Russia’s response to the initiative was predictable. Aleksei Pushkov, the chairman of the Committee for International Relations of the Duma, said that “the only motivation behind [the] foreign policy of the Baltic States is to look for new excuses to start a conflict with Russia”. Dmitri Rogozin, Vice-Prime Minister of the Russian Federation and a former Ambassador to NATO known for his blunt remarks, commented that “all you are gonna get are dead donkey’s ears”, a reference to The Twelve Chairs, a famous satirical novel in Russia, published in 1928 (President Putin used the same quotation back in 2005, when criticizing what he called ‘territorial claims’ by Latvia).
Russia has been sensitive to possible financial claims for the damage done during the Soviet occupation since the early 1990s. In 1992, for instance, the then Supreme Council of Estonia tasked the Okupatsioonide Repressiivpoliitika Uurimise Riiklik Komisjon (ORURK), chaired by famous writer Jaan Kross, with compiling an “evaluation of the degree of economic damage inflicted on the Estonian people by the [Soviet and Nazi] occupations”. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) stressed in its Opinion on Russia’s application for membership of the Council (January 1996) that “the Russian Federation will assist persons formerly deported from the occupied Baltic States or the descendants of deportees to return home according to special repatriation and compensation programmes, which must be worked out” (Article 7.12). It was a price Moscow had to pay for membership – although it suspected that Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania (who had already joined the Council) were behind these stipulations.
The Lithuanian Seimas adopted a bill on 13 June 2000 which called upon Russia to compensate for the material and moral damage of the Soviet occupation (estimated at around €23 billion). It is interesting that the initiators of the Bill referred to the Federal Republic of Germany, the legal successor of Hitler’s Third Reich. At least post-War Germany had recognised its responsibility and had offered victims of the Nazi occupation/atrocities financial compensation. This should serve as an example to Russia, the legal successor of the Soviet Union, they argued.
If we leave aside the fact that not all of Germany’s payments have been that impressive (in June 1995, Estonia was offered 2 million Deutschemarks by a representative of the Foreign Ministry in Bonn), the comparison displays a fundamental problem: Germany is not Russia. After being ‘re-educated’ by the Western Allied Powers and immersing itself in the European Community and NATO, (West) Germany embarked on a profound, sometimes even self-chastising process of Vergangenheitsbewältigung (‘dealing with the past’). This process coincided with the anchoring of the principles of democracy, free market economy and rule of law in German politics and national consciousness.
Such a tendency cannot be discerned in Russia – even in the democratic Yelstin years, it clung to the Soviet mantra of ‘the voluntary accession to the USSR of the Baltic States’ and ‘the liberation from Fascism of Central and Eastern Europe’ (theoretically correct, yet many involuntary things happened in the years following that very ‘liberation’). The main reason for sticking to this neo-stalinist perception of the 1939-1945 period is that relinquishing it would inevitably corrode the sacred myth of the glorious Velikaya Otechestvennaya voyna, the Great Patriotic War, against Nazi Germany, a myth that has offered so much consolation after the collapse of the Soviet empire in 1989-1991.
The negative, mordant reactions to the ratification of the Compensation Bill in June 2000 were illustrative of this Russian mindset. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs emphasized that in 1939, the Soviet Union had stationed troops in Lithuania “with permission of the then Lithuanian Government” and that “this had taken place in compliance with international legal norms of that time”.
The response coming from Estonia was perhaps even more conspicuous. An MP and future Defence Minister dismissed the demands by the Seimas as “riskful”, while Prime Minister Mart Laar, although he expressed some sympathy, called them “an internal affair of Lithuania”. A Russian press agency reported in November 2005 that one of Laar’s successors, Andrus Ansip, had alluded to submitting a financial claim to Russia, but a spokesman for his office denied that this had ever been the case.
So, why did Estonian Justiitsminister Urmas Reinsalu enthusiastically support the Riga declaration then last month? The answer to this question is emblematic of the current state of Estonian politics - because he was acting on his own behalf. Foreign Minister Marina Kaljurand and Prime Minister Taavi Rõivas immediately underscored that Reinsalu did not express the view of the Estonian Government. The nitty-gritty is that Reinsalu’s party, the conservative IRL, which formed an unhappy marriage of convenience with Rõivas’ liberal Reform Party and the social democratic SDE last April, has been facing serious competition from two other conservative parties, including ultra-nationalist EKRE. In order to forestall a further drop in opinion polls, IRL had already taken a firmer stand in regard to issues such as registered partnership (which, if ratified, would also be open to same-sex couples). Reinsalu’s private action in Riga fits into this trend as well.
Estonian daily Eesti Päevaleht printed a critical editorial on the declaration: “It will lead to nothing. If Russia under Boris Yeltsin was not prepared to discuss compensation, then under Vladimir Putin this will be an utterly hopeless exercise. Russia is not repentant Germany”. Rõivas, eager to return to the status quo ante, told the Delfi news portal that “my government does not intend to claim compensation for the occupation”, adding that “we should look confidently toward the future and make sure our independence lasts”. Reinsalu, meanwhile, was unaware of any wrongdoing, and praised the “harmony with Latvia and Lithuania” (which, it should be noted, has never been that self-evident).
The private initiatives and deviating opinions of ministers are not the most convincing means to relaunch the debate on financial compensation by Russia – not to mention the fact that these might thwart the ratification of the much-needed Estonian-Russian Border Treaty. Therefore, Rõivas and Kaljurand are right. Russia should definitively be reminded of the illegal nature of the Soviet occupation of 1939-1940 (and 1944) and the ensuing crimes against innocent civilians, but lofty statements about “[preparing] international actions in accordance with International Law to claim legally and factually justified compensation from the Russian Federation” will only be counterproductive. And this passage indicates the deeper problem that should be solved first: the lack of awareness in the international community, especially in Western Europe, of the tragic fate of the Baltic States in 1939-1991. Without such much-needed awareness (and support), receiving compensation from Russia will really remain a fata morgana.
Jeroen Bult is a Dutch historian and publicist, specialized in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.