Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 13

On January 13 Lithuania commemorated, as Latvia will on the 20th, the bloodbaths perpetrated by Soviet troops against peaceful pro-independence demonstrators in 1991. Estonia escaped such violence, owing mainly to confusion in Moscow but also in part to the fact that the Soviet general in charge, a Chechen named Dzkokhar Dudaev, sympathized with the Estonian movement and declined to carry out repressive measures. The crackdowns in Vilnius and Riga ultimately failed against the nonviolent, mass civilian resistance and matching resolve of the independence movements’ leaders during the “time of barricades.”

Vytautas Landsbergis, leader of the Lithuanian movement and chairman of the parliament (1989-1992, 1996-2000), called attention to the profound changes in the Russian Federation’s policies toward the Baltic states during the intervening ten years. Addressing a commemorative parliamentary session, Landsbergis paid tribute to former Russian President Boris Yeltsin for supporting the Baltic movements. Landsbergis cited Yeltsin’s January 1991 Baltic visit and his appeal to the troops to refrain from using force. Shortly after that visit, the Russian Federation joined the rest of the world in recognizing the restoration of the Baltic states. Ten years later, however, Yeltsin ignored the invitation to attend the commemorative events in Vilnius. The snub merely symbolizes the retrogressive policies toward the Baltic states which Yeltsin himself introduced and which President Vladimir Putin pursues with greater consistency.

In spite of agreements on legal assistance–as Landsbergis noted–Russian authorities shelter the KGB and OMON officers involved in crimes in the Baltic states and who are sought for trial there. The Russian government, moreover, officially defends–and has recently portrayed as heroes–those few NKVD and KGB veterans who were put on trial in the Baltic states for Stalin-era crimes. That casebook, Landsbergis observed, “can only be closed when there is democracy in Russia.”

In her commemorative address, Latvia’s President Vaira Vike-Freiberga stressed the undiminished need for international support to the Baltic states’ independence. “The history of the Baltic region and of our three countries shows that progress can be reversed and undone, unless we and our friends work together to ensure that such unfortunate reversals do not take place.” Vike-Freiberga appealed to the European Union and NATO to support the Baltic states’ quest for membership in order to preclude another reversal.

Estonia’s Foreign Affairs Minister Toomas Ilves, for his part, observed that “the past has not yet passed.” Ilves contrasted Germany’s policy of Vergangenheitsbewaeltigung [coming to terms with one’s past] and official Moscow’s increasing tendency to defend Soviet crimes. “Instead of being regretted, crimes are in fact being glorified. The Stalinist hymn is restored; the Butcher of Budapest, Andropov, is honored with a bronze bust; the founding day of the state terror organization Cheka by Feliks Dzerzhinsky is again observed as a holiday,” Ilves told a solemn gathering in Tallinn.

With Putin’s rise to the presidency, Moscow has become more insistent in asserting that the Baltic states “joined” the Soviet Union in a “legal” manner. Most recently, Russian diplomats have begun suggesting that Soviet rule in the Baltic states had some “positive” features. In several statements, fortuitously coinciding with the Baltic commemorations, the Russian government reaffirmed its policy of holding up the signature or ratification of border agreements with the Baltic states, of using ethnic and language issues as means of pressure, and of seeking to obtain a voice in the Baltic states’ relations with the West. These policies suggest that the Kremlin does not fully or irreversibly accept Baltic independence, ten years after the “time of the barricades.” And this–Ilves concluded–is why Balts must qualify for joining the European Union and NATO. (BNS, LETA, ETA, January 10-18; see the Monitor, October 4, November 2, December 18, 21, 2000, January 8; Fortnight in Review, October 6, November 3, 2000, January 19).