Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 15

On January 20, Estonia ‘s President Arnold Ruutel used a radio address from Moscow to tell his country that Russian President Vladimir Putin is ready to support an official Russian repudiation of the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact. If so, the move could suddenly ease the atmosphere of Russia-Baltic relations in the run-up to the May 9 World War II victory anniversary in Moscow , making it politically easy and perhaps inevitable for the Baltic leaders to join the Kremlin’s festivities.

Putin’s actual phrasing could not immediately be ascertained. The Interfax news agency’s “Presidential Bulletin” carried a long, detailed report on the Putin-Ruutel meeting from official Kremlin sources, but did not mention the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact issue or anything related to interpretations of the war and Russian occupation of the Baltic states . It did say, “Special attention was devoted to the upcoming May 9 anniversary events in Moscow , to which Ruutel was officially invited.”

Ruutel’s ongoing visit is a private one, for him to collect a Russian Orthodox Church award. No Estonian diplomat or adviser, and apparently no Estonian at all, accompanied Ruutel to the meeting with Putin. By all available accounts, only Ruutel, Putin, and the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, Alexei II, were present in the meeting. Putin had only been scheduled to drop in briefly for pleasantries, but stayed for two hours and discussed matters of state as well.

As Ruutel recalled in his radio broadcast, the USSR Supreme Soviet in 1989 had passed a resolution condemning and annulling the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact, specifically its secret protocols that opened the way to the annexation of the three Baltic states by the Soviet Union . That resolution did have a certain moral impact on Russia ‘s political class and general public in the short term. From the mid-1990s to the present day, however, Russia ‘s official position — frequently stated by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and other authorities — insists that the 1940 occupation and annexation had been legal and freely consented, and the 1944-1945 reoccupation and re-annexation was “liberation.”

Even on January 20, the day of the Putin-Ruutel conversation, Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs chief spokesman Alexander Yakovenko reaffirmed the standard position. Assailing Latvia ‘s President Vaira Vike-Freiberga for her recent proposal that Russia should condemn the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact and the annexation of the Baltic States, Yakovenko asserted, “There is no basis in history or international law for the view that the Soviet Union occupied the Baltic states .” Terming that view, “the usual attempt at distorting history,” Yakovenko portrayed Vike-Freiberga as unwilling to accept Russia ‘s friendship, and opined: “We are convinced that her view does not correspond with that of a majority of Latvians” (Interfax, January 20).

Apparently, either Putin’s new line has not yet percolated to Russia ‘s chief diplomatic spokesman, or Putin’s actual phrasing in that private meeting requires full clarification. In either case the subsequent Russian statements must be checked against Putin’s private statement.

Alexei II presented Ruutel with an award for “Distinguished Activity for Reinforcing the Unity of Orthodox Peoples.” Ruutel belongs to the small minority of Orthodox Estonians whose church is canonically subordinated to the Patriarchy of Constantinople. By contrast, Orthodox Russians in Estonia are generally affiliated with the Moscow Patriarchy. Ruutel helped obtain legal registration of the Moscow-affiliated church in Estonia , thus earning Alexei’s gratitude. Alexei, a native of Estonia who spent half of his pastoral career there, for his part had been instrumental in suppressing the Constantinople-affiliated church during the Soviet occupation.

Estonian oil transit tycoon Aadu Luukas accompanied Ruutel to Moscow and collected the same award. The other recipient of the Orthodox Unity award for 2004 is Yevgeny Primakov. He had crossed paths with Alexei during many years in an institution of a decidedly secular character — the same institution that nurtured Putin.

(Estonian Radio, BNS, Interfax, RossBusinessConsulting, January 20).