Russia and the Baltic States: Not a Case of «Flawed» History
No. 3 2005 July/September

When the Russia in Global Affairs
journal asked me to comment on the article by Lars Fredén
“Shadows of the Past in Russia and the Baltic Countries” featured
in this issue, a political scientist from Sweden, I agreed without
hesitation. Swedish evaluations of Russia’s policy in the Baltic
region, especially insofar as concerns Latvia, Lithuania, and
Estonia, have always been marked by a measure of bias. As I read
the text, I found that the events of the last year that has passed
since the Baltic States joined the European Union and NATO have not
in the least affected Swedish perceptions; indeed, they have
remained basically the same. This is a pity. The Baltic capitals
have used their membership in the major Western associations not to
improve relations with their eastern neighbor. On the contrary,
they are using their new status to aggravate relations. For
example, instead of approving the legal status of their ethnic
minorities, they continue to practice discrimination against them.
This conduct has had the effect of provoking extremely unfriendly
and counterproductive approaches toward Russia in the West. In the
meantime, the Baltic countries could play an instrumental role in
adjusting ideologically motivated views that are entertained by a
part of the political establishment in Sweden and the EU, as
represented by Lars Fredén.


I must say,
however, that the Russians themselves have also contributed to the
preservation of Western sentiments concerning the Baltic issue. At
the crucial moment when the EU became aware of the scale of the
political, economic, human rights issues, and other problems that
were aggravated by the hasty admission of the Baltic countries, the
Russian side inexplicably backed down. Instead of maintaining
pressure on its partners on these issues, which are of principal
importance for Russia, Moscow issued statements about its readiness
to “separate economics from politics” and provide “economic
incentives,” thus reducing its criticism toward the course pursued
by the Baltic States and the support it was receiving from the EU
and the United States. Russia began cozying up to some avowedly
anti-Russian and Russo-phobic politicians. At the same time, the
attitude toward those forces that were consistently advocating a
thoughtful approach to Russia and equal rights for the
Russian-speaking population in the Baltic States – urging Riga,
Vilnius, and Tallinn, as well as their Western allies to abandon
their double standards – became pointedly cooler. Russia has played
a part in impeding the evolution of more objective approaches
toward the myriad problems now plaguing the Baltic countries (a
process that began in West European political circles and expert
community), thus limiting the methods for prodding the Baltic
countries to devise a reasonable compromise with Russia on these
issues. It is extremely important that this is achieved, and not
least of all for the Western capitals.

The situation was rather rectified
by the celebration of the 60th anniversary of V-Day in Moscow
despite the persistence of the Latvians who behaved as if they had
received carte blanche from the EU and NATO to make territorial and
other “historical” claims to Russia. Yet another attempt to
demoralize Russia, initiated in the West with an active role played
by the Baltic States and Poland, only served to produce a backlash
and an upsurge of patriotism in Russia. Moscow’s positions in its
dialog with the West were unaffected, while Riga ended up without a
formal border treaty with its eastern neighbor. Furthermore, the
Russian advocates of appeasements and concessions toward the Baltic
States were forced to lay low and keep quiet, while Washington and
the West European capitals were forced to admit that playing up to
ultranationalists and Russophobes worked against even Russia’s
ill-wishers, not to mention those in the West who are seeking a
constructive dialog with Moscow.

For the first several years of my
professional involvement in Russia’s foreign policy in the Baltic
region, I was convinced, like so many others, that the concept of
“occupation” adopted by the Baltic States was, above all, a
defensive reaction to the oppressive burden of their own history.
There were no doubts that it was simultaneously a tool for the
Baltic States to break away from the Soviet Union and enlist
Western support in upholding their independence. Over time it
became obvious that although real, the arguments they forwarded
were definitely not the primary cause of their actions. The concept
of “occupation” was basically designed to justify discrimination
against ethnic minorities; deprive a substantial part of Latvian
and Estonian residents of their basic political and socio-economic
rights, and consolidate the domination of certain ethnocratic
groups in these countries.

Economics played a critical factor
in what eventually transpired. Many people who had worked in Latvia
or Estonia for decades, far from being granted automatic
citizenship (as they had been promised), were actually denied a
purely formal right to equal participation in privatization (they
were entitled to a smaller number of privatization vouchers).
Worse, they ended up in a situation where virtually all (up to 95
to 97 percent) of key positions in state executive agencies in
charge of the privatization process were occupied by members of
dominant ethnic groups, that is, the native inhabitants.

