Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 9

On January 12, Latvia’s President Vaira Vike-Freiberga announced that she would be attending the VE-Day 60th anniversary summit to be held in May in Moscow. The issue is deeply controversial in the three Baltic states, and Vike-Freiberga’s announcement scuttles the November 2004 agreement by the Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian presidents to make a joint decision on the issue and announce it by March. Within hours of Vike-Freiberga’s announcement, Presidents Arnold Ruutel of Estonia and Valdas Adamkus of Lithuania issued statements to the effect that they respected her decision, but would continue to weigh the pros and cons of attending that summit, and would take their time making a decision.

Russian President Vladimir Putin last year invited all the heads of NATO and European Union member and candidate countries, formerly Soviet-ruled countries, major Asian nations, and international organizations to an anniversary summit in Moscow on May 9, VE-Day by the Soviet reckoning. The Kremlin is organizing this summit as a gigantic propaganda event to divert attention from the restoration of autocracy in Russia by KGB alumni, neutralize international criticism of that process even as it reaches its peak, collect accolades from key Western leaders for Putin, and retrospectively justify the “liberation” of half of Europe by the Red Army.

To the Baltic states, that “liberation” is the Soviet-Russian occupation, and May 9 one of its main symbols. Another symbol, of course, is the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact, which ushered in the half-century of Moscow rule. For its part, Moscow insists that the Baltic states attend the summit in a manner that would implicitly exonerate Russia of historic responsibility, even as the Russian government to this day asserts that the occupation had been legal and freely consented. History aside, the Russian government’s unprovoked hostile rhetoric and systematic diplomatic pressures make it a hard choice for the three Baltic states to attend the summit pretending that Russia’s conduct toward them is normal.

On the other hand, nonattendance — however eloquently it may be explained — would carry the risk of isolating the Baltic states from European allies, also forcing them to expend precious political capital on both sides of the Atlantic to defend a decision to stay away. It would also undoubtedly provoke a deluge of anti-Baltic propaganda from Moscow, and might even be regarded by certain European governments as an unjustifiable failure by the Baltic states to use this opportunity for fence-mending with Russia. Such an interpretation could in turn erode the EU’s and NATO’s collective willingness to stand up to Russian proposals that explicitly seek to damage the Baltic states’ interests regarding military security, border arrangements, transit regulations, citizenship, language, and other issues. According to Vike-Freiberga, one “must not allow repetition of the situations at Yalta, Tehran, and Potsdam, where the fate of the Baltic nations was decided in their absence.”

Ultimately — as Atis Lejins, head of the Latvian Foreign Policy Institute, suggests (BNS, January 12) — the issue is not about going to or staying away from the Moscow summit, but rather about avoiding a trap, as well as about delivering the right kind of message ahead of and during the summit.

In her January 12 news conference, announcing her decision to attend, Vike-Freiberga stated that she has prepared the text of a message to Putin and to leaders of many of the invited countries, explaining Latvia’s position on the anniversary event and the historical background. According to her presentation, the message explains why May 1945 signifies liberation to one half of Europe and totalitarian occupation to the other half; asserts that World War II ended, as far as the Baltic states are concerned, in 1991 with the end of occupation and restoration of their independence; urges Russia officially to denounce the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact, disassociate itself from the crimes of communism, and appreciate the fact that “the Soviet Union’s disintegration gave the Baltic states, Ukraine, Georgia, and other countries their chance to build modern, democratic societies, to join the efforts toward strengthening Europe and its value system.”

Whether this or similar Baltic messages can get proper attention during the Moscow summit seems far from certain. Not only Russia, but others countries as well may be unwilling to allow such statements to spoil the Kremlin’s show; and some may — as French President Jacques Chirac famously told Central European countries at a 2003 summit — “use this [summit] opportunity to keep quiet.” Vike-Freiberga also told the news conference that she was unable to postpone a decision any further — an oblique admission that she was, or felt, under greater pressure than Ruutel and Adamkus, both of whom signaled that they are still biding their time.

In Latvia, leaders of all the four right-leaning parties in the coalition government expressed support in varying degrees for Vike-Freiberga’s decision. They made clear that the dilemma had been a painful one for them and the country. Leaders of the three Russian parties in parliament expressed full and smug satisfaction. They have no intention to relax Moscow-encouraged pressure for legislative changes that would, in effect, turn Latvia into a bi-national country. Some Latvian politicians hope that attendance at the Moscow summit, to be followed by Latvia’s ratification of the Framework Convention on the Protection of National Minorities (a document designed for pre-1991 Western Europe) could induce Russia to step back from the more radical demands on this score.

In Estonia and Lithuania, initial reactions in parliament and the press tend to underscore that Vike-Freiberga’s decision has, at least for the moment, diluted Baltic solidarity. Lithuania’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Antanas Valionis, has invited his Latvian and Estonian counterparts to a meeting in Lithuania on January 14-15 to take stock of the situation.

(BNS, Latvian Radio, ELTA, January 11, 12).