President’s diplomatic offensive is high stakes

Latvian President Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga is playing for high stakes. She took everyone by surprise in January when she announced her decision to attend the May 9 celebration in Moscow marking the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II—and specifically the Soviet role in Adolf Hitler’s downfall.

In the face of long-standing concerns about Baltic unity, she seemingly had not consulted either of the other two Baltic countries in this decision. Subsequently, both Estonia’s and Lithuania’s presidents have decided they will not attend. Domestically, her decision also aroused controversy. Five ears ago, all three Baltic presidents did not attend the 55th anniversary celebrations in Moscow, and public opinion in all three countries has always been strongly against participation.

But more than this, she also used the occasion of her acceptance to launch what must be seen as Latvia’s most pointed and, we may cautiously surmise, best received diplomatic initiative in its nearly 15 years of regained independence. Along with accepting the invitation to participate in Moscow, she issued strong statements detailing Latvia’s stance to this celebration—that the end of the Nazi regime in 1945 brought in turn the beginning of a brutal occupation by the Soviet Union that was to last 50 years. Vīķe-Freiberga urged those attending the celebration to recognise this fact and view the celebrations accordingly.

The smiles on Russian faces for her “wise” decision (as the Kremlin put it) to attend on May 9 froze when the full text of her message sank in, and since then she has pointedly repeated her remarks as she continues a strong campaign to make sure her participation in Moscow cannot be interpreted as acquiescence in the glorification of Soviet victory.

The risks of this strategy were clear. Going against Baltic unity was the first criticism. Her decision rankled both Estonia and Lithuania, which appeared to be caught totally off guard. Secondly, there was no guarantee that her comments on the celebrations would be even heard, much less heeded, by the heads of all other European countries attending on May 9. Latvia’s voice, for all its new status in the European Union and the NATO defense alliance, remains marginal. Thirdly, there was no guarantee that her stance would have any effect upon Moscow at all. And finally, she was clearly setting what she saw as Latvia’s best interests against a strong view in the public that the Moscow celebration should be boycotted.

However—significantly—Moscow was affected and the subsequent brouhaha has seen increasing support for Latvia’s position. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin immediately went on the counterattack, marked most clearly at the 60th celebrations of the liberation of Auschwitz, where he railed against any attempt to draw parallels between Nazi and Soviet behaviour by those who would “rewrite history.” An equally strong denunciation came when at a subsequent meeting Vīķe-Freiberga presented him with a book on Latvian history. The Kremlin used this again to attack Latvia’s attempted reinterpretation of history.

Latvia’s offensive clearly had got under Russian’s skin. And there were encouraging statements of support from several other European countries, including Poland, Ireland and even France, a country not always keen to criticise its former ally, Russia. While Germany, as ever, remains unmoved, the support for Latvia’s stance marks a decided shift in European attitudes, helped in great measure by the increasing signs of Russian authoritarianism both internally and externally over the past year, fears for democracy in that country, and a string of democratising revolutions—in Georgia, in Ukraine and now almost unbelievably in Kirghizstan—that have exposed Russia’s constant meddling in its “near abroad.” In politics, as in comedy, timing is everything, and Latvia’s stance on the May 9 celebrations has come in a receptive environment.

The recent announcement that U.S. President George W. Bush will visit Latvia on May 6-7 has been seen by Latvian commentators as ultimate vindication of Vīķe-Freiberga’s strategy. Bush’s visit will come just two days before the May 9 celebrations in Moscow (which Bush will also attend) and this is seen as sending a strong message to Russia that the United States understands and supports Latvia’s position.

Bush’s interest in appearing in Latvia immediately before the Moscow celebrations also is seen as direct reward for the Latvian government’s unstinting support for Bush on several issues, including the wars on Afghanistan and Iraq and issues of terror, despite local public opinion being less in favour of such initiatives.

However, other factors are also at play. Bush has been keen to exploit the support of Eastern European countries, what U.S. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld called “New Europe,” against the perceived anti-Americanism of several Western European countries, or “Old Europe.” Bush is still broadly reviled in Western Europe, and ambivalently viewed even in parts of Eastern Europe, so Latvia’s closeness to him may well not be favourably viewed by others in Europe.

Moreover, President Arnold Rüütel of Estonia had also invited Bush. Estonia is the only one of the three Baltic countries that has not had a U.S. presidential visit. Bush’s pointed preference for Latvia may be reward for its participating in Moscow on May 9, and dislike of Estonia’s boycotting. For the United States, relations with Russia are far more important than with the Baltic states, whatever temporary use can be made of Baltic issues to gain leverage.

And while Bush’s visit will give some focus to Baltic concerns, the controversies surrounding Bush will ensure a host of other issue from wars to trade to the environment will dog the visit. Indeed, for the press outside Europe the issue of Bush’s visit to Latvia will be far more about how many protests this attracts (against the Iraq war and much else) rather than about Baltic issues.

Finally, the curious way in which Vīķe-Freiberga acted alone and left her Baltic companions in the lurch has raised longer-term issues of the seeming impossibility of achieving Baltic unity on significant issues. We will see if Vīķe-Freiberga’s determined support for the United States puts her out on a limb with her own public, or if the Bush visit will be a political coup for her.