A certain share of responsibility
for the justification and implementation of this discriminatory
policy lies with Riga’s and Tallinn’s West European and U.S.
advisers (in particular, Carl Bildt, a prominent Swedish
politician, who served as the country’s prime minister during this
time). Following this outside advice, Latvian and Estonian
“democrats” betrayed those with whom they had been fighting side by
side for national independence, reneging on their promise to grant
citizenship to all of their permanent residents. Thus, an
unprecedented and absurd phenomenon has transpired in Europe: the
rise of Latvian and Estonian “non-citizens” (that is to say, people
who are lawfully present in the host country, but not stateless
persons) and outright discrimination by the ruling authorities. The
example of Lithuania – where the principle of automatic citizenship
was granted – shows that considerations of “historical justice,”
together with “continuity with regard to prewar status,” in the
case of Latvia and Estonia were mere utterances that served as a
pretext for creating political and economic preferences for one
part of the population at the expense of another.

There is, however, a far more
substantial point to be made concerning the issue of
“non-citizenship,” specifically the general principle of
non-discrimination as recorded in UN documents. A corresponding
convention adopted by this largest international organization
prohibits the infringement of the rights of various categories of
people on grounds of race, ethnicity, gender, faith, and so on. At
best, it is simply illogical to suggest that discrimination may be
deemed lawful merely by virtue of the fact that a particular event
happened in the history of relations between two or more peoples
(nations). Take any other European region – e.g., Central or
Eastern Europe, and try to prove to the Hungarians, for example,
that Slovaks may infringe on the rights of their compatriots now
living in Slovakia because Slovaks were oppressed in the former
Austro-Hungarian Empire. I believe the result of such an argument
would be obvious and predictable. 

Our opponents in the Baltic
countries, Europe and the United States should have no doubts: The
Russian side has become involved in polemics over historical issues
not through its own choosing. In fact, our basic assumption is that
differences over historical interpretations should be removed from
the political agenda. This proposal, however, is strongly opposed
by certain circles in the Baltic countries, as well as by certain
forces in the EU and the United States – primarily by the same
group that only three years ago supported U.S. operations in Iraq
despite the fact that these actions were a contravention of
international law. They became involved in armed aggression against
Iraq which eventually entailed its occupation. They then
acknowledged the legitimacy of outside-influenced elections which
were held in the presence of foreign troops, amidst a guerrilla


Let us consider some of the
arguments forwarded by Lars Fredén. Concerning his use of the
terms “aggression” and “occupation” with regard to the events of
June 1940 and the subsequent period in the Baltic region, let this
lie on his own conscience. Fredén laments the fact that having
condemned the signing of secret protocols to the Soviet-German
non-aggression treaty known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (August
23, 1939), the Congress of Soviet People’s Deputies, in December
1989, ignored the “Soviet Union’s annexation of the Baltic States
in 1940.” But what is the connection between these events? The 1939
Soviet-German agreements did not affect the legitimacy of the pacts
on mutual assistance that the Soviet Union subsequently signed with
the Baltic countries, at a time when World War II had already
begun. These pacts enabled the Soviet Union to deploy its troops
and military installations in these countries, subject to their
approval. (Lithuania, for example, cited the existence of such a
treaty in its diplomatic correspondence with the League of

As for the instruments of ensuring
Soviet and German interests in Eastern Europe and the Baltic
region, these were not specified. Since the Soviet Union did not
resort to the use of military force in upholding its interests in
the Baltic region, while Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia throughout
the entire period in question – from June 1940 until their
secession from the Soviet Union in the early 1990s – were ruled by
national governments, any talk about the occupation of the Baltic
countries is groundless.

Recently, however, talk has
revived to the effect that in 1940 the Latvian, Lithuanian, and
Estonian ruling authorities had to agree to the introduction of
additional Red Army contingents without their voluntary consent.
Meanwhile, under the rules of international law in effect at that
time, coercion without the use of military force or the threat of
war was not considered legitimate grounds for declaring a
corresponding treaty or agreement null and void. As is known, none
of the memos from the Soviet government to the Latvian, Lithuanian,
or Estonian authorities contained such a threat, and military force
was never used.

It is also worth studying the
contemporary testimony of participants in the events that had
happened shortly before or during the initial outbreak of World War
II. Thus, in evaluating the policy pursued at that time by Riga and
Tallinn, Winston Churchill wrote in his memoirs: “On June 7 [1939 –
Ed.] Esthonia (sic) and Latvia signed non-aggression pacts with
Germany. Thus Hitler penetrated with ease into the final defenses
of the tardy, irresolute coalition against him.”

