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World War II -- 60 Years After: In Baltics, Anniversary Of War's End Is Little Cause To Celebrate

Latvia's president called the collapse of the Soviet Union the greatest event in 20th-century European history. As we mark the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II, RFE/RL is looking again at some of the factors that determined the course of the struggle and shaped the new world that emerged from it. Russia next week plays host to celebrations marking the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe. The conflict, which cost tens of millions of lives, formally ended with Germany's capitulation on 8 May 1945 -- just before midnight, Central European Time. In Moscow, it was already past midnight and the date marking the end of hostilities would be remembered as 9 May. The continent erupted in weary jubilation. But for some European nations, the defeat of Nazi Germany brought no respite from their suffering. For the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, 1945 meant a return to Stalinist rule, originally imposed in 1940 -- under the terms of the Nazi-Soviet agreement that carved up Eastern Europe: the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact.

Riga, 6 May 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Latvians young and old danced in the streets of Riga this week at a festive outdoor concert.

But they weren't remembering 1945. Rather, it was the 15th anniversary of the return to independence that brought people out in their national costumes, waving their country's crimson and white flag.

Next week, many Latvians -- according to Foreign Minister Artis Pabriks -- will not be attending concerts, or popping champagne corks. They will be pondering the trauma that befell their nation, starting in 1940 and ending five decades later.

"It was a tragedy for our nation -- [World War II]," Pabriks said. "Basically there was not a family which did not lose a person, either to the Nazis or to the communists. We will [commemorate] this in the cemeteries on 8 May, because this is the day when the Nazi regime collapsed. Unfortunately, 8 May did not bring freedom to us and that is of course a problem which makes this celebration not only a happy event but also, let's say, an event which asks us to remember the other victims which died over the next 50 years."

It is all documented at the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia in the center of Riga. The first exhibit on display is a copy of the secret protocols attached to the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, which spelled the end of Latvian independence. Curator Ojars Stepens shows visitors around the complex.

"Here is a very interesting exhibit, I think," Stepens said. "It is a copy of the secret protocols of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, where the division of spheres of influence in Eastern Europe is mentioned. This is what Russia does not want to admit, that this was an illegal agreement between the Soviet Union and Germany. And here's another interesting exhibit. This is a map -- a copy from the German federal archive -- where the borders of the spheres of influence are marked, with the signatures of Stalin and Ribbentrop."

What Soviet occupation meant for Latvia's people -- especially in the early Stalinist years -- was repression on a scale only equaled by Hitler's rule. Tens of thousands of people were shipped off in cattle cars to perish in Siberia's Gulags. All forms of dissent were crushed. All aspects of society -- from culture to the economy -- were turned upside down.

It is not a message today's Russian leaders are prepared to hear -- especially as Moscow prepares to mark an anniversary of what many Russians consider their finest hour.
"The [Soviet] troop deployment, I repeat, was carried out on the basis of mutual consent, a clearly expressed political will and, most importantly, agreements signed by the existing authorities legitimately elected by the populations of those three Baltic states." -- Russian official

Latvian President Vaire Vike-Freiberga will travel to Moscow on 9 May, but she has made it clear that in addition to paying homage to the millions of Soviet soldiers who laid down their lives to defeat the Nazis, she intends to remind Russians of their past sins. The leaders of Estonia and Lithuania have turned down the Kremlin's invitation.

This week, European Commission Vice President Guenter Verheugen urged Moscow to acknowledge the damage caused by the 50-year Soviet occupation of the Baltics. U.S. national security adviser Stephen Hadley made a similar statement.

In response, Russian officials have issued a series of condemnations, questioning whether the West has forgotten the magnitude of the Soviet sacrifice in World War II. Russia's Foreign Ministry issued an official statement on 4 May denying that the Soviet Union had ever occupied the Baltics, saying the Red Army had been invited in by those countries' governments.

Presidential aide Sergei Yastrzhembskii expounded on that statement in Moscow yesterday: "The troop deployment, I repeat, was carried out on the basis of mutual consent, a clearly expressed political will and, most importantly, agreements signed by the existing authorities legitimately elected by the populations of those three Baltic states."

Now that the Baltic states are NATO and EU members, concerns are being expressed that the discord could cast a shadow over next week's commemorations and the planned EU-Russia summit in Moscow.

To curator Stepens, the fact that Western states are willing to finally confront Moscow over the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact means the former captive nations of Eastern Europe are finally being heard at the heart of European institutions. And he is glad.

"I believe the fact that Europe has begun to speak out [on this issue] is thanks to the efforts of the Baltic countries and the countries of Eastern Europe, which were also under Soviet power -- although not to the degree of the Baltic states," stepens said. "They have done their work and they have explained their history to their Western partners. And these partners have begun to understand."

High-school history teacher Dzintra Liepina agrees. But she also worries that the deteriorating tone of the discussion -- which she says is fueled by the Russian-language media both in Russia and in Latvia that sometimes portray Latvians as fascist sympathizers-- threatens to poison already strained relations. She also worries it could also drive a further wedge between Latvia's majority ethnic Latvians and the country's large Russian-speaking minority.

"What I think is that the mass media have a very strong effect on people in Russia and lately, one can feel that people have begun to believe [these distortions.] Every day they are told that Latvians are fascists, that they are a bad lot. This has become so politicized that maybe these people already are starting to think that Hitler and [Nazi] Germany did not exist, that the biggest evil was Latvia," Liepina said.

This year, in his state-of-the-nation address, Russian President Vladimir Putin called the breakup of the Soviet Union the "greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century." Latvia's President Vaira Vike-Freiberga called it the greatest event in 20th-century European history. The two statements illustrate the gulf in understanding between the two sides.

As the world commemorates the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe, RFE/RL takes a look at that conflict's enduring legacies in its broadcast areas. See "World War II -- 60 Years After"