Speaking in Tallinn, Estonia, yesterday, Verheugen said Russia must recognize that the Soviet Union illegally occupied the Baltic States if it wants to have good-neighborly relations with the EU.
The French news agency AFP quoted Verheugen as saying that the EU wants its relations with Russia to be “based on truth.” He said that the end of World War II was for the Baltic states the “beginning of dictatorship, violation of human rights, denial of democracy, and self-determination.”
Last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin called the collapse of the Soviet Union the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.”
The European Commission distanced itself from Verheugen's remarks today, apparently mindful of the sensitivity of the issue ahead of the EU-Russia summit next week.
Emma Udwin, spokeswoman for External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero Waldner, said the EU should look to the future rather than the past. “We are, at the Russia summit that is coming, focusing on the agenda, between the EU and Russia for the medium term, the next years to come, that is our main focus," Udwin said. "That doesn’t invalidate anything that has been said by others but the prime focus of the commissioner [that is, Ferrero-Waldner] is to look at the years ahead and how we can make our agenda between the EU and Russia as concrete and as productive as possible.”
A spokeswoman for commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said he subscribes to the same view. Also in Estonia yesterday, Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Russia should acknowledge the wrongdoings of the Soviet regime, even if the current government in Moscow cannot be held responsible for them.
These statements were welcomed today by Toomas-Hendrik Ilves, former Estonian foreign minister and currently deputy chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament. “I think that relations between the European Union and Russia that are based on lies will fester and deteriorate," Ilves said. "As long as truth is suppressed, then an approach that only recognizes lies will harm the European Union and damage relations [between member states] within the union itself.”
The leaders of the three Baltic countries have long demanded an historical reckoning from Moscow. Reacting to Russia’s refusal to oblige, the presidents of Estonia and Lithuania turned down invitations from Putin to attend the 60th anniversary celebrations of victory in World War II in Moscow on 9 May.
Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga has said she will go, but has also pursued a high-profile campaign to highlight Soviet crimes that has drawn ire from Moscow.
Last week, Latvia further complicated the relationship with a declaration suggesting that the expected signing of a border treaty with Russia on 10 May on the margins of the EU-Russia summit would not mean Riga renounces its claim to an eastern region formally incorporated into Russia in 1944. Moscow has said it will not sign the treaty until Riga “disavows” the declaration. Estonian officials tell RFE/RL that Estonia, too, is unlikely to sign the treaty on 10 May.
This puts preparations for the summit under great pressure. Among other things, the EU is unlikely to be able to ease its visa regime against Russia as long as the border treaties remain unsigned. Each member state has the right of veto in EU foreign policy.
Fraser Cameron, a senior analyst with the Brussels-based European Policy Center, told RFE/RL he thinks Moscow cannot afford to challenge the EU over its toughening stance. “I think there is realism in Moscow that the EU is a mature political and economic actor," he said. "Of course, they [Russia] still try [to] play divide and rule and sometimes our own member-state leaders help them do this but the reality is that the EU is the main partner for the Russian Federation in terms of access to finance and technology. Plus, all the deals that have to be cut in the economic and trade, visa fields – hence there is no alternative but for Moscow to deal with Brussels on these issues.”
Cameron said EU policy towards Russia has toughened partly as a result of the arrival of new member states such as Latvia and Estonia, but he added that both countries are “firmly embedded” in the EU mainstream and there is little fear of their becoming isolated within the bloc.