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World Leaders Honor Soviet WWII Sacrifice

Associated Press | May 9, 2005

MOSCOW (AP) - World leaders whose countries faced off on the battlefields of World War II paid tribute Monday to the fallen soldiers and millions of civilian dead, joining Russian President Vladimir Putin on Red Square for a lavish military parade celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Allied victory over Nazi Germany.

Fighter jets screamed high over the square, streaming smoke in the white, blue and red colors of Russia's flag. Soldiers belted out patriotic wartime songs, and Putin emphasized the Soviet Union's sacrifice in a speech during a pageant that recalled the days of communist might.

Flanked by President Bush, French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, Putin said his country would never forget the debt owed to the millions of Soviet citizens who died to defeat Nazism.

He called the Allied triumph over the Nazis a "victory of good over evil."

"It obligates us to great responsibility and forces us to deeply recognize on what a ... precipice the world stood at that time, what monstrous consequences violence and moral intolerance, genocide and persecution of others could lead to," he said, speaking from a stage that blocked direct views of Lenin's Mausoleum.

The Soviet Union lost an estimated 27 million people during the conflict known here as the Great Patriotic War. Few families were untouched, and May 9, 1945, celebrated in Russia as Victory Day, remains sacred across most of the former Soviet Union.

Bush and Putin put aside their public sniping of recent days over postwar Soviet domination and present-day democratic backsliding in Russia.

Continuing the chummy exchanges that marked their discussions and dinner the evening before, the two smiled broadly when Bush arrived for the parade. As Bush lowered his umbrella, despite the rain, for a snapshot, Putin laughingly did the same.

Putin reserved the seat next to him for Bush - whom he called his guest of "special importance" above all others. Later, Bush remained glued to the Russian leader's side as they strolled, red carnations in hand, to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

While Russians have often complained that the Soviet role is not fully appreciated in the West, Putin said that "we have never divided the victory between ours and theirs, and we will always remember the help of the allies."

Under overcast skies, white-haired veterans bedecked in gleaming medals, some waving red carnations, rode across the cobblestone square in green trucks as the audience cheered.

The ceremony, full of Soviet imagery, began with four goose-stepping soldiers dressed in ceremonial green and gold embroidered uniforms carrying a red flag with a hammer and sickle - a replica of the banner of the Red Army's 150th Rifle Division, which was flown from the Reichstag on May 1, 1945, after the building in Berlin was seized.

The word "victory" was emblazoned on the Kremlin wall in several languages, including those of the vanquished.

Soldiers in modern and World War II-era uniforms - infantrymen with metal helmets and red flags topped by Soviet insignia, sappers with dogs, tank men with black padded helmets - marched in tight formation, the slap of their boots echoing across the cobblestones.

Putin thanked the Soviet Union's allies for their role and called for unity among the former Soviet republics - and the world.

"I'm convinced that there's no alternative to our fraternity, our friendship with our close neighbors. And Russia is prepared to build such ties with the rest of the world, that are strengthened not only by lessons of the past, but also by aspirations to our common future," he said.

Putin also drew a parallel between the war and the present-day threat of terrorism, saying today's generation is "obligated to remain true to the memory of our fathers, obligated to build a world order based on security and justice ... and not to allow a repeat of either cold or hot wars."

He celebrated the postwar reconciliation between Russia and Germany. And amid mutual accusations between Russia and the West of meddling in former Soviet republics, he said Russia stands for the right of all nations to choose their own way in the world.

"We build our policies on the ideals of freedom and democracy, on the right of every state to independently choose its own path of development," Putin said.

He and the other leaders laid red carnations and a huge carpet of red roses at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier outside the Kremlin Wall to honor soldiers who perished in World War II. They stood silently before the eternal flame burning at the tomb.

In a speech before raising a toast to veterans at a Kremlin reception, Putin called World War II "the most tragic event of the last century," the ITAR-Tass news agency reported. It was perhaps an effort to quash questions raised in the West last month by his calling the demise of the Soviet Union "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century."

Despite the show of unity, the celebrations have also sparked controversy, and thrown a spotlight on the precarious international position of Putin, who faces U.S. criticism on his democratic record and is struggling amid growing Western influence in the former Soviet republics.

The celebrations also have raised the ire of Eastern European nations who see World War II's end as the beginning of their domination by Moscow.

The leaders of two Baltic nations, Estonia and Lithuania, were staying away, angered by Putin's portrayal of the Soviet Union as a liberator despite decades of occupation.

Bush pointedly balanced his Moscow visit with a trip to the Baltic nation of Latvia, which he celebrated as a young democracy, and a planned stop Tuesday in Georgia, where a new pro-Western leadership is seeking to shed Russian influence.

Tight security measures on Monday closed the heart of the Russian capital to ordinary citizens and anti-aircraft batteries were on alert to protect the Russian capital's airspace. Moscow's security has been a matter of utmost concern amid a rash of attacks by Chechen terrorists over the past three years, including the seizure of hundreds of hostages at a Moscow theater in 2002.

Ordinary Russians were urged to gather in their homes, parks and public squares to mark the holiday. Even as they were subjecting passers-by to especially stringent document checks, Moscow's normally tough police had special instructions to go light on drunks and treat even juvenile delinquents - known here as hooligans - with a smile.

But there were tears, as well. Veterans desperate to join the parade were turned down by security guards manning metal detectors around Red Square.

"I was badly wounded in battle, fighting for the Soviet motherland. Don't I deserve the right to be here?" said Pyotr Komarov, 79, who had served in an infantry unit during the war and who traveled from Ukraine to attend Monday's celebration.

"I didn't need an invitation to go to the front."

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