Rights and Remembrance

By Vaira Vike-Freiberga
Saturday, May 7, 2005

RIGA, Latvia -- As the president of a country that suffered immensely under Soviet and Nazi rule, I recently faced a dilemma. I had to decide whether to accept an invitation from Russian President Vladimir Putin to attend a rally in Moscow on Monday. That is the date when Russia traditionally celebrates its military victory over Nazi Germany, and this year is particularly significant, as it marks the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe.

Numerous heads of state and government, including George W. Bush, Jacques Chirac, Gerhard Schroeder and Silvio Berlusconi, had already said they would attend the Moscow celebrations. But unlike in France, Norway, Denmark, Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands or Austria, the collapse of the Nazi empire did not lead to my country's liberation.

Instead, with the full acquiescence of the western Allied powers, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia were reoccupied and annexed by the Soviet Union, while a dozen other countries in Central and Eastern Europe experienced renewed repression and decades of totalitarian rule as powerless satellite states of the Soviet empire.

Latvia certainly rejoices with the rest of the world at the fall of Hitler's regime. Like numerous other European countries, my country suffered immensely under the German occupation, which lasted in Latvia from 1941 to 1945. During that time, the Germans and their local accomplices carried out the most heinous and large-scale crimes against humanity ever committed on Latvian soil. They murdered about 100,000 of Latvia's inhabitants, including more than 90 percent of the country's prewar Jewish community, as well as tens of thousands of other Jews whom they transported into Latvia from other parts of Europe.

The Nazis also drafted some 115,000 Latvian men into various German military units. Thousands more people were shipped to Germany as forced labor. For a country with a population of less than 2 million, these figures represented a staggering loss.

But Latvia's so-called liberation by Soviet troops in 1944-45 materialized in the form of another calamity, accompanied as it was by the customary rapes, lootings and wanton killings that the Red Army committed in a systematic manner throughout the territories it occupied, and that continued in Latvia well after the end of the war. These were followed by still more killings, repression and wave after wave of mass deportations, the last taking place in 1949.

After the war, Germany made great efforts to atone for the unspeakable crimes committed under the Nazi regime. This process began with an honest evaluation of the country's Nazi-era history and continued with Germany's unequivocal renunciation of its totalitarian past. Russia would gain immensely by acting in a similar manner and by expressing its genuine regret for the crimes of the Soviet regime. Until Russia does so, it will continue to be haunted by the ghosts of its past, and its relations with its immediate neighbors will remain uneasy at best.

In the end, though, I accepted President Putin's invitation, because I believe that the Allied victory over Nazi Germany should be seen as a victory of democratic values over totalitarianism and tyranny. These values form the very basis of our common social contract and lie at the foundations of our civil societies. We the democratic nations of the world value respect for human life and dignity. We value compassion for the suffering of others, tolerance of differences and diversity, and freedom of choice and action, so long as it does not result in harm to anybody else. We value the rule of law as a basis for justice.

For decades after the war, Europe's former captive nations, including Latvia and Russia, were robbed of the opportunity to flourish and to prosper in the framework of these values. And it is on these core values that the perspectives of our long-term partnership with Russia will depend. That is why all democratic nations must urge Russia to condemn the crimes committed during the Soviet era in the name of communism. Russia must face up and come to honest terms with its history, just as Germany did after the end of World War II, and just as my own country is doing today.

The writer is president of Latvia.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company