- The Washington Times - Friday, May 6, 2005

RIGA, Latvia — President Bush stepped off Air Force One yesterday into a simmering dispute between Russia and the Baltics, and immediately sought to take the diplomatic middle ground between the two longtime foes.

?I think that the main complaint would be that the form of government that the Baltics had to live with was not of their choosing,? the president said in a White House interview with foreign reporters before departing on his five-day trip.

The carefully worded answer split the difference between what Baltic leaders say — that their nations were occupied by the Soviet Union after the end of World War II — and what the Kremlin says — that there was no occupation, only agreements between the Soviets and the legitimately elected governments in the Baltics.

As the president began his trip, centered on a celebration in Moscow to commemorate the end of World War II, he told European reporters that ?my job time to time is to send a message: Look, treat your neighbors with respect.?

?Free nations, democracies on your borders, are good for you, whether they are Baltic states, Ukraine, Georgia,? he said. He will visit the latter at the end of his trip.

Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin stoked the flames of bitterness, saying that the Baltic states, occupied by the Soviet Union after the end of World War II, are trying to cover up collaboration with the Nazis.

?Our Baltic neighbors … continue to demand some kind of repentance from Russia,? he wrote in a commentary to be issued in the French daily Le Figaro yesterday.

?I think they are trying to attract attention to themselves, to justify a discriminatory and reprehensible policy of their governments towards a large Russian-speaking part of their own population, to mask the shame of past collaboration,? he wrote.

While Mr. Bush told reporters before leaving that ?the leaders of the Baltics are upset? and ?don’t view the end of World War II as a great moment of celebration. And there’s a reason why,? he also said in an interview aired in Moscow last night that the Baltic leaders must commit to recognizing minority rights to move forward as democracies. ?The will of the majority can’t trample the minority,? he said.

The statement was seen as a nod to Moscow’s concerns about the treatment of Russian-speaking people in the three ex-Soviet republics, especially Latvia, where they make up nearly a third of the population.

Mr. Bush today will meet with Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga, then hold a joint press conference with all three Baltic leaders, including those of Lithuania and Estonia, who have rejected an invitation to attend the Moscow ceremony because of Russia’s unwillingness to denounce the Soviet annexation of their countries.

He will travel then to Maastricht, Netherlands, and speak tomorrow to an expected 10,000 people at an American cemetery in Margraten where the remains of 8,300 U.S. troops, killed during the assault on Germany, are buried.

Afterward, the president will fly to Moscow and meet privately with Mr. Putin. On Monday, Mr. Bush will attend the Red Square ceremony with 56 world leaders.

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