Thursday, February 7, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Moscow Hardens Opposition to Recognition of Soviet Occupation of the Baltic Countries

Paul Goble

            Staunton, February 7 – Moscow is hardening its opposition to any acknowledgement that the Soviet Union occupied Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, a reflection of both its anger at Baltic opposition to Russian policies and its belief that it can succeed in getting the European Union in to put pressure on the three to be more cooperative on both pipelines and other matters.

            But if Moscow persists in denying the historical record, it will only call more attention to the importance for the Baltic countries and the West more generally of recognizing that  occupation because if this fact were ever rejected, the three Baltic countries would likely find themselves forced to change not only their Western orientation but also their domestic policies.

            On the one hand, the Baltic countries would likely be forced into a closer relationship with their eastern neighbor, a relationship that is still shadowed by what Soviet forces did to those three countries.  And on the other, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania would be deprived of the internationally-recognized basis of their citizenship policies.

            That, of course, is what the Russian government wants, but it is not in the interests of the citizens or even residents of the three Baltic countries or of the West, many of whose countries maintained a non-recognition policy against Soviet occupation. And ultimately, it is not in the interests of Russia because it represents the latest attempt to rewrite history to fit current needs.

            Consequently, however it may seem to some, the issue of the recognition of the reality of the Soviet occupation of the Baltic states is not some “historical squabble” appropriate only for seminars and scholarly discussion.  This issue is about real policies and real power not just in the past century but now and in the future.

            These concerns are prompted by the recent appearance of a statement by the Russian ambassador in Riga (, a commentary by a Russian historian (, and a Russian interview with a German foreign policy expert (
            Yesterday, Aleksandr Veshnyakov, Russia’s ambassador to Riga, acknowledged that “there are still many unresolved issues between Latvia and Russia concerning veterans of the war and the issue of the war, a resolution of which will not be simple or quick,” but he insisted that “Russia will not recognize the Soviet occupation of Latvia, however hard the Latvian side tries to insist on that.”
            “There was no Soviet occupation in Latvia,” the diplomat continued; “there were other events which must be considered in context.”  Unless that approach is taken, he suggested, issues like bilingualism in Latvia and a Latvian “black list” of Russian officials will cast a shadow on future relations and undercut some recent progress in bilateral ties.
            Latvians should understand, he said, that it does not help them to present Russia as “an enemy” because “that Russia which exists now is open for cooperation and a life in peace and harmony.” And he expressed the hope that “Latvia will continue to support the introduction of a visa-free regime between the EU and Russia.”
            Veshnyakov’s remarks have elicited hundreds of comments on the Delfi site both in Latvian and in Russian.  Some have been supportive of the ambassador’s position, but most have suggested that he needs to study history rather than try to rewrite it to suit the current needs of his government.
            Two weeks earlier, Sergey Rekeda, an RuBaltic correspondent, interviewed Aleksandr Sytin, a member of the Russian-Latvian Historical Commission. In presenting the interview, Rekeda noted that “of all the post-Soviet republics, the transition of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia to the West European model” may be considered “completed in an institutional sense.”

            He then pointed out that today, however, “new problems” have emerged: “’Baltic unity’ has receded into the past. And the Baltic countries have ever more been transformed from a group that agrees with one another into one of competitors.”  There is one thing that continues “as before” to unite them – “the Soviet past” what Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians call “the occupation.” 

            In the course of an extensive interview, Sytin said that “the Latvian side insists on the recognition of the fact of occupation,” noting that “it is understood that the Russian side will never recognize this.” The only way to move forward is to avoid this “theme” and “the problem of ‘occupation-non-occupation’” and of compensation or non-compensation for “damages” to Latvia while part of the Soviet Union.

            Sytin added that there had been a chance for improved relations when Latvia was in the depths of an economic crisis, but now that conditions there are getting better, that chance was “missed.”  However, he argued, Russia and Latvia still have sufficient interests in common to justify pressing ahead, especially given Moscow’s energy policies with the European Union of which Latvia, but not Russia, is a member.
                Then, again yesterday, Rekeda published another interview, this time with Alexander Rahr, the director of Studies at the German-Russian Forum.  The Berlin analyst agreed with his interlocutor’s observation that “all three Baltic countries are playing a very negative role in the Russian-EU energy dialogue.

            Estonia, Rahr noted, “up to now remains sthe only European country which speaks out against NordStream. Lithuania and Latvia consider that they must in the first instance reduce their dependence on gas and oil from Russia. [And] Lithuania became the first country which entered into an open conflict with Russia concerning Gazprom facilities on its territory.”  Thus, Rahr said, “there are many conflicts between the Baltic countries and Russia.”

            Because Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are members of the EU and because they are represented in all of the EU’s decision-making bodies, including the European Energy Union, “it is impossible to adopt decisions without them or against them including those which concern Russia.”  For that reason, “the EU must stand with them in particular before Russia in their negative feelings connected with recent history.”

            This situation, Rahr suggested, is coming to a head this year because Lithuania is the EU’s president for the coming months, and it, like all presidents, will seek to push forward its issues.  That might presage increasing problems, the Berlin analyst said, “but at the same tie, it is possible to look at this in a positive way.”

            “If Lithuania will have the chance to administer the EU, then it will be obligated to consider the opinions of such countries as Germany, France, England and all the remaining members of the European Union,” countries that do not take “a priori anti-Russian positions.”  Consequently, Lithuania “perhaps will be able to step over its phobias and begin to think in a European way.”

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