Bush Visits Latvia, Hails Baltic Democracy

President Bush stops in Latvia to mark the end of World War II fighting in Europe. His celebration of democracy in the Baltic states is seen as a message to Russian President Putin. The two leaders are preparing to meeting in Moscow.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Scott Simon is away. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

President Bush is in Latvia today on the first leg of a tour to mark the 60th anniversary of the Allied victory over Adolf Hitler in Europe. He is also headed on this trip to the Netherlands, Moscow and Georgia. V-E Day is a controversial milestone in the former Soviet republics, who associate the end of the war with the beginning of Soviet occupation. Already, Mr. Bush's itinerary has tested diplomatic relations between Baltic leaders, Russian President Vladimir Putin and the United States. In a speech just now, President Bush called Soviet domination in Central and Eastern Europe one of the greatest wrongs of history. NPR's White House correspondent Don Gonyea joins us from Riga.

Hi, Don.

DON GONYEA reporting:

Hi, there.

WERTHEIMER: So why did President Bush pick the Baltics to celebrate this particular anniversary?

GONYEA: Well, they are new members of NATO and allies of the US and Iraq. So President Bush takes every opportunity to use them as a symbol for the rest of the world of how precious democracy and freedom is because it's so new here. But the other thing this stop does is it provides a kind of balance or even a counterweight to what is the main event and the main reason for this European trip overall, and that is Monday's celebration in Moscow marking the 60th anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany in Europe.

Now there in Red Square, the president will join other world leaders for this big military proceeding, parade. That, of course, will all be hosted by Russian President Vladimir Putin. The catch is that for the Baltic states, when the war ended, they didn't get freedom. Hitler was gone, but he was replaced by Soviet occupation and Stalin. So this visit here it Latvia is a way for the president to tell these friends of the US that he understands that the history on this is complicated even at a time of celebration.

WERTHEIMER: Now when the president goes on to Moscow for V-E celebrations on Monday, Estonia and Lithuana will snub the event, but I gather that Latvia's president has said that she will be going even though--she talks about the crimes of the Red Army, the mass deportations following the war and so on.

GONYEA: That's right. The Baltic states were all invited to attend that parade and the ceremonies, and Latvia's president is going but she remains very critical toward Russia and its attitude toward the Baltics to this day. The presidents of Estonia and Lithuana and Latvia--all three are demanding that Russia apologize for the actions of the Soviet Union during the Cold War and that it apologize for the occupation of the Baltics and that it seek forgiveness.

Now Russia's Vladimir Putin has countered that the Soviet Union back in 1989 in its waning days did renounce its actions in the Baltics and that there's no need to do it again. Further, he kind of fires his own broadside. He says that the Baltics at times joined forces with the Nazi, and he says ethnic Russians who make their home in Latvia today are not treated well. So it goes back and forth.

WERTHEIMER: So is Mr. Bush's appearance in the Baltic states a problem for Vladimir Putin?

GONYEA: It is not, but it is a very tricky diplomatic dance that he is doing. He's got to lend support to the Baltics. He wants to send a message to Putin, but he also doesn't want to anger Putin because the US needs Russia, they need the friendship, and they're working together on a number of big things from North Korea to the possible nuclear threat posed by Iran.

WERTHEIMER: Thanks very much, Don.

GONYEA: My pleasure.

WERTHEIMER: NPR's Don Gonyea speaking from Riga.

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