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Latvians fume over Chirac's Putin invite By Ben Nimmo

dpa German Press Agency
Published: Wednesday November 29, 2006

By Ben Nimmo, Riga- French President Jacques Chirac's decision to invite his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin to his birthday party in Riga aroused a wave of indignation in Latvia Wednesday, where public opinion continues to regard the Kremlin with extreme suspicion. "Given that M. Chirac once said that Latvia and other new EU states had 'missed a golden opportunity to shut up,'... (Our) president should have said that M. Chirac has missed a golden opportunity to go fishing," an anonymous commentator wrote to the online version of Latvia's main daily, Diena.

"Go fishing," in this context, is the almost entirely flat country's equivalent of the phrase "go jump off a cliff." Putin is unlikely to have read the message, but a Kremlin spokesman subsequently announced that the visit would not take place because of "timetabling difficulties."

Latvia is currently hosting a major NATO summit dedicated to the long-term transformation of the alliance. On Tuesday, rumours began circulating that Putin had offered to come to Riga to celebrate Chirac's 74th birthday immediately after the summit.

Chirac's officials then confirmed that the French president had issued an invitation, but Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga refused to comment on it. Many Latvians interpreted the silence as proof that the invitation was, at best, an unwelcome and undiplomatic move.

Relations between Latvia and Russia have long been strained. When Latvia broke free from the USSR in 1991, half a million former Soviet citizens were declared non-citizens - leading the Kremlin to accuse Latvia of wholesale human-rights violations.

And Putin, who has never visited the Baltic states, has frequently accused them of hysterical anti-Russian feeling - an accusation Latvians see as an attempt to blacken their name and isolate them in Europe. Latvia joined the EU and NATO in 2004.

"Chirac has shown Latvia that we can't look for friends within Europe," a commentator called Laimonis wrote on the Diena website.

In early 2003, Chirac lambasted EU candidate members from Eastern Europe for their support of the US war in Iraq. The attack - which called them "badly brought up" - has been immortalised in Eastern Europe as the archetype of Western arrogance.

And the fact that, of all people, Chirac had chosen to invite the Russian president to Latvia was seen as a move of crass insensitivity.

Unnamed Latvian diplomats interviewed by Diena called Putin's proposed visit an attempt to "overshadow" the NATO summit.

Vike-Freiberga's office put a brave face on the incident, saying that "it shows the importance which NATO has in the world."

But whatever the outcome of the summit itself, it is likely to be remembered in Latvia as the day on which Chirac's famously undiplomatic attitudes made a very unhappy return.

© 2006 dpa German Press Agency