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Russia: Did Putin Come Out Shining, Or With Moscow's Prestige Weakened?

Vladimir Putin (file photo) This was Russian President Vladimir Putin's week to shine, as he hosted world leaders in Moscow, including U.S. President George W. Bush and EU heads, as well as members of the CIS and the Middle East "Quartet." So how did he perform? Does Russia emerge stronger, with an enhanced global image, after this whirlwind week of diplomacy, or has Moscow's prestige been weakened?

Prague, 12 May 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Everyone who witnessed the lavish Red Square parade commemorating the victory over Nazism in World War II this week could not fail to be impressed.

U.S. President George W. Bush was among the more than 50 world leaders who attended. And he was moved by the event, as he told journalists on today: "Sitting in Red Square honoring the veterans of World War II was an amazing event. I remember as a kid watching the missiles parade through Red Square, and here I sat as the president of the United States in Red Square paying homage to people who died to defeat Nazism. And I was sitting beside a friend [Putin]."

For Sergei Markov, director of the Moscow-based Political Studies Institute, the commemorations reflected past glory -- as well as Russia's ability to present itself as a modern, powerful nation worthy of admiration and respect.

"I watched the parade from Ukraine," Markov said. "And I talked to people about it and for the absolute majority, there was an enormous feeling of respect at that moment for what Russia and Putin had done. Practically everyone was very impressed at how everything came off. And I think it's a reflection of the success of Russia and of Russian state power."

But not everyone agrees. Some commentators noted the "Soviet-style" tone of the events, with a French news anchor telling viewers "all that was missing from Red Square was Stalin himself."
For some, this week's events in Moscow elicited renewed pride in Russia's history and its current place in the world. But for others, it resuscitated bitter memories that might have been better left unstirred.

Controversy over Russia's interpretation of Soviet history, including the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of 1939, clouded some of the celebrations and spilled over into some of the diplomatic meetings, including the EU-Russia summit.

Andrew Kuchins, of the Carnegie Center in Moscow, called the end result of this week "very mixed" for Russia. He agrees with the assessment that the world came to pay tribute to the Soviet sacrifice and contribution to victory in World War II -- especially Russia's role. But the Kremlin's apparent drift toward Soviet nostalgia left many foreign leaders feeling uncomfortable.

"Frankly, I think [Putin] set himself up for that, with some of the comments that he made, particularly in his state-of-the nation address on 25 April in which he referred to the collapse of the Soviet Union as the greatest geopolitical catastrophe for Russia -- a comment that raised a lot of the controversy around the history of the conclusion of World War II," Kuchins said.

Much of the Western world recognizes the injustice felt by the Baltics states and Eastern European countries over their postwar history under Soviet domination. Those countries are now members of NATO and the European Union. Kuchins says Putin's failure to acknowledge their grievances and his derogatory remarks addressed to the Baltics cost Russia diplomatic points.

"Sometimes Mr. Putin gets rather emotional when he speaks -- not too often, usually he's fairly controlled -- but in his press conference after the EU summit, he did get rather colorful in referring to the Baltic states and the 'idiotic' pretensions for reviewing territorial borders," Kuchins said. "That left a very, very sour note, I think, on the EU-Russian summit and with the Balts themselves."

Despite Bush's words of respect for Putin, the U.S. president's itinerary -- in which he sandwiched his visit to Moscow between trips to Latvia and Georgia -- illustrates the United States' diplomatic balancing act between Russia and countries that are seeking to loosen their ties with the Kremlin.

And Kuchins says this week's celebrations in Moscow did nothing to change that. "The [U.S.] administration is now making very clear to the Russians that further erosion of democratic institutions in the Russian Federation is going to be a problematic issue for the bilateral relationship," he said. "How you manage that and pursue the common interests is the trick that the administration is trying to achieve. Also, the administration has made it much clearer to the Russians that the states on its periphery -- those that were formerly part of the Soviet Union, that the Russians liked to call the 'near abroad,' especially in the 1990s -- those states are sovereign. And that has to absolutely be respected by the Russian Federation."

For some, this week's events in Moscow elicited renewed pride in Russia's history and its current place in the world. But for others, it resuscitated bitter memories that might have been better left unstirred.

In recent years, Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski has tried to build good relations with Moscow, all the while anchoring his country in the EU and the NATO alliance. But this week, he acknowledged that ties with Russia have suffered. Many Poles saw Russia's failure to apologize for the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, as well as the Kremlin's move to honor former Polish communist leader Wojciech Jaruzelski during the 9 May celebrations, as offensive.