Russia and the Baltic States: Not a Case of "Flawed" History

30 july 2005

Mikhail Demurin

Resume: The Baltic States’ claims to Russia concerning “occupation” and “annexation” of their territories have nothing to do with historical science; they are determined exclusively by political pursuits.

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 war.


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 Nations.)

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 ‘occupation’?”

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 order.  

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 areas?

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.


Last updated 30 july 2005, 16:53

} Page 1 of 5