RIGA - President Vaira Vike-Freiberga sent a shock through the Baltics last week with the unexpected announcement that she would attend Moscow's May 9 celebrations, commemorating the 60th anniversary of Nazi Germany's defeat. The decision was equally surprising since it pre-empted her Estonian and Lithuanian colleagues, as many believed the Baltic countries would take a united position on the invitation.
Reaction among Latvian politicians was largely positive, though many Balts took issue with Vike-Freiberga's initiative and did not hesitate to impugn it.
"On the road to liberation from Soviet occupation in 1988-1991, Latvia often was the weakest link of the Baltics. This is again manifested by the strange and separate action, accepting the invitation to attend a top-level parade on the occasion of the Soviet victory," Vytautas Landsbergis, a leader of the Lithuanian independence movement and now a member of the European Parliament, commented.
Landsbergis also took umbrage at the fact that Vike-Freiberga made her announcement on Jan. 12 - the eve of Lithuania's Jan. 13 vigil for those who lost their lives in Vilnius during clashes with Soviet troops.
His comments were attacked in the Latvian media, where pundits pointed out that Lithuania had also acted unilaterally in the past, particularly when undertaking efforts to have Russian troops withdrawn from the three countries. The troops left Lithuania one year before leaving Latvia and Estonia.
Estonian President Arnold Ruutel and Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus did not react to Vike-Freiberga's comments, though veteran and right-wing political organizations urged them to refuse President Vladimir Putin's invitation.
"There is no need for Adamkus to go to Moscow on May 9 either because Vaira Vike-Freiberga is going or because of the Kremlin's threats that, if he does not go, relations between Lithuania and Russia will worsen," Conservative leader Andrius Kubilius told a press conference on Jan. 17. "If we go to Moscow, we will have to ask ourselves what we have to celebrate. Then the anniversaries of Yalta and Potsdam, when a blessing was given to the second occupation of Lithuania, should be celebrated as well."
For many Balts the defeat of Nazi Germany did not signify an end to the war, but merely a changing of the guard, replacing one totalitarian regime with another. Indeed, partisan conflict continued for over a decade in Baltic forests.
In choosing to go to Moscow for the anniversary, Vike-Freiberga will join allies from the EU and the United States. She said attending the event would ensure that decisions among the great powers would not be made without Latvia's presence.
Many supported the president's reasoning. "Since we are a part of NATO and the EU it would be strange for us not to attend," said Zaneta Ozolina, head of the political science department at the University of Latvia.
Even though Putin has hinted that the much-maligned border agreement between the two countries could be signed while Vike-Freiberga is in Moscow, the president said she would do no such thing, hinting that this would be in bad taste.
"Then the Russians would really be rubbing it into us. We shouldn't sign any agreements during the anniversary," head of the Latvian Foreign Policy Institute, Atis Lejins, said.
Despite the animus over Vike-Freiberga's decision to break ranks, controversy surrounding the Victory Day ceremony has quickly moved to the printed page and a war of words. The Latvian president released a statement calling upon European leaders to condemn the Soviet occupation on the eve of the May 9 ceremonies.
"In attending the official events in Moscow, I will be extending a hand of friendship to Russia. Latvia invites Russia to display the same degree of conciliation to Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, and to condemn the crimes of the Second World War, regardless of who committed them," Vike-Freiberga said in her released statement.
The president also made it clear that she would try to get across the shared Baltic view that the area was, indeed, occupied by the Soviet Union. However, Russian Ambassador Viktor Kaluzhny immediately dismissed this possibility.
"As for the declaration, some points included in it are utterly unacceptable," he said in an interview with the Diena daily, "because May 9 is a specific date, the 60th anniversary celebrates the victory over Nazism. That's it. The Russian president has unequivocally stated that this is a day of commemoration and reconciliation. Adding any ideological or historic matters to it, to someone's advantage, would not be right."
The ambassador was equally emphatic about the idea of Baltic occupation. "I can say once again that regarding the 1941-1945 period, yes, part of Europe and the Soviet Union were occupied. But as for the period of 1945 's 1991, I believe that 'occupation' is not the right term. It should be called something else," he said.
Coincidentally, a row broke out between Kaluzhny and Diena when the ambassador asked for a copy of the interview before it was published, something the newspaper said was against its practice. The ambassador accused the paper of wanting to hurt relations between Latvia and Russia and threatened to appeal to the president and the Foreign Ministry.
Not surprisingly, Vike-Freiberga's declaration was bemoaned by Russian parliamentarians. Konstantin Kosachyov, head of the international affairs committee in the Duma [lower house of Russia's parliament], said the release "caused a feeling of deep surprise boarding on disappointment."
Foreign Minister Artis Pabriks has also said that parts of the declaration prepared by Russia were unacceptable to Latvia. Although he did not specify what was written, he did say that the deceleration should be amended to condemn Stalinist crimes.
In an unrelated incident occurring two days after Latvia's announcement to attend the festivities, a Russian Defense Ministry car lost control and crashed into the Latvian Embassy's gate in Moscow, causing some $60,000 worth of damage, an embassy spokesman said.