President Bush stepped into the middle of an escalating fight between Russia and the Baltic nations tonight as he arrived in the capital of Latvia at the start of a five-day trip to Europe.
Mr. Bush's trip, to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Allied defeat of Nazi Germany with more than 50 other world leaders in Red Square on Monday, has brought forth an angry exhuming of post-World War II arguments in the region. The now-independent Baltic nations see the anniversary as the beginning of their unlawful annexation by the Soviet Union, and today Latvia stepped up demands that the Russians apologize for five decades of occupation.
The president added to the fire tonight. In an interview with the Lithuanian state television network that the White House released shortly before Air Force One landed in Riga, Mr. Bush said he had spoken to Mr. Putin about the Baltics at their last meeting in February. Mr. Bush also complained at the time about what he considered Mr. Putin's retreat from democracy.
"I said, do you understand, friend, that you've got problems in the Baltics?" Mr. Bush said, adding that he told Mr. Putin that "the remembrances of the time of Communism are unpleasant remembrances and you need to work with these young democracies."
Mr. Bush then said, "I don't know if I made any progress with him or not, but I have made my position clear."
Daniel Fried, the assistant secretary of State for the European and Eurasian Affairs bureau, went further with reporters on Air Force One, saying that the only "true narrative" of World War II is "ours" and that what the Russians "don't like to remember is what they were doing from 1939 to 1941," which he said was forging a secretive alliance with Hitler. The action is known to history as the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, the non-aggression treaty between the Nazis and Stalin that led to the Soviet occupation of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.
The White House first publicly inserted itself into the quarrel when Mr. Bush sent a letter ahead of his trip to the Baltic leaders that noted that he was coming to commemorate the defeat of Hitler, but that the end of World War II "also marked the Soviet occupation and annexation of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania and the imposition of Communism."
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