Advice to Baltics: Change the tune

September 21, 2000|By Robert O. Freedman

AS ESTONIA, LATVIA and Lithuania step up their efforts to join NATO and the European Union(EU), their conflict with Russia is intensifying.

The relationship between Russia and the three Baltic states is a long and tortuous one. Czarist Russia first conquered the Baltic region in the early 18th century. Then, 20 years after World War I, when the three states got their independence, the then-Soviet Union reconquered them following the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of 1939, which divided East Europe between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany.

Although Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania regained their independence with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the USSR's chief successor state, Russia, has never recognized the illegality of its occupation of the three independent countries in 1940. Nor has Russia acknowledged the post-occupation deportation of the elites of the Baltic states that is bitterly remembered to this day throughout the Baltic.

Compounding the tension between the Baltic states and Russia is the presence of a large Russian-speaking population (more than one-third of the total population of Estonia and Latvia) who are viewed by Baltic nationalists as colonial settlers because most moved to the Baltic states after World War II.

Because the Russian speakers are viewed as potential subversives, Estonia and Latvia have placed difficulties in the path of their acquiring full citizenship. They have instituted language requirements compelling the Russian speakers to learn the country's language before they can obtain (or keep) jobs or citizenship -- something loudly protested by Moscow. Making matters worse are the very different historical narratives of World War II. For the Russians, their victory over Nazi Germany was one of their country's greatest achievements.

By contrast, the Baltic peoples, who greeted the Nazis as liberators in 1941 when they attacked the Soviet Union, and who provided troops to aid the German war effort, including for the SS, view the fighting against Moscow as a great liberation struggle.

Consequently, the leaders of the Baltics have not only been reluctant to prosecute their SS veterans, who killed thousands of Jews and others, but they celebrate their role with parades and even, in the case of Estonia, an exhibit at the National History Museum in the major town of Parnu that glorifies both the SS and Adolf Hitler

At the same time, the Baltic states are placing on trial Russians who are accused of collaborating with the USSR, including, in Latvia, the leader of a Red Army Partisan band who is accused of killing Latvians during his battles with the Nazi army.

This double standard of glorifying those who cooperated with the Nazis while persecuting those who fought them gives political ammunition to Moscow, which uses it as propaganda to show that the Baltic states are not morally fit to join NATO or the EU.

A change in the historical narrative of the Baltic states in regard to the events of World War II would appear to be necessary if they are to qualify for the military and economic benefits provided by membership in NATO and the EU.

Robert O. Freedman is Peggy Meyerhoff Pearlstone professor of political science at Baltimore Hebrew University. Author of numerous books and articles on Russian foreign policy, Mr. Freedman recently returned from a research trip to the Baltics.

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