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Putin: No More Wars

DW staff / AFP (sp)May 9, 2005

A parade commemorating the end of World War II closed on Monday with world leaders paying tribute at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The event was clouded by a debate over Moscow's postwar behavior.

Celebrating 60 years of victoryImage: AP

A spectacular parade commemorating the end of World War II closed on Monday with world leaders paying tribute at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier, after an airborne flypast.

Russian jets left the white, red and white colors of the Russian flag hanging in the sky over Red Square after the hour-long parade, the centerpiece of commemorations of the 60th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany.

60 Jahrestag Kriegsende Moskau
Soldiers marching during the parade's dress rehearsal SundayImage: AP

Over 50 world leaders attended the lavish parade including German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and US President George W. Bush, who sat next to Russian host Vladimir Putin.

In his keynote speech, Putin vowed to ensure that there would never be a repeat of either the Cold War or a real war.

Putin also hailed reconciliation between Russia and Germany as "one of the most important post-war achievements" in Europe.

"Faced with today's real threats of terrorism, we must remain faithful to the memory of our fathers," he said. "We must defend a world order based on security and justice, on a new culture of mutual relations which do not allow any repetition of either Cold Wars or hot wars."

Putin bei Militärparade 60 Jahre nach Kriegsende in Moskau
Bush (center) with Russia's President Putin and Putin's wifeImage: dpa

Rain which had threatened to overshadow the ceremonies held off as the parade got underway, also watched by ranks of veterans in full regalia who were among the privileged guests.

While the official program centers on commemorating the Allied victory 60 years ago, it is the unscripted crescendo of recriminations between Russia and the many countries it dominated from the end of the war until recently, that may determine how this week's events are remembered.

Bush's Latvia trip deepens tensions

The parade had been clouded by stormy debate over Moscow's post-war occupation of central and eastern Europe.

Diplomatic exchanges reached a fever pitch as Bush visited Latvia ahead of his trip to Russia, with leaders of the three ex-Soviet Baltic republics demanding that Moscow apologize for postwar Soviet occupation of their countries and Putin saying Moscow had done enough already.

George Bush mit Präsidenten von Estland Lettland und Litauen
Bush with Baltic leaders: Estonia's President Arnold Rüütel, Lithuania's President Valdas Adamkus and Latvia's President Vaira Vike-Freiberga on SaturdayImage: AP

In a letter to Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga prior to his arrival in Riga, Bush expressed sympathy with the grievances of former Soviet-bloc states in eastern Europe.

For them, he said, the end of World War II "marked the Soviet occupation and annexation" of the Baltic states "and the imposition of communism" in much of central and eastern Europe.

The Latvian leader said Bush's very presence in Riga was an acknowledgment of the "double meaning" of the war.

Soviet losses

According to fresh official figures, the Soviet Union lost 26.6 million people in four years of savage fighting with Germany, far more than all other Allied countries combined. And it is the Soviet Union, many historians agree, that deserves the most credit for defeating the Nazis.

That is the message that Putin aimed to get across.

"Our people did not just defend their own homeland -- they liberated 11 European states," he said on Sunday. "On the field of battle from the Barents Sea to the Caucasus the aggressor's military machine was broken."

It is precisely this point -- the notion that the Soviet Union in fact "liberated" anyone at all after defeating the Nazis -- that has reignited latent passions in Europe, rekindled historical debate and as a result, to an extent, subverted Russia's V-Day celebration even before it began.

Stalin Jahrestag in Moskau
Stalin is still honored by someImage: AP

Russia, reeling not just from the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 but from continuing anti-Moscow "revolts" in its nearest neighbors and trying to retain a measure of coherence in its own state, appears uninterested in any more expressions of regret for its 20th-century past.

"It makes you want to ask: What would have happened to you if we hadn't broken the backbone of fascism? Would your people be among the living today?" Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said in an interview with the daily Rossiyskaya Gazeta published Wednesday.

Conciliatory tones

Speaking to German media last week, however, Putin seemed to strike a more conciliatory note. The Soviet takeover of the Baltics, he said, was a "tragedy" for the Baltic peoples, but the former Soviet leadership had already repudiated a 1939 secret deal with Nazi Germany that let it happen.

Gerhard Schröder - Russland Weltkrieg Jahrestag
Schröder and his wife at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Moscow on MondayImage: AP

And in an article published in the Russian daily Komsomolskaya Pravda on Sunday, German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder asked for "forgiveness for the suffering inflicted upon the Russian people and other peoples at the hands of Germans and in the name of Germans."

"For no other country was the cost of victory over Hitler's Germany so high as for the peoples of the Soviet Union," he wrote. "Losses of over 26 million people and indescribable destruction were the frightening result of World War II for the former Soviet Union."