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Russia marks wartime victory, papers over tensions

Reuters | May 9, 2005
By Julie Tolkacheva

MOSCOW - Russia on Monday marked World War Two victory with Red Square pageantry in front of world leaders, trumpeting its huge wartime role but masking tensions in post-war ties with its neighbours.

World leaders who included U.S. President George W. Bush and China's Hu Jintao, then shifted into high diplomacy, holding a series of informal meetings that touched on issues such as terrorism, North Korea and the Middle East.

Russian President Vladimir Putin stood shoulder to shoulder with Bush as troops and war veterans marched and drove across the cobbled Red Square, once the scene of Cold War displays of Soviet military might, to the strains of martial music.

For Putin the ceremony was a rare high point after a period marked by faltering ties with Washington and ex-Soviet allies.

"Grief came to every home, every family," he said, declaring that the world owed "great human thanks" to the nearly 27 million Soviet citizens who died.

Russian security forces sealed off the Kremlin area and Red Square to celebrating Muscovites for fear of a repeat of the Chechen rebels attacks that have marked past May 9 celebrations.

World leaders -- with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi representing the vanquished nations -- laid flowers at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the foot of the towering Kremlin walls.

Bush and others stood on a tribune in front of the marble mausoleum, hidden for the occasion behind a huge display, that holds the mummified body of Soviet state founder Vladimir Lenin. It was atop this tomb that dictator Josef Stalin greeted victorious Soviet troops 60 years ago.

At one point, proceedings were threatened by heavy rain.

But, using a well-practised Russian procedure for such occasions, air force planes dispersed the clouds just in time for the parade to pass off under clear skies.

Putin shook hands warmly with Bush whom he entertained on Sunday night at his country retreat west of Moscow, showing no sign of the strains that have followed Washington's charges that democracy is ailing in Russia.

Grey-haired war veterans, their breasts heavy with war medals and decorations and many perhaps observing their last Victory Day, were driven past Putin and Bush in old World War Two open trucks, waving bunches of red carnations.

POLITICAL HORIZON CLOUDED

Though world leaders paid due homage to huge Soviet war losses, the pageant could not quite hide political tensions.

Leaders of two Baltic nations boycotted the gathering and others pressed for Russia to revise the official view of its Soviet past.

The Baltic nations say the defeat of Nazi Germany meant for them the beginning of a second tyranny under Soviet communist rule. Putin has refused their demand for public atonement.

"A country has to come to terms with its past, and it should express sorrow that such things happened in those days of the Soviet Union," Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga, the only Baltic leader to attend the festivities, told British Sky News.

Putin made no mention of the discord but in his Red Square speech, he said: "Russia is ready to build such relations with our closest neighbours and with all states in the world which are cemented not only by lessons of the past but aimed at our common future."

World leaders, who include representatives of the six countries trying to negotiate an end to the crisis around North Korea's nuclear ambitions, seized the occasion for separate contacts among themselves.

Officials of the Middle East "quartet" of mediators -- the United Nations, European Union, United States and Russia -- used the occasion to press both sides in the conflict to build on the momentum from Israel's withdrawal plans and Palestinian reforms.

China's Hu met Putin in the Kremlin after the Red Square parade and announced he would visit Russia in July.

Energy-hungry China looks to neighbouring Russia as a major potential supplier of oil to fuel its booming economy.

Hu and South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun met on Sunday and their countries later called on North Korea to come back to stalled talks aimed at ending Pyongyang's nuclear programmes.

Putin was also due to have one-to-one meetings with Koizumi as well as Schroeder and France's Jacques Chirac.

Recent months have seen tensions between Moscow and Washington over Russia's reaction to uprisings in ex-Soviet Ukraine and Georgia that installed West-leaning leaders and drew the countries outside Moscow's sphere of influence.

Georgia's Mikhail Saakashvili boycotted the ceremonies over failure to reach a deal on the closure of two Soviet-era military bases that house about 3,000 Russian soldiers.

Bush, who raised the sensitive issue of democracy inside Russia with Putin on Sunday night, was due to visit Georgia later on Monday.

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