French President Jacques Chirac is among the latest European leaders to announce support for Latvian President Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga’s decision to attend the May 9 Victory Day ceremonies in Moscow marking the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II.
Although Vīķe-Freiberga’s decision in January continues to be a topic of debate in Latvia and in its Baltic neighbors, Chirac and other leaders have said it is important for all European leaders to be present during the ceremony and the summit meeting that is to follow. Victory Day commemorates the millions who died in defeating Nazi Germany during what Russia calls the Great Patriotic War.
Germany surrendered on May 8, 1945, but Vīķe-Freiberga has said that for Latvia the end of World War II came only in 1991, when the nation regained its independence from the Soviet Union.
“France appreciates the tragic and complex nature of past relations between the U.S.S.R. and the Baltic peoples,” Chirac said in his March 10 letter. France never recognized the annexation of the Baltic states into the Soviet Union, Chirac said, noting that the late President Charles DeGaulle refused to travel to Rīga during his 1966 official visit to the U.S.S.R.
Similar responses have been sent recently to Vīķe-Freiberga from other European leaders such as Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern and Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende.
Estonian President Arnold Rüütel and Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus both said March 7 that they will not attend the Moscow event. In all three Baltic nations, public debate has centered on whether the presidents should shun the May 9 celebration as a protest over the legacy of Soviet occupation, or whether it would be better to be present with other leaders in a show of European unity.
“Having already suffered severely during the war, we also had to endure, in the course of the ensuing peace, the persecution, deportation, and execution of thousands,” Rüütel said in a statement. “These sufferings affected almost every family in Estonia.”
Adamkus also declined Russian President Putin’s invitation to the event.
“Over 350,000 people, one tenth of Lithuania’s population, were imprisoned, deported to the Gulags or massacred in Lithuania,” Adamkus said in his March 7 statement. “The perpetration of such crimes continued in our country when the cruelest war in the history of mankind was officially over. The name of Lithuania disappeared from the map of Europe for five decades. And we probably would not find a single family in Lithuania who had escaped losses and terror.”
Vīķe-Freiberga’s acceptance of Putin’s invitation was not without bite. While she lauded the victory over Nazi Germany, the president also pointed out the effects of Soviet occupation.
“Under Soviet rule, the three Baltic countries experienced mass deportations and killings, the loss of their freedom, and the influx of millions of Russian-speaking settlers,” she said in a Jan. 12 statement.
The president also blamed both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union for Latvia’s fate, a view that has seen criticism by Russia.
“The thesis of an equal responsibility of the Soviet Union and Hitler Germany for this world tragedy and its victims can only be called absurd,” Alexander Yakovenko, spokesman for the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said Jan. 20 in a response to a reporter’s question.
Russia has refused to recognize that Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania were occupied by the former Soviet Union.
“(W)e see neither historical nor international legal foundations for the concept being put forward by the Latvian leader of the Soviet Union’s ‘occupation’ of the Baltic states in 1940,” Yakovenko said.
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