• 2006-12-06

cartoon by Jevgenijs Cheksters

Politics is a lot like rock-n-roll: It pays to be the last on stage. The annals of rock music are filled with anecdotes of musicians fighting (even shooting) each other for the luxury of being the closing act. It comes from human nature: we tend to save the best for last. Last week Riga nearly received a surprise visit by Vladimir Putin, Russia's autocrat, right after the completion of the NATO summit. French President Jacques Chirac wanted to see the Russian president at his birthday dinner alongside Vaira Vike-Freiberga. An invitation was extended, Putin agreed, and then it was a matter of getting the Latvians to go along.

But why invite Putin? There are three theories: the vain Chirac, who is serving out the last months of his presidency, apparently wanted to celebrate his 74th with Putin. Second, the French, always the opportunists in diplomacy, saw a chance to mediate between Latvia and Russia. Third, by hobnobbing with Putin in Riga, Chirac, cognizant of the "last act" psychology, wanted to exult pan-European relations and thereby aim a thrust at George W. Bush. Perhaps there is truth in all three.

For Putin, the invitation was golden. All in one shot he would've had the opportunity to upstage the NATO summit, which by all accounts was a failure (in terms of substance, not organization), repair his plummeting reputation (particularly in light of the Litvinenko affair in London), and soak up the supplications of Latvia's Russians. In short, he would've driven another wedge into Euro-Atlantic relations.

A confused observer in the Russian-language daily Telegraf remarked that Vike-Freiberga would only have benefited from a cameo appearance by Putin, in the sense her approval rating would have improved once Latvians, citizens and noncitizens alike, saw her dining with the Russian president. This is patent nonsense. First, ethnic Russians living in Latvia haven't approved of Vike-Freiberga for the past seven years, and there's no reason why a quick dinner in Riga with Putin would suddenly endear her to them. Second, in the eyes of patriotic Latvians, an evening with the Russian dictator after hosting 25 other heads of state would have smacked of bad taste. And they would be right.

To be sure, the Putin contretemps spawned a number of spurious reports and fallacious analysis. In Lithuania, the Lietuvos Rytas opined that "Riga will have to dance to the Kremlin's tune whenever Moscow requests it" and "Latvia demonstrated its lack of self-respect" by first agreeing to accept the uninvited guest and making preparations for the visit. (Reading this, it would seem there is still bitterness over Vike-Freiberga's decision to partake in the commemoration in Moscow of the 60th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany, a ceremony the Lithuanian and Estonian presidents did not attend.) Again, this is more emotion than impartial analysis.

In the end, Vike-Freiberga handled the awkward situation with sufficient aplomb. She was handed a rotten deal by Chirac, yet managed to negotiate a way out. Essentially, a president of 2.3 million defied the presidents of two of Europe's most powerful nations. Lithuanians should admire her. As she reportedly told Putin, "Sure, you can come to Riga, but it's going to be an official state visit." And that meant a tete-a-tete at the Riga Castle, flowers at the Freedom Monument, a quick tour of the Occupation Museum, and so on. Hearing that, Putin's planner for Wednesday evening was suddenly full.

As the Russians say, "An uninvited guest is worse than a Tatar." To which we will add, an uninvited Putin is even worse than that.