RIGA - U.S. President George W. Bush announced last week that he would visit Latvia May 6 's 7 before his scheduled trip to Moscow to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany.
Latvian commentators immediately hailed the decision as a foreign policy coup for President Vaira Vike-Freiberga in her efforts to explain the state's point of view on World War II and subsequent Soviet rule. Other analysts, however, said Bush's choice amounted to no more than a gesture of support for the "weakest link in the Baltics."
It will be the third visit by a U.S. president to the Baltics and the second to Latvia.
Tallinn was also considered for a stopover, since no U.S. president has yet visited Estonia. Lithuania hosted Bush in 2002 after the Baltics were invited to join NATO, and Bill Clinton visited Latvia in 1994.
But for locals the burning issue was, "Why Latvia?" Local observers insisted the trip was vindication of President Vaira Vike-Freiberga's controversial decision to accept Vladimir Putin's invitation and travel to Moscow on May 9. Vike-Freiberga is in the middle of a heated propaganda battle with the Kremlin, which has included book endorsements, press releases, interviews and appeals to colleagues in Europe and around the world.
"There have been more than 100 hundred interviews and over 200 articles in the foreign media since the president's decision to go," said Aiva Rozenberga, Vike-Freiberga's press secretary. There has been more foreign media interest over this than there was during EU accession, she added.
The Bush visit is "very important and significant," since the United States never recognized the incorporation of the Baltic states into the Soviet Union, according to Rozenberga.
"Bush likes dynamics and action," said Atis Lejins, director of the Latvian Institute of International Affairs, adding that had Estonian President Arnold Ruutel decided to go to Moscow, then perhaps Bush's choice would have been Tallinn.
Non-Latvian analysts offered a different interpretation of the U.S. president's choice.
"Bush's route will show which of the Baltic states is the weakest link. By coming to demonstrate support, the U.S. president would point to the weakest link at the same time," said Raimundas Lopata, director of Vilnius University's International Relations and Political Science Department.
Nevertheless, the visit is arguably the biggest victory so far for Latvia's fight to be heard in the international arena. Despite some seatbacks in the country's efforts to promote a favorable image, there have been successes. Also, multi-lingual Vike-Freiberga is by far the most articulate speaker of the three Baltic presidents and is perhaps the best one to deliver the message that the Soviet victory on May 9, 1945 replaced one totalitarian regime with another for much of Eastern Europe.
"This is going to boomerang against Putin. He is going to lose this propaganda battle," Lejins said.
As is tradition, President Valdas Adamkus and his Estonian counterpart Arnold Ruutel, both of whom will not go to Moscow, will be in Riga for Bush's visit.
Vike-Freiberga announced in January that she would attend the ceremony in Moscow. Her decision to go was bemoaned by some nationalists at home, and questioned by other Baltic politicians. Some critics said the May 9th celebration was tantamount to celebrating Soviet rule.
Curiously, a recent Internet poll in Russia showed that a large majority did not want Vike-Freiberga to attend the ceremonies. The Latvian president irked Putin when she gave him a copy of a new history book about the 20th century in Latvia at ceremonies in Auschwitz commemorating the liberation of the death camp in 1945. Later Putin made some disparaging comments about the book, and it was savaged in the Russian language press for using a Nazi-term in a caption next to a picture of a concentration camp.
Vike-Freiberga recently told Latvian historians to use precise wording in their research since there are implications both domestically and abroad.
Poland joined the Baltic chorus of condemnation and asked Russia to say something about the illegal nature of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, the agreement between Russia and Nazi Germany that preceded the first Soviet occupation and the partition of Poland.
Speculation that Bush would visit Latvia began shortly after Vike-Freiberga's decision to go to Moscow in January. Earlier this month media speculation appeared, citing unnamed sources that Bush may come for a visit to the state.
Bush's trip to Russia will also include stopovers in the Netherlands and Georgia, whose pro-Western government is actively being courted by Washington. The Washington Post said Bush's visit to Georgia and Latvia would anger Russia, which is watching its control over former Soviet republics slip away.