By Fred Hiatt, The Washington Post
May 7, 2007
In 1994, Russian President Boris Yeltsin and his Estonian counterpart, the
polymath Lennart Meri, chummily drank together in a Kremlin chamber as their
foreign ministers labored nearby to complete a historic treaty to withdraw
all Russian troops from the tiny Baltic state.
When it was time to celebrate the finished draft, Yeltsin mocked his own
foreign minister, Andrei Kozyrev, for his weak drinking skills -- "Bring the
boy some ice cream," he roared to an attendant -- but approved the
agreement. That may have been the high-water mark of Russia's willingness to
face its imperialist history and allow its neighbors to live in peace.
How far Russia has regressed since then became shockingly evident last week
when Vladimir Putin's Russia (population: 143 million) unleashed a barrage
against neighboring Estonia (population: 1.34 million) that included Kremlin
cyber-attacks on official Estonian Web sites, gangs of Kremlin-sponsored
youths menacing Estonian diplomats in Moscow, Russian officials and
government-controlled media spewing incendiary propaganda, Russian companies
suspending contracts with Estonian firms and, in predictably Putinian
fashion, Russian threats to cut off the tiny nation's energy supplies.
(Suddenly, the Russian railway announced, all its coal-carrying railcars
were in desperate need of repair.) The onslaught illustrated the dangerous
real-world consequences of mythologizing history -- of Putin's glorification
of Stalinism -- and the link between Russia's atrophied democracy and its
increasingly aggressive foreign policy.
The episode began on April 26 when Estonia began relocating a Soviet-era war
memorial and the remains of a dozen Soviet soldiers buried beneath it from a
central square in the capital, Tallinn, to a nearby military cemetery.
Russian-speaking youth, after meeting with Russian diplomats, rioted in
protest. Russia's foreign minister attacked this "disgusting . . .
blasphemy." The upper house of Russia's parliament demanded a severing of
relations. The Kremlin-controlled press furiously (and inaccurately)
assailed the "dismantling" of the statue.
Why such a fuss? To Russians, the statue was a tribute to their overwhelming
losses in World War II -- which they know as the Great Patriotic War. To
Estonians, it was a reminder of a half-century of Soviet occupation during
which the Kremlin shot thousands of Balts; sent hundreds of thousands to
Siberia; moved hundreds of thousands of Russians in to take their places;
and tried to eradicate their culture, their language and any memory of
The trouble is that Russia has never acknowledged this history, and under
Putin it grows less and less willing to do so. The passing of the Soviet
Union is mourned, the old KGB is celebrated -- imagine if Germans continued
to honor the Gestapo -- and the current independence of former Soviet states
is treated as a transitory error. Neither Putin nor even his foreign
minister has deigned to pay a bilateral visit to independent Tallinn.
Virtually every neighbor -- Georgia, Ukraine, Latvia, Lithuania, even
Finland -- has been subjected to bullying.
"It seems they cannot tolerate any democracy on their borders," Estonian
President Toomas Ilves told me in a phone conversation late Friday night. He
sounded weary after a week of crisis, but hopeful that tensions would ease,
particularly after Estonia had received support from the West, including an
invitation that day from President Bush for Ilves to visit the White House
Democracy in Estonia or Georgia, Ilves suggested, calls into question
Kremlin claims that "Western-style" democracy won't work in that part of the
world. An absence of democracy at home, in turn, makes it awkward to face
history, "because if you start saying the Soviet Union was bad, well, what
was at fault? One-party rule, a lack of human rights?" -- it's all too
Russian leaders dwell inordinately on the lack of respect paid them -- but
the more they stifle democracy at home, the less cause others have to show
respect and the more the Kremlin ends up having to demand respect in a
Soviet way. "Now Germany commands a tremendous amount of respect," Ilves
told me, "not because people any longer are afraid of it, but because it is
a thriving and effective country.
"For Russia, respect is based not on achievement or accomplishment, but
intimidation and fear -- that was the 'greatness' of the Soviet Union."
Yeltsin, for all his drinking and Siberian gruffness, had at least glimmers
of understanding that Russia could become a greater country by withdrawing
unwanted troops than by imposing them. Putin, clean-cut and fit, seems the
more modern man. But his troops remain in parts of neighboring Georgia and
Moldova, and no decisive Kremlin summits to solve those problems, with vodka
or ice cream, seem likely anytime soon.
Octobr 17, 2008 - President Bush Discusses the Visa Waiver Program
Office of the Press Secretary/
White House News
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you all. (Applause.) Please be seated, thank you. Welcome to the White House. I'm pleased to stand with the representatives of seven countries -- the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, and South Korea -- that have met the requirements to be admitted to the United States Visa Waiver Program. Soon the citizens of these nations will be able to travel to the United States for business or tourism without a visa. I congratulate these close friends and allies on this achievement, and I thank you for joining us here.
I also thank Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of the Homeland -- Department of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff for working hard to make sure this day has finally arrived. Appreciate other members of the administration here and members of the Diplomatic Corps.
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