Publication: Fortnight in Review Volume: 6 Issue: 19

On October 2, the Estonian delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) filed an inquiry concerning the delay in the restitution to the Baltic states of their pre-war embassy buildings in Paris and Rome. The Russian government refuses to return the buildings and the sites to their rightful owners Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. The government in Moscow took over those embassies at the time of the Soviet occupation of the Baltic states; it continues using the buildings for its missions, and does not recognize the Baltic states’ ownership rights. Those rights rest on the internationally-recognized legal continuity of the Baltic states throughout the period of Soviet occupation.

When the Council of Europe (CE) admitted Russia in 1997 as a full member, it required Moscow to return property that rightfully belongs to CE member countries, a prime example being the Baltic states’ embassy buildings in Paris and Rome. The Russian government stonewalled the issue, however, while the French and Italian governments failed to pursue it seriously with Moscow.

On September 14, 2000, the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe approved a PACE recommendation asking Russia’s executive branch of government to negotiate with the Baltic states for the soonest possible return of the embassy buildings. The document underscores that the issue must be solved on the basis of the states’ legal continuity. That passage constitutes a reaffirmation of Estonia’s, Latvia’s and Lithuania’s uninterrupted legal title to the buildings and sites.

Following the Committee of Ministers’ resolution, the three Baltic states issued a joint statement, noting that the Russian government has made no progress toward restitution, and expressing the hope that France and Italy are prepared to make their contribution to a speedy settlement in accordance with international law. The October 2 inquiry may help spur France and Italy into taking up the issue with the Russian government.

Moscow, however, seems determined to hang on to the three Baltic states’ property. In its response to the steps taken at the CE, Russia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry claimed that the issue can not be “prejudged,” that the CE’s resolutions can not be interpreted as support for the Baltic states’ legal title, and that the issue in any case requires “complex and long negotiations.” The ministry’s chief spokesman feigned ignorance of the CE’s insistence on the legal continuity of the Baltic states. Indeed, the Russian government does not recognize that continuity, claiming instead that the USSR’s incorporation of the Baltic states was “legal.”

The problem in its essence is, however, older than the Soviet era. The Tsarist authorities seized and moved to Russia during the First World War the renowned collections of Estonia’s Tartu University and museum. Founded almost 200 years ago by the scholar Johann Karl Morgenstern, the collections include ancient and mediaeval artifacts, works of art, archival and numismatic holdings, and old manuscripts and books. Under the 1920 treaty of Tartu, in which it recognized Estonia’s independence and borders, Soviet Russia also undertook to return property removed from Estonia. But instead of returning the Tartu collections, Moscow “allotted” them to Voronezh, a backwoods Russian city. At present, in any case, Moscow refuses to recognize the validity of the Tartu treaty, claiming that it lapsed when Estonia “joined” the USSR (which is how Moscow still refers to the Soviet occupation of the Baltic states).

Last week, Moscow officials added a pretext for keeping the loot: they argued that the Tartu holdings have been amalgamated with those of Voronezh for so long that “it is already difficult by now to establish which items used to belong to Tartu University.”