Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 45

With ex-KGB officer Vladimir Putin’s rise to the presidency of Russia, the defense of past KGB crimes and their perpetrators seems to have moved to center stage in Moscow’s policy toward Latvia. The origin of this trend may be traced back to the tenure of another former KGB official, Yevgeny Primakov, as foreign minister and prime minister in Moscow, but Putin’s government seems to be in the process of institutionalizing this trend.

On February 29 and March 1, Russia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry assailed Latvia for prosecuting ex-KGB officers Vasily Kononov (see the Monitor, February 21) and Yevgeny Savenko on charges of involvement in crimes against humanity and of genocide. Defendant Yevgeny Savenko, a native of Russia and citizen of Latvia, arrived in the country with the Soviet occupation as an NKVD officer and subsequently served as KGB chief in the Latvian city of Liepaja, where Savenko went on trial on February 28. He is accused of having investigated and drawn up indictments against more than sixty Latvians, nine of whom were sentenced to death and shot, another eight of whom died in Soviet prisons and others of whom were deported to Siberia. Those killed included women and teenagers. Savenko, however, specially targeted intellectuals, students, former civil servants, and army and police officers of the independent pre-war republic as his victims.

The documentary evidence against Savenko, while substantial, is almost certainly incomplete–as usual in such cases–because the KGB managed to remove its archives from the Baltic states shortly before the collapse of Soviet rule there. Several surviving witnesses testified to this officer’s personal cruelty. Savenko argues that he merely followed orders from his superiors. The Russian Foreign Affairs Ministry’s March 1 statement claims, however, that Savenko had acted against “persons who had served the Nazi occupation regime,” and that in prosecuting former KGB officers, “Latvian authorities aim to rehabilitate Nazism and its servants and to sow hate against those who liberated Latvia from the fascist occupation.” The statement warns Latvia against “attempting to revise the results of the Second World War” and against prosecuting other ex-KGB officers, who are currently under investigation, and whom Russia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry terms “participants in the antifascist resistance.”

By the logic of this note, the Soviet occupation of Latvia may be justified as liberation from fascism, the Soviet-organized mass repression as denazification, and the officials of the repressive apparatus as resistance fighters. These were official theses during the Soviet era. On February 29, Russia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry officially requested the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to “take under its control” the case of the “antifascist veteran” Kononov. At OSCE headquarters in Vienna, the Russian side distributed as an “official OSCE document” Russian President Vladimir Putin’s letter to Latvia’s President Vaira Vike-Freiberga on the Kononov case. Putin’s letter demands a reversal of the six-year prison term handed down by the court of first instance against Kononov for having commanded an operation which razed a Latvian village and killed at least nine peasants, including women and children. The Russian president construes the case as “the first time in world practice that a man is being sentenced for having resisted fascism” and, also, as part of a Latvian policy to intimidate its Russian population.

Putin earned Kononov’s appreciation in an open letter, sent from Riga and made public by Moscow media on March 1. Kononov’s letter, furthermore, seconded the Foreign Affairs Ministry’s warning against “attempts to revise the results of the Second World War.” Meanwhile Russia’s general consul and members of the Socialist Party–the renamed Communist Party of Latvia–are attending the court proceedings in Liepaja to show moral support for Savenko.

Responding to Moscow’s accusations yesterday for the second time in the space of a week, Vike-Freiberga pointed out that crimes against humanity do not carry a statute of limitations and cannot be justified by political or ideological considerations. She noted that Latvia is committed to following the due process of law and that the court cases are solely based on existing evidence. The OSCE’s mission in Riga, however, pointed out that its mandate does not encompass judicial oversight. Foreign Minister Indulis Berzins yesterday informed the foreign affairs ministers of all OSCE member countries in a message that Russia is “conducting a campaign based on misleading information about Latvia.” Berzins urged Moscow to “engage in a constructive dialogue” with Riga and to harmonize its policy with that of all OSCE countries, which recognize Latvia’s democratic progress.

At the societal level, four Latvian associations of victims of the Soviet repression and of the anti-Soviet underground resistance suggested on February 29 one possible way of normalizing Russian-Latvian relations. In an open letter to the state president and the parliament, the four groups suggested applying to Russia for compensation to the victims of the Soviet occupation and repression–a step that would give Russia an opportunity to follow the example set by Germany long ago as part of the transition from totalitarianism to democracy (BNS, LETA, Itar-Tass, February 28-29, March 1-2; Russian Television, February 29, March 1; Komsomolskaya pravda, March 1; see the Monitor, October 21, 1999,February 4, 21).