Mr. Putin's History

Saturday, May 7, 2005

IN 1989 THE rubber-stamp parliament of the dying Soviet Union finally renounced the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, by which Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin agreed to divide up central Europe in 1939. The secret treaty, the Soviet body conceded, was a "deviation from Leninist norms" -- though that did not, in its view, justify independence for the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, which were invaded by Soviet troops in 1940 and still ruled from the Kremlin half a century later. Since then the Soviet Union has collapsed, and sovereign Baltic governments have joined NATO and the European Union; you might expect attitudes in Moscow to have evolved further.

In fact, as Russian President Vladimir Putin made clear in the run-up to his vainglorious celebration of victory in World War II on Monday, the change has gone in the opposite direction. Mr. Putin recently defended the notorious bargain with Nazi Germany as a step by the Soviet Union to "ensure its interest and its security on its western borders." His foreign ministry has hotly objected to the planned visits by President Bush to Latvia and the former Soviet republic of Georgia before and after the anniversary celebration, and to Mr. Bush's reference to the Soviet "occupation" of the Baltics in a letter to the Latvian president. "One cannot use 'occupation' to describe those historical events," the Russian ambassador to the European Union said Thursday, repeating the Stalinist propaganda.

Why is this important? Because Mr. Putin's neo-imperialism, like the huge celebration to which he has lured more than 50 world leaders, is intended to shape the uncertain identity of post-Soviet Russia. Mr. Putin would like that identity to be one of a respected world power (even if Russia's per capita income ranks behind 96 other countries), one that made the biggest contribution to the defeat of Germany 60 years ago and still wields geopolitical influence as well as a nuclear arsenal. Most Western leaders, including Mr. Bush, are ready to recognize that Russia; that is why they are traveling to Moscow.

But Mr. Putin's vision also contains elements that should deeply trouble the world. His is a power where "democracy" is mostly a facade, independent voices and private property are subject to arbitrary suppression and confiscation by the state, and aspirations for self-rule by non-Russian peoples, like the Chechens, are to be crushed by military force. Russia's neighbors, ranging from Central Asian republics to Georgia, Ukraine and the Baltic nations, are regarded not as truly independent states but as something like rogue provinces, rightfully ruled from Moscow in Soviet times and lost in a breakup that Mr. Putin recently described as "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century."

In fact, the greatest catastrophe of the past 100 years for Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia began with Molotov and Ribbentrop and continued with the victory Mr. Putin will celebrate Monday. For her country, Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga said yesterday, May 9 "meant slavery, it meant occupation, it meant subjugation, and it meant Stalinist terror."

Until Russia and its leaders can accept and fully repudiate that history, it won't be possible to unambiguously celebrate the conquest of Berlin, and it shouldn't be acceptable to treat as a strategic partner a Kremlin leader who can't bring himself to reject the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. "We already did it," an irritated Mr. Putin told a German television interviewer this week, referring to the 1989 Soviet parliament. "What, we have to do this every day, every year?" Actually, in his case, just once would be a good start.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company