Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 36

Russia’s acting and former presidents, Vladimir Putin and Boris Yeltsin, teamed up on February 18 to publicly accuse Latvia of violating the rights of Russians and of persecuting “antifascists.” Their accusatory messages were sent the same day to Latvia’s President Vaira Vike-Freiberga, whose office, it is worth noting, first learned about them through the Russian mass media. Pegged to the jail sentence recently pronounced by a Latvian court against veteran Red partisan Vasily Kononov for war crimes, the two letters extrapolate from that case to pillory Latvia’s policy toward ethnic minorities and to lay the onus of improving relations with Moscow on Riga.

Putin’s message alleges that Latvia has a “repressive apparatus” and that it “deliberately targets the antifascist fighters,” and construes the Kononov case as “the first time in world practice that a man is being sentenced for having resisted fascism.” Putin is asking Vike-Freiberga to intervene in order to secure a reversal of the conviction on appeal and to allow Kononov to take Russian citizenship and resettle in Russia. Putin made his message public during a trip to Irkutsk in Siberia, a place of deportation and death for thousands of Latvians.

Yeltsin’s message rejects the Tristar Order, Latvia’s highest state award, which had been awarded to Yeltsin the preceding week in recognition of his support for the Latvian national movement in 1990-91. Some sentences in Yeltsin’s message duplicate Putin’s. The former president professes indignation over Latvia’s “violation of the rights of minorities, discrimination against our compatriots” and “persecution of antifascists and [Soviet] military veterans.” Neither Putin nor Yeltsin’s letter contain any substantiation of these charges (Itar-Tass, BNS, February 18, 19).

Kononov was found guilty and sentenced by a Riga court on January 21 to six years in prison for war crimes. He commanded in 1944 a Soviet guerrilla unit which, dressed 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-ever trial in Latvia on charges of war crimes. On January 24, Russia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry issued a statement describing the verdict of the Latvian court as a “cynical insult” to all veterans of the “Great Patriotic War” [Soviet designation of World War II] and as potential precedent for discriminatory measures and “witch-hunt trials” against Soviet Army veterans residing in Latvia. Without mentioning the crimes that the trial had exposed, Moscow’s statement claimed that the Latvian court verdict penalized “the struggle against fascism.” The ministry appealed to the European Union–“which Latvia is so eager to join”–to censure the country for such “ethnic cleansing” as implied in the “precedent-setting” verdict on Kononov. 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 against those trials just as vehemently (see the Monitor, October 21, 1999, February 4).