatest achievement as President, Ulmanis said that removing the Russian military from Latvian soil was highest on his list, followed by resolving the question of borders, establishing and passing citizenship and naturalization laws, and entering into economic relations with the free world. Five years ago during the “Russian Crisis” about 60% of Latvia’s economic structure was tied with Russia. Today 60% is with Western Europe and only 10% is with Russia.
Ulmanis stated that while in Washington, D.C. he spoke on supporting the expansion of NATO. He believes that the door to NATO is open, since Russia does not have veto rights. He added that the European Union is looking for more markets and Latvia is one of the countries with whom they are starting discussions. He believes that Latvia will be one of the first former Soviet Union countries to be accepted in the European Community.
Ulmanis said that Latvia has a future in the educational and spiritual arena as well. “Our great desire for learning is supported by the fact that Latvia has established eight new universities. We have also repaired and re-established more the 2000 churches, a new Christian Academy and opened a Theological Faculty. We are a deeply Christian nation and a country where we can not only get help but give help to other people” he said.
During the past three weeks when he visited large cities, as well as rural areas, Ulmanis said he noticed the ability of all American citizens to purchase many goods and services, not just the wealthier people. He would like to have that opportunity for all Latvian citizens as well.
Mrs. Ulmanis also spoke at the forums and was very warmly received. She spoke with sincerity and was visibly moved when she talked about the specific problems in Latvia that involved old people, children, and the youth. The audience was touched by her sympathetic words relating the hardships of many.
Both Mr. and Mrs. Ulmanis stated that people working with people, not governments with governments, is the most effective way of changing peoples hearts, taking down barricades and getting rid of misconceptions that nations have with each other.
One such organization with whom Ulmanis has identified with is Bridge Builders International, a non-denominational Christian organization that arranges partnerships of churches between the United States and Latvia. Chuck Kelley, the president of BBI is of Latvian descent and admits that his heart is in helping the Latvian people spiritually and economically. Kelley said that through Bridge Builders International many American churches have not only formed partnerships but lasting friendships with the people of Latvia.