For Latvia, Russian 'occupation' still rankles

President Bush visits Friday to commemorate the end of World War II.

Pauls Raudseps was once part of the movement that wrested this tiny Baltic nation from behind the Iron Curtain 15 years ago this week.

Today, as an editor at Diena, Latvia's largest daily newspaper, he sits behind a desk in a spacious newsroom office right out of an Ikea catalogue. "It's almost impossible to describe how much things have changed," says Mr. Raudseps.

The towers that once scrambled the signals of Radio Free Europe and Voice of America are gone. Bread, meat, and potatoes - some of the only things you'd find on shelves in Soviet times - now take their place next to fresh mangoes, jars of sun-dried tomatoes, and tubes of wasabi sauce. There have been four elections since 1991, and last year the country joined the European Union.

Latvians are among the region's poster children for economic progress and democracy, and President Bush is expected to tout that when he arrives here Friday on a week-long trip to four countries. Ostensibly he is traveling to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Allied victory in World War II, which Mr. Bush will mark in official ceremonies in the Netherlands and Moscow.

But a larger political message will bookend those stops. In recent months the Bush administration has been critical of Russia for, it says, a pattern of meddling in the politics of neighboring countries - notably Ukraine last fall - while backsliding on democracy at home. By choosing to begin the tour here and end it next week in Georgia, the White House is making this part of its democratic push around the world by singling out two former Soviet satellites that have journeyed from oppression to opportunity.

"This visit basically confirms our stance, the legitimacy, the success of our transition in the last 15 years," says Artis Pabriks, Latvia's foreign minister, in an interview.

Russia has an uneasy relationship with its former protectorates. Georgia's so-called Rose Revolution in 2003, which ousted former Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze as president, was widely praised in the West. Russia also threw its weight behind the losing candidate in December's Ukraine election, only to have the pro-Western Viktor Yushchenko ride to victory. And Moscow remains critical of what it says is Latvia's widespread mistreatment of its sizable Russian minority.

This trip is Bush's first to the former Eastern bloc since meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Slovakia in February. At that meeting, Bush expressed concern about Mr. Putin's recent dismissal of Russia's governors in favor of Kremlin appointees. At a tense press conference, Bush called on Putin to be more committed to the advancement of democracy.

"That was a very, very important political message, because the European Union and member states are very hesitant to discuss in an open way any unpleasant developments in Russia," says Zaneta Ozolina, a professor of political science at the University of Latvia. "Bush's message was very important for us."

The Baltics have always been a thorny issue in relations between Russia and Western powers. They were the only satellites to be previously independent before they were folded into the Soviet Union, in 1940. Throughout the cold war the US maintained a position that the Baltics were occupied territories - a fact few here have forgotten.

Latvia, a country roughly the size of West Virginia with a population of 2.3 million, has a particularly tense relationship with Russia. President Vaira Vike-Freiberga is Western-educated and Western-leaning. When the Kremlin extended invitations to heads of states to attend its WWII victory celebrations in Red Square on May 9 - a date Baltics associate with the start of the Soviet occupation - Ms. Vike-Freiberga was the only Baltic president to accept. But in doing so she publicly called on Russia to acknowledge its Baltic occupation, a move that irked Moscow but pleased Latvians. Russia denies the claims of occupation, saying it moved troops to those countries with the consent of the local governments.

Riga, the largest and most cosmopolitan city in the Baltics, was a favorite Soviet-era retirement destination for middle-class Russians who could not afford the high rents in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Kiev. Far more Russians migrated to Latvia in Soviet times than to neighboring Estonia and Lithuania, and ethnic Russians still make up a third of the population.

That creates tensions, and keeps the issue of Russian relations on the minds of many Latvians. "We need this," says university student Davis Meike, referring to Bush's visit. "It is important for Latvia to show that it is an important, stable country."

Amid a gathering of hundreds of citizens on Riga's Freedom Square this week, a large group of ethnic Russians protested recent legislation that required their passing a Latvian language test before obtaining citizenship. "We have no rights here; Russians have no rights here," said Igor, a 20-year-old student who declined to give his last name.

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