George W. Bush's words ring like music to Baltic ears

  • 2005-05-11
  • By Aaron Eglitis
RIGA - The Baltic states received a long-awaited boost of moral support when U.S. President George W. Bush called communist rule in Eastern Europe "one of the greatest wrongs of the last century" during his speech in the Latvian capital on May 7.

Coming on the eve of his May 9 visit to Moscow, with whom Bush is attempting to strike a delicate balance of friendship and criticism, the U.S. president's indictment of Soviet occupation of the Baltics was particularly cherished.

Indeed, Bush touched upon many areas in his speech at the Small Guild in Riga's Old Town 's expansion of democracy and freedom, respect of minority rights and even the culpability of the United States itself 's but it was his use of the words "communist oppression" and "occupation" that most pleased Baltic leaders, who over the past few months have been in the midst of a massive propaganda battle with the Kremlin over the true meaning of the 45 years after World War II. (For excerpts of the president's speech, see Page 22.)

Perturbed by Bush's travel itinerary in Latvia, and well aware of the substance of what the U.S. president would say, the Kremlin undertook an 11th hour PR foray in the international media to get its version of WWII events to people across the globe. (See story on Page 2.)

The international press clutched onto Bush's strong words in Riga, but the Russian media choose to portray the visit and speech as a condemnation of Latvia's minority policies.

Bush only briefly touched on issues of ethnic diversity and minority rights, though he did participate in a round-table discussion with societal organizations, many of which were created specifically to address minority issues.

Prior to the Small Guild speech, Vike-Freiberga called Bush a "fighter for democracy" everywhere in the world, and earlier that day she awarded him the state's highest honor 's the three-star order.

The former professor of psychology even greeted Bush at the airport when he arrived late on May 6, promptly climbing aboard Air Force One only to emerge shortly afterwards hand-in-hand with her American counterpart.

The two laid bouquets of flowers at the Freedom Monument while a small crowd carefully scrutinized by security waved miniature American and Latvian flags.

Both presidents appeared like old friends, as Bush gave his Latvian counterpart a friendly pat on the back 's an image that Vike-Freiberga has sought to cultivate in the international media as she campaigns to enlighten Europe and the world about the occupation of the Baltic states and the paradoxical significance of May 9, 1945.

Estonian President Arnold Ruutel and Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus had a less prominent role in the visit, though both shared the limelight for a few minutes during a televised broadcast of a joint presidential press conference. (Adamkus was erroneously identified as the "Latvian president" by CNN.)

The overwhelming presence of Latvian Interior Ministry forces and U.S. Secret Service agents effectively shut down the Old Town for about 24 hours. Latvian officials considered it a success 's the largest ever employed in the country.

Only one disturbance marred Bush's visit to Latvia, the second by a U.S. president since the country regained independence in 1991. (Bill Clinton came in the summer of 1994.) Members of the National Bolsheviks were arrested near the Reval Hotel Latvia on May 7 amid smoke bombs, when they tried to pass the security cordon in order to, according to reports, tell Bush he was an unwelcome guest in the country.

The tussle largely took place outside of the media's eye.

A similar disturbance occurred in Moscow, where some 30 members of Rodina, a nationalist party, were reportedly arrested outside of the Latvian Embassy as they protested the arrival of the Latvian president.

The Kremlin disputed Bush's use of the word "occupation" to describe the Soviet period in the Baltic states. "There was no occupation. There were agreements at the time with the legitimately elected authorities in the Baltic countries," the Kremlin's chief of European affairs, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, was quoted as saying prior to Bush's arrival.

Russian President Vladimir Putin also claimed that there was no reason to apologize for the Soviet period since the Russian government had already repudiated the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, the war contract between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.

At her press conference on May 6 Vike-Freiberga said that an apology "just once" would be good enough.

Directly after leaving Riga on May 7, Bush stopped in the Netherlands to commemorate the American lives lost there in World War II, before heading to Moscow for the 60th anniversary of the fall of the Nazis. After the ceremonies in Red Square came to a close, Bush added insult to injury by leaving for Georgia. During his speech in Tbilisi's Freedom Square, where Georgians celebrated ousting the old regime in 2003, the U.S. president praised the country for its democratic example, referring to Georgia as a "beacon of liberty for the region and the world."

The U.S. president's time in Riga set a backdrop to the ceremonies in Moscow, where both presidents attended. The Victory Day festivities took place without the presence of Lithuania, Estonia and Georgia's presidents, all of whom stayed home in protest. Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili objected to Russia's continued military presence in the country, while his Baltic counterparts opposed what they say what was tantamount to the beginning of Soviet rule.

In Riga, Bush and Vike-Freiberga laid wreathes at the country's freedom monument with a small crowd 's watched by heavy security - waving miniature American and Latvian flags behind them. Both presidents appeared like old friends, as Bush gave his Latvian counterpart a friendly pat on the back - an image that Vike-Freiberga has sought to cultivate in front of the international media.