• 2005-05-11
If there is anything to look forward to now that the World War II commemoration ceremonies are over, it is a certain reduction in the stentorian public relations battle between the Baltic states and Russia over the meaning of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact and the Soviet occupation. After the explosion of coverage in the international media last week, the inevitable lull that lies ahead will feel like a fresh breeze.

But the campaign to enlighten the world about Baltic history and to pressure Russia to admit its mistakes 's started by individuals such as Latvia's Vaira Vike-Freiberga and U.S. Congressman John Shimkus 's has had tremendous impact. In interview after interview, President Vladimir Putin is forced to explain the Soviet Union's actions toward the Baltics before and after the war. In Washington, support is culminating for a resolution requesting that Russia acknowledge the occupation of the Baltic states, while in Brussels the European Parliament is considering a similar motion.

Even the European Commission, which held its summit with Russia this week in Moscow, made a point of reminding that May 9, 1945 denoted the start of decades-long oppression for many Europeans. "We remember as well the many millions... for whom true freedom was only to come with the fall of the Berlin Wall," the commission said in a declaration May 6.

To many Westerners, to whom the concept of national contrition is commonplace, Russia's intransigence seems odd, if not plainly uncivil. All large nations and empires have committed heinous crimes, and those that are open and honest are willing to acknowledge them and ask forgiveness. Apparently Russia, having borne the brunt of suffering during the war, feels no need to repent. The world witnessed this last week.

In the final analysis, the "historic relations" campaign might have failed to produce what the Baltics seek the most, but it has definitely put the Kremlin on the defensive. And when the Russian president is on the defensive, he gets nasty. Recall, for instance, Putin's offer to circumcise a European correspondent who harried him about excessive force and human rights abuses in Chechnya. This week he was in fine form. About the border treaties with Estonia and Latvia, he said: "We are ready to sign an agreement on borders. We hope they will not be accompanied by idiotic 's in terms of their content 's demands of a territorial nature."

It doesn't stop there. Responding to a question from an Estonian journalist May 10, he said, "If the Baltic countries became part of the U.S.S.R. in 1939, then there is no way we could occupy them in 1941, since they were already part of the Soviet Union." Then, in the next breath, he said, "Maybe I didn't study very well at the university because I drank too much beer in Soviet times, but something still remains in my head, because our history teachers were good."

Indeed, it is a good thing the debate will quiet down for a while. For now that it has sunk to the level of bad Soviet beer and teaching methodologies in a totalitarian state, it has hit a dead end.