U.S. President George Bush's first visit to Europe since his re-election last November was big news. Baltic leaders and Russia's President Putin were all keen to have a private word in his ear, and get their views (and mostly conflicting grievances) across to him. And Bush, it must be said, was in a conciliatory mood. He said all the right things to just about everyone he met, while maintaining that he was the "same old Bush." The problem is, amid all the grinning, nodding and handshaking, it was hard to tell where the American president was really coming from.
During the NATO summit in Brussels on Feb. 22, Latvian president Vaira Vike-Freiberga had a number of informal conversations with Bush, and took the opportunity to mention some of the pressing problems with Latvia's eastern neighbor.
Former Estonian PM Mart Laar got a chance to air some of his grievances to Bush when they met at the forum for European leaders in Bratislava on Feb. 24.
Like Vike-Freiberga, Laar said he spoke to the American president about historical matters and the problems surrounding their interpretation, which has been causing intense political friction as of late. Laar said that Bush acknowledged his concerns and promised to raise them with the Russian president.
The point is clear enough. The Baltic leaders look to the American president for support and understanding in their delicate dealings with Russia. But we simply don't know what Bush and Putin talked about during their one-hour private meeting. No doubt the Baltic leaders had been hoping, along with a great many others, that the U.S. president would pose some hard questions to Putin, for if anyone can bring some influence to bear on the Russian president it must surely be Bush.
Bush did raise the question of democracy, freedom of press and the appointment of regional governors, while Putin retorted that the U.S.A had its own problems with media freedom and electoral transparency.
But it was mostly harmless wrist slapping, and we were treated to the spectacle of yet another happy Bush/Putin double act.
There are, however, signs that Bush and Putin are starting to realize their self-interests are not as convergent as they were, and it is very likely that their double act will fall apart at some point during Bush's presidency. But Baltic leaders, who have gone out on a political limb at home to support Bush, deserve a much more vocal recognition of their concerns.