On January 21, a court in Riga found the former Red partisan, Vasily Kononov, guilty of war crimes and sentenced him to six years in prison. Kononov commanded a Soviet guerrilla unit in 1944 which, in German uniforms, set a Latvian village on fire and executed nine unarmed peasant civilians–men and women–for alleged “collaboration” with the Germans. Kononov later served as Soviet police chief in the Latvian city of Daugavpils. His trial, which took more than a year, was the first in Latvia on charges of war crimes.
On January 24, Russia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry issued a statement describing the Latvian verdict as a “cynical insult” to all veterans of the “Great Patriotic War” [World War II] and as a potential precedent for discriminatory measures and “witch-hunt trials” against Soviet Army veterans residing in Latvia. Without mentioning the crimes the trial had exposed, Moscow’s statement claimed that the verdict penalized “the struggle against fascism.” The ministry appealed to the European Union–“which Latvia is so eager to join”–to censure Latvia for such “ethnic cleansing” as implied in the “precedent-setting” verdict on Kononov.
Russia’s newly elected Duma, in a similar statement on January 28, denounced the trial and verdict as politically motivated, as the opening shot in a campaign of retribution against “antifascist fighters” and “evidence of a Latvian policy of militant nationalism and chauvinism;” it called, as well, on the “international community” to censure Latvia. The Duma and the Foreign Ministry alike demanded a prompt review of the verdict. As on previous occasions, the Foreign Ministry initiated the attack, with the Duma following suit. The statement’s sponsors in the Duma indeed argued that the chamber cannot fail to speak up after the Ministry has already done so.
Latvia’s President Vaira Vike-Freiberga, Prime Minister Andris Skele and Foreign Affairs Minister Indulis Berzins, in parallel statements, responded that due process of law had been scrupulously followed; that war crimes have no statute of limitations, nor can they be excused under ideological pretexts; that Moscow’s position on the case reflects its refusal to admit to crimes committed against Baltic peoples; and that the two Russian statements seek to harm Latvia’s international reputation and hinder her European integration efforts. In a Russian newspaper interview, Berzins observed that Moscow is singling out Estonia and Latvia alternately as “external enemy images,” and that “if anyone is helping us join NATO, it is Russia” through this type of conduct (BNS, Riga Radio, Itar-Tass, January 17, 21, 24-25, 28; Chas, January 29).
While the Kononov case was the first involving war crimes, Latvian courts have previously sentenced two former NKVD and KGB officials for crimes of genocide committed during mass deportations of Latvians to Siberian camps. The Russian government and parliament protested those trials just as vehemently (see the Monitor, October 21, 1999).
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