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.
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