VILNIUS - Months of agonizing deliberation finally came to an end when the Lithuanian and Estonian presidents announced their decision not to participate in the May 9 Victory Day celebrations in Moscow, which will be attended by a host of other major heads of state.
Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus and Estonian President Arnold Ruutel on March 7 officially declined Russian President Vladimir Putin's personal invitation to the event.
In his announcement, which was broadcast live on national radio, Adamkus spoke about the victims of World War II and how many nations had suffered. He also acknowledged that Russia had paid a "particularly high price" for the victory against Nazi Germany.
But he went on to say that the tragedy of WWII didn't end for Lithuania in 1945, as 350,000 Lithuanian citizens, or 10 percent of the nation, were either executed or deported to Siberia.
"We probably would not find a single family in Lithuania that escaped losses and terror," Adamkus said in his address.
The president concluded his speech by saying that he hoped Russia would understand his decision.
Many politicians had argued that it would be in Estonia's national interest for Ruutel to attend the May 9 ceremony, with public opinion almost evenly divided on the issue.
"As head of state I have the obligation and responsibility of supporting my people's faith, which I can do best while being together with my people on that day," Ruutel said in an offical statement. "I believe the people of Estonia, as well as our partners and allies both in the East and the West, understand this view."
The presidents made their decisions under intense political pressure from Moscow to attend the event. But according to Leonidas Donskis, a professor at the Political Science and Diplomacy Institute of Vytautas Magnus University, Adam-kus made the right decision.
"The experience of the Baltic states is painful; this is why the day [May 9] cannot be interpreted from only one point of view. If Russia had understood this and made a nice gesture, perhaps it would have been possible to make a different decision," Donskis said. "But a lot of unsubtle pressure was coming from Russia, and a lot of inconsiderate comments, which could only insult the heads of the Baltic states. Therefore, I think, [the decision] was performed according to the principles of a dignified independent state and democratic society."
According to the Presidential Palace, the final straw for Adamkus was Putin's recent comments about the Molotov-Ribentrop pact. When the Russian leader visited Slovakia last month he implied that the Soviet Union was only defending its national interests and safeguarding the country's western borders by signing the notorious pact.
Putin's comments contradicted a declaration made by the Russian parliament in the 1990s, which denounced the Molotov-Ribentrop pact as an illegitimate act against the Baltic states, and condemned the occupation.
During the decision's heated build-up, many urged both Adamkus and Ruutel to pass up the occasion. In one such an attempt, more than 50 Lithuanian historians addressed the president in a public statement. Many organizations, including some comprised of former political prisoners and deportees to Siberia and the Council of Lithuanians in America, sent statements to the president asking him to reject the invitation.
"Congratulations to the president 's this is what I was expecting. I rejoice with everyone who thinks that Lithuania's honor is a more important value than indulgence and servility," said opposition leader Andrius Kubilius.
Chairman of the parliamentary foreign affairs committee Justinas Karosas said that there was no reason for Adamkus' decision to destabilize bilateral relations with Russia. "There might perhaps be some psychological constraints on an everyday basis. But relations with us as part of the European Union cannot change. Russia cannot all of a sudden change its politics with the EU. Moreover, we've already had a period of civilized relations," Karosas said.
In Estonia, Ruutel's decision was met with a more mixed reaction. The opinions of several leading papers criticized the president, hinting that his decision was linked to domestic politics and next year's presidential elections rather than common sense.
The daily Postimees pointed out that 11 years ago, then-President Lennart Meri was faced with the decision of whether or not to sign a treaty on the withdrawal of Russian troops that would have left Russian servicemen in Estonia.
"Meri signed the treaty and faced the indignation of many people," the paper wrote. "He was president of the country and took the president's responsibility""
Foreign Minister Rein Lang could represent Estonia at the ceremony, while it is still unclear who will represent Lithuania.
Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga is the only Baltic president to have accepted the invitation to the Victory Day ceremony, although she has announced plans to make an official statement that WWII did not end for the Baltic states on May 9, 1945.