Bush, Celebrating Allies' Victory, Chafes Old Wounds

By ELISABETH BUMILLER

New York Times

May 7, 2005

RIGA, Latvia, May 6 - President Bush stepped into the middle of an escalating feud between Russia and the Baltic nations on Friday night as he arrived here in the capital of Latvia at the start of a five-day trip to Europe.

Mr. Bush disembarked from Air Force One at the airport shortly after 10 p.m. and went immediately to his hotel on the Daugava River across from the city's Old Town. He scheduled a news conference for Saturday with the leaders of the three Baltic nations of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, and planned to deliver a speech on democracy as well. Mr. Bush is scheduled to meet President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia outside Moscow on Sunday night.

Mr. Bush's trip, to observe the 60th anniversary of the Allies' victory over Nazi Germany in World War II with more than 50 other leaders in Red Square on Monday, has sparked an angry exhumation of wartime politics in the region.

The now independent Baltic nations see the anniversary as the resumption of their unlawful annexation by the Soviet Union, and on Friday Latvia stepped up demands that Russia apologize for decades of occupation.

"Once would be enough," said President Vaira Vike-Freiberga of Latvia at a news conference at Riga Castle on Friday.

The Russians have furiously responded that the three Baltic countries were allies and that the Russian military was invited to march in.

"One cannot use the term 'occupation' to describe those historical events," Sergei Yastrzhembsky, the Russian envoy to the European Union, said at a news conference in Moscow on Thursday. "At that time, the troop deployment took place on an agreed basis and with the clearly expressed agreement of the existing authorities in the Baltic republics."

Ms. Vike-Freiberga, asked in an interview with ABC News on Friday if the Russians were lying about the wartime history in the Baltics, responded, "Through their teeth."

President Bush added fuel to the fire on Friday night. In an interview with the Lithuanian state television network that the White House released shortly before Air Force One landed in Riga, Mr. Bush said that he had spoken to Mr. Putin about the Baltics at their last meeting in February. Mr. Bush also complained at the time about what he considered Mr. Putin's retreat from democracy.

"I said, 'do you understand, friend, that you've got problems in the Baltics'?" Mr. Bush recounted, adding that he told Mr. Putin that "the remembrances of the time of Communism are unpleasant remembrances and you need to work with these young democracies." Mr. Bush added, "I don't know if I made any progress with him or not, but I have made my position clear."

Daniel Fried, assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, went further with reporters on Air Force One, saying that the only "true narrative" of World War II is "ours" and that what the Russians "don't like to remember is what they were doing from 1939 to 1941."

The Soviet Union and Nazi Germany signed a nonaggression pact in August 1939, just weeks before Germany's invasion of Poland precipitated World War II. Soviet troops joined German forces in occupying Poland, and the following year the Soviet Union also entered Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia and incorporated them into the Soviet Union as republics. After the Soviet Union joined the war on the side of the Allies in 1941, German forces overran the three Baltic countries and occupied them, with local support, until Soviet troops recaptured them toward the end of the war.

The White House first publicly inserted itself into the quarrel when Mr. Bush sent a letter ahead of his trip to the Baltic leaders that noted that he was coming to celebrate the defeat of Hitler, but that the end of World War II "also marked the Soviet occupation and annexation of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania and the imposition of Communism."

The letter provoked the angry response from the Russians on Thursday, which in turn prompted the retort from the Latvian president on Friday.

For his part, Mr. Putin said in an interview with German television made public by the Kremlin on Friday that Russia did not need to continually apologize for the "tragedy" inflicted on the Baltic nations.

In a May 4 interview with the CBS program "60 Minutes," to be broadcast on Sunday, Mr. Putin also reiterated complaints that America should not be lecturing him about rollbacks on democracy when "four years ago your presidential election was decided by the court."