MOSCOW’S FRIENDS IN THE BALTICS AND BELARUS.

Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 12

Latvian prosecutors and courts have recently opened proceedings against three former Soviet KGB officers involved in the mass deportations of Latvians to Siberia. The three are liable to be charged with crimes against humanity, which do not carry a statute of limitations.

On January 14, Russia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry issued a strongly worded statement in their defense, describing them as “veterans of the struggle against fascism” who are being subjected to persecution in Latvia. Alleging that the Latvian courts are carrying out “political orders” in opening proceedings of this type, it complained that “antifascists”–a Stalin-era euphemism, denoting party activists and secret police agents involved in the annexation and Sovietization process–are being viewed in a “biased” way, as “occupiers.” It also alleged, without any proof, that Latvian authorities “portray Hitler-ite henchmen as freedom fighters.”

This ministry has repeatedly gone on record in asserting that the Baltic states “joined” the Soviet Union voluntarily and legally, and is justifying the crimes of former NKVD/KGB officers on quasi-ideological grounds. Such is this ministry’s view of history–a view that has grown harder during Vladimir Putin’s presidency, compared with Boris Yeltsin’s period. But this view of history should not necessarily have to be accompanied by attacks on today’s Baltic governments. This accompaniment indicates–as does also, for example, Moscow’s refusal to sign and ratify the three border treaties–a preference for retarding conclusive normalization of Baltic-Russian relations and using the residual leverage.

The Baltic states have in fact proven extremely lenient about prosecuting Soviet crimes. In Latvia, since 1991, a total of ten individuals have been charged in connection with Soviet-era crimes against humanity. Of these cases, three resulted in convictions. Seven are still in various phases of litigation or appeal. In its January 15 answer to the Russian statement, Latvia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry noted that the country’s independent judiciary does not take any “political orders,” and that ideological cover does not confer immunity from prosecution for crimes against humanity.

In Vilnius meanwhile, the Russian embassy honored a convicted Communist leader and major figure in the 1991 violent Soviet crackdown in Lithuania. Juozas Jermalavicius, former Ideological Secretary of Lithuania’s Communist Party on the CPSU Platform–that is, the hardline faction of the divided LCP–was released from prison upon completing an eight-year term on January 15. Outside the prison in downtown Vilnius he was greeted by a group of sympathizers, headed by the Russian Embassy’s second secretary. “We are greeting an honored citizen of Russia,” the diplomat announced to the journalists present.

This episode coincided, fortuitously, with the tenth annual commemoration of the Soviet crackdown in Vilnius, during which fourteen Lithuanians were killed and many more injured in the coup, and in which Jermalavicius was one of the ringleaders. Lithuania’s Foreign Affairs Ministry has officially requested the Russian embassy to clarify “whether naming an individual who had been convicted for crimes against Lithuania as an ‘honored citizen of Russia’ expresses the position of Russia.” Throughout Jermalavicius’ detention, Russian embassy staff visited him in prison. Jermalavicius told those who greeted him on his release that he intends to settle in either Moscow or Minsk. It had, in fact, been from Minsk that the fugitive Jermalavicius and co-conspirator Mykolas Burokevicius–former first secretary of the LCP/CPSU–had been handed over to Lithuania for trial in 1994, just a few months before Alyaksandr Lukashenka became president of Belarus. Once in power, Lukashenka protected the remaining fugitives in that wanted group. Most of those being sought for trial in Lithuania, however, found their permanent safe haven in Russia. The Russian authorities ignored Lithuania’s many requests for legal assistance in connection with these cases.

On January 15-16, Lithuania’s Foreign Affairs Minister and current chairman of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, Antanas Valionis, paid a visit to Moscow in that dual capacity. Among the council issues, which Russia’s Foreign Affairs Minister Igor Ivanov and other Russian officials raised, two stand out for their meaning, though not for their validity. Moscow wants the Council of Europe to reinstate the guest status–that is, candidacy for membership–of Belarus, which has had that status suspended for failing to meet democratic criteria. At the same time, Russian officials are preparing a demarche to the CE’s Committee of Ministers about “human rights violations in Estonia” (Itar-Tass, January 16).

Moscow lost a major political battle last month when the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) approved of Estonia’s and Latvia’s performance on ethnic issues, and consequently terminated the OSCE monitoring missions in Tallinn and Riga. In that battle, Russia had the firm support of Belarus only. An angry Ivanov announced afterward that Moscow would henceforth take its complaints to the CE. There, however, it would have to make do without the moral support of Belarus.

The presidents of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania met on January 15 in Riga for an across-the-board review of their countries’ foreign and security policies. Concerning relations with Russia, the Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga announced that the three countries “reconfirmed their wish to maintain sound, friendly and constructive relations with Russia, and will continue working on improving those relations.”

This Baltic wish and political goal can only find conclusive fulfillment if pursued from within NATO. Otherwise, there is every indication that the goal would remain unfulfilled, and the West would in that case have to deal eventually with the consequences of any procrastination on its part (BNS, Itar-Tass, Interfax, January 14-16; see the Monitor, December 21, 2001; Fortnight in Review, January 4).

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