Putin uses Victory Day to rally fight against Chechen rebels

By Patrick Cockburn
Sunday 09 March 2014 03:52

President Vladimir Putin used the 57th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany yesterday to defuse criticism of Russia's war in its southern republic of Chechnya.

After laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier beneath the red wall of the Kremlin, Mr Putin told Russian and foreign veterans that the same solidarity shown in the Second World War was needed to vanquish terrorism.

Mr Putin has been keen to take advantage of American preoccupation with terrorism in the wake of 11 September by portraying the rebels in Chechnya and the Pankisi Gorge in Georgia as similar to al-Qa'ida in Afghanistan.

As the end of the war was celebrated across Europe, authorities in Austria deployed 2,000 police officers in Vienna to prevent clashes between left and right-wing demonstrators. Some 30,000 protesters were expected to mark the anniversary of Germany's surrender.

Most were likely to celebrate the end of Nazi rule, but right-wing students laid wreaths in the Heldenplatz, central Vienna, in honour of Austrian and German soldiers who died in the war. It was in this square that Hitler addressed one million Austrians in 1938 after the country was annexed by Germany.

Vienna's mayor, Michael Haeupl, said he would not allow neo-Nazi and other right-wing militants to march through the city, saying it would be "unbearable and scandalous".

In Russia the two-day holiday marking victory in 1945 generates less emotion than it once did. Boris Kagarlitsky, a political scientist, said: "It is not an issue which stirs people up, like the Bolshevik revolution, because everybody is on the same side." While the holiday is treated with respect, interest in the Second World War among younger generations of Russians appears limited.

While the victory celebrations in Moscow see ageing veterans show off their medals, every Russian institution wants to show that it had a role in defeating Hitler. The ancient Donskoi monastery, not far from The Independent office in south Moscow, has placed some peculiar memorials just inside its main gate. On either side of the path are a tank and an armoured personnel carrier, both painted white, which were donated by the Russian Orthodox Church to the Red Army at the height of the war.

In Ukraine, celebration of victory day is a little more divisive because a significant number of Ukrainians, mainly from Galicia, fought on the German side. But 3.5 million Ukrainians were killed in the Red Army and in Kiev yesterday Viktor Chernomydrin, the Russian ambassador, said: "Today we belong to different nations, but no state can divide veterans of the war won by peoples of the Soviet Union."

President Leonid Kuchma told a concert to celebrate victory day: "Ukrainian people will never forget those who were killed in the defence and liberation of their country."

Ukraine saw some of the heaviest fighting of the Second World War when Soviet armies were surrounded and slaughtered in 1941 and when the German armies were defeated in 1943 and 1944.

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