U.S. President George W. Bush, on the first leg of a four-nation European tour, received the Order of Three Stars from Latvian President Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga during a brief ceremony May 7 in Rīga Castle. The order is Latvia’s highest civilian honor.
Bush arrived late Friday night, May 6, in Rīga. His visit to Latvia has riled leaders in Russia, where both he and Vīķe-Freiberga will be May 9 to mark the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe during Victory Day celebrations in Moscow.
Bush’s visit to Latvia has become the backdrop for a simmering debate between Washington and Moscow. Before heading to Latvia, the U.S. president sent a letter to Rīga that reaffirmed the American position that Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania were occupied by the Soviet Union beginning in World War II until 1991. The Russian government in turn complained to Washington about the visit to Latvia, which Moscow frequently criticizes for what it sees as persistent violations of the rights of the country’s large Russian-speaking minority. During a May 4 press conference in Moscow, a Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson denied that the Baltics had been occupied.
Bush’s May 4 letter to Vīķe-Freiberga expressed support for her decision to participate in the May 9 event in Moscow. The presidents of Estonia and Lithuania refused Moscow’s invitation.
“During this trip, I will mark the sacrifice of America and many other nations in defeating Nazism,” Bush wrote in the letter posted on the Latvian president’s Web site. “In Western Europe, the end of World War II meant liberation. In Central and Eastern Europe, the war also marked the Soviet occupation and annexation of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania and the imposition of communism.”
The Russian Foreign Ministry, however, questioned the definition of occupation.
“The term ‘occupation’ cannot be used for a legal assessment of the situation in the Baltics in the late 1930s,” a foreign ministry spokesperson said, according to a transcript posted on the ministry’s Web site, “because there was no state of war between the USSR and the Baltic states and no military actions were being conducted, and the troops were introduced on the basis of an agreement and with the express consent of the authorities that existed in these republics at the time—whatever one may think of them.”
The Order of Three Stars ceremony in Rīga Castle preceded the laying of a wreath at the Freedom Monument in downtown Rīga as well as a meeting with the presidents of all three Baltic states. First Lady Laura Bush, meanwhile, visited the Occupation Museum.
Security in Rīga’s Old City has been tight during the visit, according to local media reports, with the district declared a “no-go” zone, much to the chagrin of some business owners.
Bush also is to visit the Netherlands and Georgia.
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