RIGA - President Vladimir Putin worked overtime last week trying to counteract the rising calls for Russia to admit the occupation of the Baltic states in a series of interviews with the Western media. Putin outright denied the idea of occupation, trying to pass the onus of guilt onto the Baltics for discriminating against minority populations.
In the lead-up to the grandiose Victory Day ceremonies in Moscow on May 9, Putin gave interviews to numerous media outlets, including U.S. and German television and France's Le Figaro, where he defended Russia from the need to apologize for the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact and having occupied the Baltic states after the end of World War II.
"In effect, these Baltic countries were an exchange coin in world politics, and that is a tragedy for these nations 's one must say this outright," Putin told German TV channels ARD and ZDF about the 1939 pact that carved up Eastern Europe. His thesis was echoed by U.S. President George W. Bush in Riga, though the latter was speaking of the Yalta and Potsdam conferences. (See excerpts of speech on Page 22.)
"As for our attitude to the 1939 pact, in 1989 the Soviet Union's top representative body condemned it. It said just so: 'We condemn these agreements between Stalin and Hitler and think that this was Stalin's personal decision, contrary to the Soviet nation's interests,'" Putin said.
But as the Russian president continued, "The only thing we hear now is that our country must admit the illegality of these decisions and condemn them. I repeat 's we have already done so. Must we do this every day of every year? That is downright senseless!"
As he has done before, Putin tried to deflect criticism and put the Baltics on the defensive.
"I still cannot agree with the situation when today people of other ethnic origin 's the Russian-speaking population who found themselves there not by their own free will, but as fate has willed 's do not have the full rights given to all people living on the European continent. So they feel like second-class citizens. So that the 450,000 Russian-speaking citizens living in Latvia have quasi-documents with 'noncitizen' written in the nationality section, while in other documents they write 'alien.' How can this co-exist with modern standards of humanitarian law?" he told German television.
In an editorial that appeared in La Figaro, he wrote, "Our Baltic neighbors continue to demand some kind of repentance from Russia. I think they are trying to attract attention to themselves, to justify a discriminatory and reprehensible policy of their governments toward a large Russian-speaking part of their own population, to mask the shame of past collaboration."
When asked if an apology might improve the situation, Putin replied: "I understand the logic of what you said, and it would be fairly logical only if these people had been at any time citizens of the Russian Federation. They were never citizens of our country, the Russian Federation. They are treated in this way according to the ethnic principle, not on political or civil grounds. They were not citizens of modern Russia, they were citizens of a common nation, the Soviet Union."
In an interview with the U.S. station CBS, Putin vituperated the Baltics for the status of noncitizen and said he hoped that Bush would exert pressure on Latvia and Estonia to change their human rights laws in compliance with international norms.
"I would like to hope that the U.S. president would take advantage of his influence so all the past problems would disappear, that the politics of these countries both at home and on the international arena would be more balanced and responsible," he said. "These are the kind of relations we want."
In addition, Putin said the decision by Estonian President Arnold Ruutel and Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus not to attend the Moscow ceremonies was "a mistake." He also reproached the Baltic countries for, in his words, making heroes out of local soldiers who fought in the Waffen SS.