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Baltics: Latvia Spearheads Effort To Force Russia To Confront Its Past

  • Ahto Lobjakas

Latvian president Vaira Vike-Freiberga has established herself as the leading Baltic figure in the struggle to force Russia to face up to its history. She alone among the Baltic presidents has so far accepted an invitation to attend the 60th anniversary celebrations of the victory over Nazi Germany in Moscow on May 9. In parallel, she is also lobbying the West to recognize that the end of WW II led to the occupation of the Baltic countries by the Soviet Union. On Tuesday, Vike-Freiberga explained her views to U.S. President George W. Bush, and used a meeting on Wednesday with Jose-Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission, to call for a clear assessment of Russia’s past.

Brussels, 24 February 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The three Baltic presidents face a conundrum.

World leaders will convene in Moscow on 9 May to celebrate the 1945 victory over Nazi Germany. The Soviet Union was one of the victorious allies. However, it also occupied Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania after a secret deal with Germany.

Whether to go to Moscow or not presents a particularly hard choice for Estonia and Latvia. Russia has offered to sign border treaties long sought by both -- but in Moscow, on 10 May. Both countries also saw their Russian minorities balloon under Soviet occupation.

Although Vaira Vike-Freiberga has decided to go to Moscow, she has also urged Western leaders to recognize Russia’s historic role as aggressor. This causes consternation in Moscow, which says the Baltic States joined the Soviet Union of their own accord.
"[What is needed is] an ability to understand and accept the double fate, the quite differing fate that [different parts of] Europe suffered at the end of the Second World War. It’s very clearly stated in Prime Minister Blair’s letter, and I think if other leaders of Europe came forth with such statements, it would be helpful to all of us in moving forward with a vision of the future where we would not be bound by the shackles of the past of myths of the past.”


On Wednesday, Vike-Freiberga said British Prime Minister Tony Blair has written her in support of Latvia’s views. She urged other leaders to follow suit. “I think that the British position puts it very succinctly, that’s precisely the way Latvia looks at it," Vike-Freiberga said. "[What is needed is] an ability to understand and accept the double fate, the quite differing fate that [different parts of] Europe suffered at the end of the Second World War. It’s very clearly stated in Prime Minister Blair’s letter, and I think if other leaders of Europe came forth with such statements, it would be helpful to all of us in moving forward with a vision of the future where we would not be bound by the shackles of the past of myths of the past.”

Vike-Freiberga was speaking after a meeting with Jose Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission.

Barroso said on 23 February that he understands Latvia’s concerns, but supports Vike-Freiberga’s decision to go to Moscow. He said the EU cannot tell Latvia what to do, but said the border treaties between Russia and Estonia and Latvia should be signed as soon as possible.

“[It’s] up to Latvia, Latvia is an independent member of the European Union, but the Commission thinks it is of the interest of all of us, but also of the interest of Latvia, and it should also be of the interest of Russia to look pragmatically at some issues that still exist," Barroso said. "That’s why we very much welcome the perspective of the signature on the treaty of borders."

Vike-Freiberga scored a major success in Brussels on 22 February after visiting U.S. President George W. Bush publicly supported the Baltic countries. After meeting EU leaders, Bush criticized Russia for undermining democracy and said he will tell Putin at a summit meeting in Bratislava on Thursday to “respect its neighbors.”

Vike-Freiberga took to the floor at the NATO summit in Brussels on 22 February to say that crimes committed by Stalin should be condemned alongside those of Hitler’s. She then had a short private chat with Bush.

At the EU summit, Lithuania’s president Valdas Adamkus also asked Bush to raise the issue with Putin. Adamkus is still weighing whether to go to Moscow, but is reported to be sceptical. His views had previously received support from the veteran US diplomat Richard Holbrooke in an article published in the Washington Post on 16 February.

Estonia has so far kept a low profile. Prime minister Juhan Parts did not speak at either the NATO or EU summits with Bush. He later criticized Latvia’s “outspoken” tactics saying they would damage relations with Russia. However, Estonia’s president Arnold Ruutel has taken no decision on whether to go to Moscow.

Latvia’s and Lithuania’s appeals to Bush are seen as an indication of their frustration with the EU’s “pragmatic” approach to Russia. On 23 February, however, Francoise Le Bail, a spokeswoman for the European Commission told RFE/RL the Baltic countries’ views were adequately represented in the EU. “The EU is talking with one voice towards Russia," Le Bail said. "And as you know, the Baltic countries are very much part of the EU, and the EU position towards Russia [is] determined with the agreement of the Baltic states.”

Le Bail went on to add that the Baltic countries are “in full agreement” with the EU Russia policy.

However, it is an open secret that a number of member states led by France, Germany and Italy oppose antagonizing Russia.

Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin upped the stakes on 22 February in an interview with Slovak TV and Radio ahead of his summit with Bush in Bratislava on 24 February. He criticized attempts to “rewrite history” and denigrate the Soviet Union’s part in the victory over Nazism. He defended the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact as a minor issue compared to the Western Allies’ attempt to make peace with Hitler in Munich in 1938, which he said allowed the annexation of Czechoslovakia by Germany.

Putin also said those writing revisionist history should first “learn to read books.” This is seen as a thinly-veiled reference to Vike-Freiberga’s gift of a book on 20th century Latvian history to Putin in January.

Earlier this month, the Russian foreign ministry issued a statement suggesting Vike-Freiberga is trying to force Moscow to retract the invitation to attend the 9 May celebrations.
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