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Hiatt Taps the Soviet Hangover

Fred Hiatt at the Washington Post has a column today about the Russia-Estonia diplo-circus, in which he hits on Russia’s efforts to gain respect in the international community as causing some turbulence in identity politics. It is a reasonable column with some good quotes from President Ilves, but it is a pity that he mentions a drunken Yeltsin episode during the signing of a treaty as the pinnacle of Estonian-Russian relations.

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 in June. 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 familiar.