Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 59

Russia’s acting president, Vladimir Putin, may have brought with him into the Kremlin a personal anti-Baltic grudge. In his autobiographical interviews, widely excerpted in the Russian and international media, Putin charges that Estonian villagers “betrayed” a Soviet NKVD unit–of which Putin’s father was a member–to German troops in 1941. Putin does not seem to consider the possibility that the Estonian villagers regarded that NKVD unit as a component of occupation troops–a component, moreover, which specialized in crimes against Estonians. In the same memoirs, Putin recounts how he resoundingly stomped out of the Knights’ Hall in Tallinn, slamming the door, when President Lennart Meri talked about the Soviet occupation (BNS, March 16; Catharine FitzPatrick, Public Affairs, April 2000).

Baltic leaders were almost certainly unaware of Putin’s apparent grudge when they anticipated, at the height of the war in Chechnya, that Moscow may resume the propaganda offensive on the Baltic front, upon completing the military operations on the Chechen front (see the Monitor, November 23, December 1, 13-14, 1999). Those operations hardly completed, the anti-Baltic political campaign now seems to be in full swing, directly correlated with the progress of the Baltic states toward admission to NATO, and pegged to several trials underway of former NKVD and KGB officers whom Moscow defends as “anti-Nazi fighters” (see the Monitor, October 21, 1999, January 31, February 4, 21, March 3, 8).

Kristina Ojuland, a vice-chairman of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and a leader of Estonia’s Reform Party–a liberal component of the coalition government–analyzed that propaganda campaign at an international conference in Tallinn on Russia’s prospects for 2000-2003. Ojuland observed that Moscow’s current attitudes toward the Baltic states largely stem from the twin bugbears of the “Nazi danger” and the “NATO danger,” and that Putin is reactivating and playing upon those popular stereotypes in shaping official policy (BNS, March 15-16). Moscow politologist Boris Kagarlitsky commented elsewhere that the internal political strategy of the Putin presidency in the years ahead entails building up enemy images, for which role the Kremlin has selected Chechens and Balts (Diena [Riga], March 13).

In his March 11 address on the occasion of Lithuania’s Independence Day, Parliament Chairman Vytautas Landsbergis remarked that Moscow’s recent policy shows the symptoms of a return to historic Tsarist and Soviet roots, including: the “territorial motivation, which deems control of land to be of greater value than the fate of the people living on it;” the “fundamental nationalist and communist belief in coercion;” an urge to regain control over former Soviet republics, and the quest for recognition of a Russian sphere of influence on the ex-Soviet Union territory. Regarding the latter goal, Landsbergis pointed out that the Russian government refuses to recognize the fact of the occupation of the Baltic states, claiming instead that they were legally a part of the Soviet Union. Commenting on a reproach that his stance is “anti-Russian,” Landsbergis recalled his support over the years for Russian democrats who, like the Balts, “opposed the imperial tendencies in Russia’s policy;” and that his remarks are “not attacking Russia but, rather, calling attention to current trends in Russia” (BNS, March 11, 13, 18, 21).

Landsbergis noted, moreover, that the Russian government now seeks to advance its foreign policy agenda in the region by portraying the three Baltic states as the scene of “fascist revanchism.” Yesterday he made public the content of a “Dear Madeleine” letter to U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright from Russia’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Igor Ivanov, who recently sent identical or closely similar letters to Western governments and international organizations. Purporting to convey “news of an extremely alarming nature from the Baltic states,” Ivanov charges that Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania persecute “antifascist fighters” and are about to broaden the “witch-hunt”–evidently a reference to the former Soviet officers on trial for crimes of genocide and war crimes and to Lithuania’s lustration law on ex-KGB agents. Ivanov’s letter urges Western governments to “respond to these dangerous trends” and, jointly with Russia, to “discuss all available common measures to neutralize the growing threat of fascism and revanchism in Europe” (BNS, March 22).

The anti-Baltic polemics sometimes blur the distinction between the handful of court cases on the one hand and the status of the Russian or “Russian-speaking” population on the other hand, implying that the former impinge on the latter. At the March 20 session of the United Nations Commission for Human Rights, Russia’s delegation pilloried Latvia and Estonia on both counts, ignoring international findings to the contrary. Last week, Russia’s Foreign Ministry asked Max van der Stoel, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s High Commissioner on National Minorities, to inquire into the court case of Red partisan Vasily Kononov in Riga and to convey the Russian government’s demands in that connection to the Latvian government. Such a bizarre request not only confused two wholly different spheres, but also ignored the position of the OSCE’s Riga mission which had recently pointed out that its mandate does not cover judicial processes or the issues of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Kononov, who is appealing a six-year prison sentence, was found guilty of war crimes, as the commander of an NKVD-run partisan unit which razed a Latvian village and executed its unarmed inhabitants–including women and children–in 1944. The executioners’ justification and the courtroom defense was that Latvian villagers had “betrayed” the Soviet partisans–an uncanny resemblance to Putin Senior’s and Junior’s account of “betrayal” with regard to Estonian villagers.