Now here is an excerpt from the reminiscences
of Arnold Meri, an Estonian veteran Nazi fighter and Hero of the
Soviet Union (awarded the title for his participation in combat
operations in the summer of 1941): “The 22nd Territorial Corps of
the Estonian Army was reorganized as a Red Army corps, until the
winter of 1941 fighting in its old, ‘bourgeois’ form. Combat
operations began on July 6 and lasted through October 4. Our corps
retreated 120 km… After two months of fierce fighting, our 6,000-
to 7,000-strong corps was decimated to just 640 men… Do you know
of another such example in history when the army of an ‘occupied
territory’ would have fought so desperately for the cause of

Thus, if in 1940 the
Soviet Union had really committed an act of aggression against
Estonia and the 22nd Corps had been ordered to repulse it,
presumably it would have faithfully carried out the

Now let us consider the term “annexation.” The
preamble to the Treaty between the Russian Federation and Lithuania
on the Basic Principles of Interstate Relations (1991) indeed
refers to the need “for the Soviet Union to eliminate the
consequences of the 1940 annexation which infringed on Lithuania’s
sovereignty.” This, however, is a general statement on accession,
which does not qualify it as an unlawful act. The Baltic countries’
accession to the Soviet Union in 1940 was not a unilateral act but
was based on a formal application by the supreme authorities of
those countries and therefore was not in contravention of
international law at that time. The same holds true for the
incorporation into the Entente countries of the German and allied
territories at the end of World War I, which was also based on the
consent of an incorporated state. Incidentally, one consequence of
Lithuania’s accession to the Soviet Union was its acquisition of
regions that had not been part of its territory before the war
(Vilnius, the Vilnius region, and Klaipeda). It is impossible to
present in a brief article an in-depth study of the legal and
historical circumstances of the 1939-1940 events that involved the
Baltic region. Nor is it necessary in this case. It is perfectly
obvious that this is a politically motivated issue, not an academic
dispute, especially when Lars Fredén attempts to evaluate the
postwar period of the Baltic countries’ history as one and the same
as the Soviet Union. Consider, for example, the assertions
concerning “foreign rule” that allegedly existed in those years.
Any statistical abstract will show that ethnic Russians and
Russian-speaking residents of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia were
predominantly represented in the industrial, transport and public
utility sectors of the national economies. At the same time, the
native peoples of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia accounted for up
to 80 to 85 percent of key positions in party, government, and
legislative bodies. Native inhabitants were also heavily
represented in the sphere of culture and art. Furthermore, it is
important to bear in mind that during the Soviet period, Latvian,
Lithuanian and Estonian representatives also actively worked in the
supreme state bodies of the Soviet Union, as well as within CPSU
leadership structures.

Lars Fredén’s
assertion that Soviet rule in the Baltics resulted in “a systematic
attack on Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian culture” merits special
consideration. Those who have any idea about life in the Soviet
Union know very well that the Latvian, Lithuanian, and Estonian
artists, writers, film and theater actors, musicians and performers
enjoyed immense popularity. As far as the “Russification” is
concerned, I will only say that if ethnic Russians, and all those
who consider Russian to be their native language in Latvia or
Estonia, enjoyed the same rights as the ethnic Latvians or
Estonians did in the Soviet Union, there would simply be no problem
to speak of now.


I know that I am exposing
myself to charges of presenting some sort of an apologia for
“Soviet order.” Such accusations, however, can only originate from
ideologically biased opponents. By contrast, an objective
researcher reading Fredén’s argument concerning the need for
recognizing the crimes perpetrated by the Communist regime against
the Russian people, would not fail to mention 1956 and 1962,
perestroika, the laws on the rehabilitation of victims of political
reprisals and repressed peoples, and many other positive
initiatives. It should be mentioned that neither Latvia nor
Lithuania or Estonia has done a fraction of what could have been
done to overcome the harsh legacy of the Ulmanis, Smetona, and
Päts regimes which is still a tangible part of the policies of
their respective countries.

Fredén’s assertion about the steps that
the Baltic States have taken in recent years “to confront the truth
about local complicity in the Nazi extermination of Baltic Jewry”
sounds even more dubious. These steps must be more decisive,
especially considering that this refers not to complicity per se
but the participation by a faction of the Baltic population in the
atrocities that directly led to the Holocaust. Does the memory of
hundreds of thousands of POWs who were tortured to death with the
participation of Baltic SS members, not to mention the mass
extermination of their own civilians from various ethnic groups for
“sympathizing with the Soviet regime,” not cry out for justice?
Finally, is it possible to eradicate the memory of the victims of
the monstrous punitive operations that were conducted by the
Latvian and Estonian Sondercommands in the Pskov, Novgorod and
Leningrad regions of Russia, as well as in Belorussia, and other

And one final point. Lars
Fredén claims that weakness is scorned in Russia as much as
toughness is respected. I believe that this is a Freudian slip of
the tongue since this maxim has nothing in common with Russia. “God
is in truth, not in strength.” These words, spoken by His Holiness
the Grand Prince Alexander Nevsky, well known to the Swedes, would
be an appropriate conclusion to this article.