By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 5, 2005
As troops march past and planes streak overhead, President Bush will assume his place in the reviewing stand on Red Square in front of Lenin's tomb, marking the 60th anniversary of the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany -- an event that also ushered in decades of totalitarianism for half of Europe.
For a president who has made it his mission to champion democracy around the world, Bush's trip to Europe starting Friday presents one of the trickiest diplomatic challenges of his young second term, an uncomfortable balancing act of honoring the enormous Russian sacrifice during World War II without condoning the repression that followed.
In a complex choreography to avoid sending the wrong signal, Bush will bracket his visit to Moscow with stops in two former Soviet republics that still resist Kremlin influence, Latvia and Georgia. Yet his attempt to prod Russian President Vladimir Putin into owning up to the dark side of the Soviet past evidently has failed. The Bush administration, U.S. sources said, privately tried to persuade Putin to use the occasion to renounce Stalin's agreement with Hitler dividing up Poland and permitting the Soviet Union to swallow up Latvia and its Baltic neighbors.
The dying Soviet Union finally disavowed the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of 1939 under Mikhail Gorbachev in 1989, but Putin described it this year as merely an effort by Moscow "to ensure its interests and its security on its western borders," and the Kremlin told the Americans he saw no need to renounce it, the sources said. Then in his state of the nation address last week, Putin termed the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 that freed the Baltic states, Georgia and other republics "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century."
A senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Bush's team designed the trip "not to fall into the Russian trap about the past" and "go to a World War II commemoration on Red Square in front of Lenin's tomb celebrating something that was not liberation for a lot of Europe. A lot of people, not just the Balts, see it as trading one dictatorship for another." So "we tried to refine the trip to talk about important matters for the 21st century."
At a briefing yesterday, national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley deflected an in-depth discussion of the Soviet legacy. "While acknowledging the past, we ought to be talking about ways to move forward and advance those [democratic] principles not only in Europe but also beyond," he said.
Without mentioning the stymied private-channels U.S. lobbying, Hadley added that Moscow should renounce Molotov-Ribbentrop, as the Congress of People's Deputies did 16 years ago. "Obviously it would be an appropriate thing for Russia, now having emerged out of the Soviet Union, to do the same thing," he said.
The ceremony Monday will allow Putin to showcase his attempt to rebuild Russia into a great power as he hosts 56 world leaders, including German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, Chinese President Hu Jintao, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, French President Jacques Chirac and probably British Prime Minister Tony Blair. For Russia, May 9 remains the most resonant holiday on the calendar as the nation commemorates 27 million killed in what it calls the Great Patriotic War.
President Bill Clinton faced a similar conundrum when he visited Moscow in 1995 for the 50th anniversary. He decided to boycott the military parade in protest of the brutal Russian war in Chechnya but attended ceremonies in the Kremlin with then-President Boris Yeltsin.
Bush, who will also stop in the Netherlands to visit a cemetery of U.S. soldiers, will balance his Moscow trip with visits to Latvia and Georgia. "In Western Europe, the end of World War II meant liberation," Bush wrote recently to the Latvian president. "In Central and Eastern Europe, the war also marked the Soviet occupation and annexation of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania and the imposition of communism."
In the Latvian capital of Riga before the Moscow ceremony, Bush will meet with the presidents of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania -- all recently inducted NATO members -- and visit a monument to Latvian independence from the Soviet Union. After leaving Moscow, he will fly to Tbilisi to meet with Georgia's President Mikheil Saakashvili, who led the bloodless Rose Revolution in 2003 that toppled a corrupt government and helped trigger similar uprisings in Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan.
In a nod to Russian sensibilities, Bush will deliver private messages to the Latvians and Georgians to work with Moscow, officials said. In Latvia, Bush will urge greater respect for its sizable Russian-speaking minority population; in Georgia, he will warn Saakashvili against provocative actions in the Moscow-aligned separatist region of South Ossetia.
"This is quite a test for sophisticated diplomacy here," said Fiona Hill, a scholar at the Brookings Institution. "I'd say hats off if they can pull this off."
While Bush pushed Putin on the Kremlin's moves to roll back democratic advances during a meeting in Slovakia in February, the president plans no public confrontation in Moscow. The Kremlin has taken over television, tamed parliament, jailed business tycoons and eliminated elections of regional governors. A court was scheduled to hand down a verdict last week in the trial of oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, but the ruling was postponed until after Bush leaves.
Instead, aides said, Bush will raise the matter during a private meeting and perhaps at a dinner at Putin's country house. Bush will also meet beleaguered human rights and civil society advocates in a symbolic show of support for those resisting Putin's monopoly of power.
Bush has come under pressure to do more to challenge Putin, whom he considers a friend. Reps. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) and Christopher Cox (R-Calif.) reintroduced a measure this week calling for Russia to be expelled from the Group of Eight industrialized nations, which Putin will host next year.
On the other side, Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.), a leading advocate of closer ties with Russia, criticized Bush for not doing more to work with Moscow on issues such as missile defense and energy. "Shortsighted political fixes [and] sending letters to the New York Times tweaking Putin are not the answer," Weldon said during an angry, lectern-thumping speech yesterday. "To me, that's superficial, it's sophomoric."
During their brief meeting, aides said, Bush and Putin plan to discuss Iran, North Korea and Middle East peace as well as developments in the former Soviet Union. Bush wants to reassure Putin, who has been leery of recent revolutions in his neighborhood, that the United States is not trying to curtail Moscow's regional influence.
But Bush's visit to Moscow will bring no concrete agreements, officials said. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made a strong push to resolve a years-long logjam over liability that has held up joint ventures such as the disposal of weapons-grade plutonium, officials said, but failed. Officials hope to reach an agreement by the time Bush and Putin meet at the G-8 meeting in July.
"The trip is to a large degree, particularly the Moscow stop, about symbolism, rather than deliverables," a senior administration official said. "It means a lot to Putin. [But] we're not sweeping under the rug what happened after the war."