Visiting Latvia and meeting there with the three Baltic presidents on May 7 while en route to Moscow, U.S. President George W. Bush declared on Latvian television in a pre-recorded interview: “We will stand with Latvia if a large country tries to intimidate the people… That’s the great value of joining NATO: that security is now guaranteed by all members of NATO as well as by the United States.” This part of Bush’s statement echoes the comments he made to a popular rally during his visit Lithuania in November 2002, commenting on NATO’s invitation to the three Baltic states to join the alliance: “Any country that would choose to confront Lithuania would thereby choose to confront the United States” and that the Baltic states would never again be left alone to face tyranny. In his Latvian interview, Bush went on to say that in his discussions with Russian President Vladimir Putin, he raises “quite frequently the subject of Russia-Latvia relations, and my job at times is to send a message that says, treat your neighbors respectfully. I don’t know if I made any progress with him [Putin] or not, but I have made my position clear” (Latvian TV, May 6).
Bush singled out for praise the troop contributions by Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania to U.S.-led operations in Afghanistan and Iraq and NATO peacekeeping missions in the Balkans.
During this visit, Bush unambiguously endorsed the Baltic nations’ view of the outcome and consequences of the Second World War for these three countries. At several points on his tour he noted the contrast between the end of the war in Western Europe and that in the Baltic region, where a new occupation and “imperial rule” ensued. With this, Bush endorsed the dual-outcome interpretation of the Second World War, as explained by the Baltic states themselves for international opinion. As the Latvian Institute’s Director Ojars Kalnins remarked, never did a visiting foreign leader speak as forthrightly about the Soviet Union’s protracted occupation and oppression of the Baltic states as Bush spoke during this visit.
Obliquely commenting on the Russian government’s anti-Baltic propaganda campaign, Bush stated, “I will continue to speak as clearly as I can to President Putin that it is in his country’s interest that there be democracies on his borders. The Baltic states are peaceful nations that are good neighbors with Russia.”
Beyond the immediate Baltic context, Bush made a point of recalling “the captivity” of Central and East European nations as “one of the greatest wrongs of history.” Specifically referring to the 1945 Yalta agreements, he repudiated the practice of “secret deals to determine somebody else’s fate,” the practice whereby “powerful governments negotiated, [treating] the freedom of small nations as somehow expendable. That attempt to sacrifice freedom for the sake of stability left a continent divided and unstable. When the empire fell, the legacy of Yalta was finally buried once and for all.” More strongly worded and more comprehensive than Bush’s own “no more Yaltas” statement in Warsaw in June 2001, his two statements in Riga constitute the most explicit repudiation of the concept of dividing spheres of influence by any U.S. president.
For its part, Moscow seems unwilling to reassess the sphere-of-influence agreement contained in the 1939 Ribbentrop-Molotov pact. According to Putin’s closest confidant, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, “to claim that the Soviet Union occupied the Baltic states is absurd and nonsense. You cannot occupy that which belongs to you” (Interfax, May 7). “One can not term those events an ‘occupation,’ echoed Putin’s envoy for relations with the European Union, Sergei Yastrzhembsky. In German and French press interviews, Putin insisted that the disavowal of the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact by a resolution of the USSR Congress of People’s Deputies in 1989 was sufficient, and Moscow had nothing to add (ARD and ZDF Televisions, Le Figaro, May 7). In fact, that 1989 resolution only blamed Stalin personally, and determined that his action in 1939 contradicted “Leninist norms” and “the Soviet people’s interests.” It failed to acknowledge, let alone assess the occupation of the Baltic states, and did not recognize their right to be independent.
(BNS, ELTA, Reuters, AP, May 7-9)