Painful Memories

The Economist
Jan 13th 2005 (Riga, Latvia)

STALIN’S ghost must have smirked at the dilemma facing the three Baltic presidents. Should they accept President Vladimir Putin’s invitation to join the 60th anniversary celebrations, in Moscow on May 9th, of the Soviet victory in the “Great Patriotic War” against Hitler-even though it cleared the way for the Soviet Union to occupy and oppress the Baltics for the next 45 years? Or should they stay away and risk accusations that they were soft on Nazi Germany, for which many of their citizens fought?

After hesitating for almost five months, President Vaira Vike-Freiberga of Latvia broke ranks this week to say she would go. Presidents Arnold Ruutel of Estonia and Valdas Adamkus of Lithuania said they would think a bit more, and sounded miffed by the Latvian move. Conservatives will accuse Mrs. Vike-Freiberga of naively agreeing to celebrate not so much the defeat of Hitler as the triumph of Soviet power under Stalin. But she has calculated that the diplomatic cost of staying away would be higher. A no-show would let Russia claim that Latvia and the other Baltic countries were “Russophobes” who upset east-west relations and stood apart from European values.

The Baltics know that Russia will seize any chance to drive wedges between them and the rest of Europe. It resents their independence, almost 15 years after they escaped from the Soviet Union. It thinks that they and the other ex-communist countries that joined the European Union in May are scheming to make the EU more anti-Russian.

Mrs. Vike-Freiberga is snubbing Russia’s offer to sign a border treaty as a reward for her attendance. The important thing, she says, is that the Baltic side of history should be heard. She has published a declaration in which she blames Stalin equally with Hitler for causing the 1939-45 war, by agreeing secretly to divide Europe. And she calls on Russia to “express its regret” for the Soviet “subjugation” of central and eastern Europe.

Some hope. Russia insists that the Soviet Union was a law-abiding state that the Baltics joined by choice. Besides, Russia dodges responsibility for Soviet history-except, now you come to mention it, for the victory over Hitler.