Russia issued a testy rebuke of President Bush yesterday on the eve of his departure for Europe, denying that Moscow had forcibly occupied the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia in 1940. This restatement of a Soviet view of history provoked a new round of controversy over modern Russia's intentions toward the now-independent states.
The statement came in response to a letter that Bush sent to the leader of Latvia. In it, the president acknowledged that the upcoming 60th anniversary of the end of World War II marked a tragic moment for the three tiny nations because during the conflict they were "occupied" by Soviet troops and absorbed into the Soviet Union against their will.
Latvian soldiers march during a rehearsal in Riga, the capital, ahead of a visit by President Bush.
(Pawel Kopczynski -- Reuters)
Bush leaves this morning for Riga, the Latvian capital, before heading to Moscow for the anniversary festivities.
Sergei Yastrzhembsky, the Russian ambassador to the European Union, convened a news conference in Moscow to insist that Soviet forces were invited into the Baltic states by their governments, an assertion that was the official Soviet line for half a century.
"One cannot use the term 'occupation' to describe those historical events," Yastrzhembsky said, according to news accounts. "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."
A statement on the Russian Foreign Ministry Web site elaborated on that view, contending that under international law there was no occupation "because there was no state of war between the USSR and the Baltic states and no military actions were being conducted and the troops were introduced on the basis of an agreement."
In what was known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin sealed a secret agreement with Adolf Hitler of Germany in 1939 to divide Poland and guarantee control over Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. Soviet troops moved into the Baltic states the next year, on the pretense of responding to invitations. The states regained their independence in 1991.
In protest of the long Soviet rule, the leaders of Lithuania and Estonia are boycotting the anniversary celebration in Moscow on Monday, while President Vaira Vike-Freiberga of Latvia agreed to go only following Bush's visit. U.S. officials have said that they privately tried to persuade Russian President Vladimir Putin to use the anniversary to renounce the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact but that he refused.
Kaspars Ozolins, counselor at the Latvian Embassy in Washington, said he was not surprised that Russia would deny an occupation. "But what is surprising and regretful is they're using more of this aggressive, nationalistic rhetoric and they're moving away from what other democratic and free countries are thinking about the past," he said.
In several interviews with Baltic journalists yesterday, Bush did not use the word "occupation," instead referring to "the form of government imposed upon Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia."
But he said he discussed the matter with Putin during a February meeting in Slovakia and would repeat the message in Moscow on Sunday. "Yes, of course I'll remind him of that," Bush said. "I told him in Slovakia that I felt it was important for him to understand that my friends, the leaders of the Baltics, are upset; in other words, they don't view the end of World War II as a great moment of celebration. And there's a reason why."