5 thoughts on “President’s diplomatic offensive is high stakes

  1. Criticisms about undermining Baltic solidarity directed at President Vike-Freiberga seem hollow. It seems that Estonia and Lithuania have no qualms striking out on their own when it suits their needs. More than 10 years ago, Lithuania granted citizenship to just about every resident leaving Estonia and Latvia, the two republics with significant Russian-speaking minorities, looking bad. In its campaign to join NATO, Lithuania was openly floating the idea that if it did not make sense for all three Baltic Republics to join, NATO should start with Lithuania. Ditto Estonia for the EU who made no secret of their disdain for their provincial neighbours as they were trying to rebrand themselves as Scandinavians. It’s a wonder that Estonia hasn’t rejigged its flag into a Scandinavian cross. Yes President Vike-Freiberga is playing a game of high-stakes politics but it’s paying off and the issue of Soviet occupation is front and centre which is far from where it would have been had Freiberga joined Adamkus and Rutel and stayed home. I’m sure there’s a lot of 20-20 hindsight going on in the chancellories of Vilnius and Tallinn.

  2. While I, as a naturalized US citizen, am no fan of George Bush, I am a great fan of President Vīķe-Freiberga. Her courageous move, as all such moves by leaders of great and small powers alike, will not be a 100% success, but it has already been a significant success; certainly a much better one than if she had joined the no-shows whose absence, if noted at all, will be meaningless to the rest of the world outside the Baltics. It is clear from past articles I have read that George Bush has serious respect for Latvia’s President, so this may well be more than a purely politically expedient spit in Putin’s eye. The Russian’s will surely not admit their genocidal transgressions but those who survived them and those of us who are their children [my father fought the Soviet occupiers, in the Latvian Legion, and carries the scars to this day] have a responsibility to hold the verbal pictures of what rally happened for the world to see. Lastly, it is my sincere hope that America’s political attention to Latvia will elevate this magnificent nation and its people, as they deserve to be, in the eyes and attention of the world’s business people and tourists.

  3. What President Vike-Freiberga did was courageous and brave. Latvia needs the support of Bush. As long as he knows how Vike-Freiburga feels about his actions, he will be of help if needed.
    She took a gamble and won. To stand by and do nothing would have gained the same, nothing.

    I too am a naturalized citizen of the US and a great adimirer of the Latvian President.

    Those who live in Latvia as well as those of us scattered to the 4 corners of the world need to try and support what action is taken for the betterment of Latvia.

  4. We’re talking here civilized negotiable differences? How do you deal with campaigns that play on bigotry, ignorance, hate, misinformation, and blatant disregard of truth in history? This site has an “anti-fashist” demonstratuion supposedly by “higher education students” using a sex doll labeled as the Latvian President with graphic photos : <;

    a Latvian language listserv “Sveiks” member said 90% Russians actually believe this.
    putting the Russian through babelfish:
    Buryat antifascists blew away the President of Latvia in the means of the sex- doll “Vayry come and depart, and Latvian people remains” – under this slogan, paraphrased from the statement of Stalin 1945 about Hitler and German people, in Ulan-Ude on 29 April took place antifascist meeting. It they organized the fund for people initiative and the buryat regional department of “Molodezhnaya unity”. In the action participated of approximately 150 people, in essence the students of VUZ – Institute of
    Higher Education and ssuzov, and also several veterans. The eyewitness of event became correspondent IA regnum. The President of fund Nikolai Fedotov in his presentation stated: “the open Fascist processions, the celebration of legionaries SS the pursuit of the veterans of World War II, infringement of the rights of russkoyazychnogo population – this is insult. This catches each of us. Hundreds of thousands of our Soviet soldiers fell in the fields for the releases of the Baltic States from the Hitlerites, including of descendants from Buryatii, this and our pain “. As the accurate response to the insult into the sex -wope they specially purchased the pneumatic doll, which appeared before participants in the
    meeting in the means of the President of Latvia Vayry to vetch -Fre1bergi. At the end of meeting came up the question, as to enter with this symbol. Proposals to burn doll by organizers were rejected, since “terrible tradition to burn people, especially women, not there were never in Asia”. Therefore they decided simply to blow away doll. Participants in the meeting gathered letters in the form of front triangles. In them the main slogan of action is contained. On 1 May organizers will direct them into the Moscow embassy of Latvia.

  5. Aija Beldava’s information about the demostration in Buryatia illustrates the drift in Russia back toward the bad old days. Does anyone seriously believe that the Buryats give a hoot in hell about Latvian politics? This is apparently presented as a spontaneous grass-roots demonstration; who do they think will believe it?

    Maybe I am being too hasty here; the voters where I live seem prepared to believe anything, but only if someone spends megabucks on political ads on TV. If Moscow can pay for a PR firm and enough slots on the telly, maybe someone will actually accept the notion that the Buryats are losing sleep over VVF. On the other hand, if we could somehow bring a Buryat delegation to Riga to meet her . . . . Hmmm.


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