Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 184

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 rightfully belonging to CE member countries, such as the Baltic embassies in Paris and Rome. The Russian government stonewalled, however. Nor did the French and Italian governments seriously pursue the issue 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, Latvia 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.

Russia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry, however, seems prepared to hang on to the three Baltic states’ property. Spokesman Aleksandr Yakovenko claims 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 spokesman’s response feigned ignorance of the CE’s stand on the legal continuity of the Baltic states. Indeed, Russian government does not recognize that continuity, claiming instead that the Soviet Union’s incorporation of the Baltic states was “legal.”

The problem in its essence is, however, older than the Soviet Union. The renowned collections of Estonia’s Tartu University and museum were seized during the First World War by the Tsarist Russian authorities and moved to Russia. The Soviet authorities “allotted” those collections to the Russian city of Voronezh. Founded almost 200 years ago by Tartu University’s rector, Johann Karl Morgenstern, the collections include ancient and medieval works of art, numismatic and archival holdings, and old manuscripts and books. Since 1991, the Russian government refuses to return the collections. The latest pretext, as restated by Moscow’s representatives last week, is that the Tartu holdings have become “difficult to distinguish” from those of Voronezh (BNS, Itar-Tass, September 15, 20, 27, October 2).