<br/> NATO heads of state and government stand for the official portrait Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2006, at the 2006 NATO Summit in Riga, Latvia. White House photo by Paul Morse
The flags of 26 Nato nations fluttered in the chilly Baltic breeze and you could feel the Latvian nation almost bursting with pride at joining the West.
At its unpretentious airport on the outskirts of the capital, Riga, Air Force One, President Bush’s private carrier, dominated the scene. Teams of summit girls gazed upon it, in amazement. “Big day for us, yes,” one of them told me in very broken English which allowed our conversation to progress no further.
Bush, Blair, Chirac and the rest were bundled into Riga’s centre across its bumpy and pot-holed streets, heading a formidable guest list of the world’s most powerful. Latvia — while not yet top of the Western prosperity league — had certainly arrived in no uncertain terms in the world of Western summitry.
It is less than three years since this former Soviet satellite was admitted both to the EU and to Nato. Yesterday and today — as if in celebration — it is playing host to a gathering of the Western alliance at which issues affecting global defence and the war on terror will be played out.
It is the first former communist country to hold such a summit for the EU or Nato. In recognition, the entire capital appeared to have been emptied — save for thousands upon thousands of police and troops, who were leaving nothing to chance. It was not all smooth running. So earnest and serious were the security guards that, at times, more people were queueing outside than attending the meetings.
Vaira Vike-Freiberga, the Latvian President, milked the moment, however, welcoming us by announcing the summit was “fitting recognition of the immense progress that Latvia and other former captive nations have made in the past 15 years”. Never mind that Latvia has just 30 troops in the 31,000-strong Nato force in Afghanistan, compared with 11,800 from America and more than 6,000 from Britain: it has got its club membership and is enjoying it.
Spot Vaira in that picture (hint: Angie Merkel wore black).