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End of the War but not of occupation

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The Moscow celebrations marking the liberation of Europe from Nazism were attended by heads of state from around the world. But for some countries, namely the Baltic States and Poland, the anniversary has them seeing red all over again.

The end of the Second World War is supposed to be a celebration of the victory over fascism and the defeat of Nazi Germany. But what if the end of the war also marks the beginning of the Soviet occupation of your country that lasted until 1991, as it does with the three Baltic countries of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia? What if the liberating Red Army turned into an occupation that eventually allowed the Soviet Union to impose its ideologies and political system on your country that would last for the next 45 years, as was the case in Poland? If you are from one of these countries or even the head of state, you might feel uncomfortable or down right angry at the idea of going to Moscow and risk sending the message that your presence some how legitimises the accomplishments of the Red Army, the very military that played such an important role in defeating Hitler but which also enforced the rule of pro-Stalin communist governments in Poland, Czechoslovakia (modern day Czech Republic and Slovakia) Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and East Germany.

Two sides of the same coin

For many who lived through the hardship and suffering under the years of communism or feel its lingering effects in the present day, the frustration that Russia would accept the Soviet contribution to the end of the Second World War but not acknowledge how the results of the war cleared the way for the Soviets to exert their influence westwards is hard to swallow. Of the three Baltic presidents invited to attend the commemoration, only President Vaira Vike-Freiberga of Latvia will be present. She herself has been a sharp critic of the Kremlin and, in a statement released this past January regarding the May 9 anniversary, she made it clear that the blame for the beginning of the war should be shared equally between Hitler and Stalin. Referring to the 1939 Non-Aggression Pact, when Hitler agreed to give the Soviets the Baltic States and eastern Poland in return for not joining in a possible future war against Germany, she stated, “humanity's most devastating conflict might not have occurred, had the two totalitarian regimes of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union not agreed to secretly divide the territories of Eastern Europe amongst themselves”.

In Poland too there was debate over whether or not President Aleksander Kwasniewski should attend the celebrations. Although he shares Latvia’s desire for Russia to acknowledge the post-war sufferings of countries under communism, he justified his choice to go by pointing out “we should not overlook the common [Soviet] soldiers who liberated Poland and our country’s friends”. Whether or not this is the main motivation for him going, considering he also said "we should not insult the Russian nation, because this may have consequences for our future relations" is open to interpretation. Still, he is concerned that the truth be heard this May 9 and was able to secure the support of the majority of Polish people with the idea that he would be speaking out.

The anniversary as a symbol of reconciliation

According to President Putin, Russia would like the coming celebrations in Moscow’s Red Square to be “a symbol of reconciliation in Europe in general”. This is indeed a fitting theme for such an event, both as related to the state of European relations left greatly strained by end of the war, as well as with more recent events such as the ‘reunification’ of Europe with the inclusion of eight post-communist countries in the European Union. If President Putin is truly interested in acting on this reconciliatory symbolism, perhaps he could consider saying some words or making a gesture that might begin to address this issue.

It is true that Russia is not the Soviet Union and shouldn’t be expected to inherit all of its baggage. On the other hand, if Russia would like to move beyond the lingering bitterness that people from the Baltics and former satellite nations still harbour, there could not be a better time to recognise these feelings and respond to them, for the sake of improving tense relations between neighbours. In the meantime, without a word of condemnation for Soviet crimes, let alone even the slightest acknowledgement of the Soviet Union’s pre-war and post-war effect on the Baltics and the former Eastern Block, it might be a bit much to expect the leaders of those countries to stand in Red Square to watch Russian soldiers in appreciation as they parade by.