Thursday, March 17, 2005

Baltic Real Threats

A column “Still Not Sorry for Soviet Crimes” by Vladimir Kovalyev was published today in The Moscow Times:
For the last couple of months, I have been wondering what is wrong with the
Russian political elite. Its members are behaving like obstinate donkeys and
stupidly dragging their heels on any reconciliation with the Baltic states.
Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have one simple request: that Russia recognize
that Josef Stalin committed crimes against their citizens. In other words, they
are asking the Kremlin to do exactly what Germany did decades ago in relation to
Adolf Hitler.
Unlike Mr. Kovalev I don’t find any reason to wonder. This irrational from the first sight behavior has very sound explanations – this kind of “recognition” of Stalin’s crimes will have very dire consequences for ethnic Russians and Ukrainians who live in Latvia and Estonia. About 30% of Latvian population and 15% of Estonian population are so called ‘non-citizens’. They pay all taxes but are not allowed to participate in elections including municipal elections at small towns and villages where sometimes ‘non-citizens’ make up to 90% of population. That’s right – in some towns officials elected by a very small minority decide how to use taxes collected from the majority. If I’m not mistaken at the end of the 18th century taxation without representation was one of the main reasons for the American Revolution. At the same time any EU citizen can vote at municipal elections in Latvia if he or she lives for more than 3 months at one place.
The reason why ethnic Russians and Ukrainians are ‘non-citizens’ is because they are ‘civil occupants’ even if they were born in Latvia or Estonia and lived all their life there. Being exemplary European democracies Latvia and Estonia let ‘non-citizens’ gain full citizenship if they learn the language and pass a constitution and a history exam. The history exam means accepting the official version of history. For example, some people can believe that Latvian SS-men were not really Nazis but freedom fighters; some can believe they committed war crimes killing Jews at Salaspils concentration camp. When it comes to getting Latvian citizenship only the first answer is correct and of course Salaspils was a reformatory. But that’s not the main point. The main point is the knowledge of the language – the perfect knowledge of the language is required. For example, I study English for more than 30 years but if I knew Latvian as well as I know English I wouldn’t pass the exam because I still make mistakes and my grammar is rather shaky.
What are legal grounds that make ‘non-citizens’ legitimate in the eyes of European human rights watchers? The Geneve Convention. According to the convention an invading state and an occupant is not allowed to settle its civilians on the territory of the occupied nation. This way ‘non-citizens’ are somewhat very close in status to Jewish settlers on the West Bank. Thus the “reconciliation” actually means not just shaking hands, forgiving and forgetting. It also means that Russia recognizes the fact that Latvia and Estonia were occupied territories with all the consequences.
So why is this hysteria NOW? Why is it necessary to make Russia blame Molotov-Ribbentropp Pact TODAY? The Baltic Republics are safely in NATO and EU. Isn’t it time to settle down, think about good home-keeping and put the Book of Baltic Grudges somewhere into the dusty corner? The problem is young ‘non-citizens’. Before 1991 for ethnic Russians or Ukrainians the knowledge of the language in the Baltic Republics was not a problem of survival. But since 1991 it is. Almost all teenage ‘non-citizens’ are bilingual, they speak perfect Latvian or Estonian – they had to learn it and for young people it’s always much easier. Three or four years more and Latvian/Estionian officials would have no formal reasons to flunk ‘non-citizens’ at language and history exams. Young ‘non-citizens’ have their own Big Book of Grudges – they remember well all the humiliations that had to pass throughout their childhood in the 90s. When you are only five and kids at a kindergarten bully you and call you 'dirty Soviet occupant' you don't forget it easily. This young generation is a real threat to the present political elites in Latvia and Estonia. At the same time young ethnic Latvians and Estionians don't remember the "horrors" of the Soviet occupation. They are not such Russophobes as their parents and they don't see their ethnic Russian contemporaties as a threat to national sovereignty. Not that long ago at the parliamentary elections in Lithuania a "Russian" party got most of votes even though ethnic Russians make less than 9% of Lithuanian population. Unless Latvian/Estionian political elites restrain their nationalistic ardor they could loose power pretty soon.


LT said...

Indeed, only after I read this entry has helped me judge about your other entries, too. Someone said, one can judge about quality of a newspaper (the blog, in this case) when it writes about something, one knows already.

Way to go! :)

Paul B said...

A very interesting entry. It strikes me that the Russian diaspora has really been left with serious problems and has been somewhat abandoned by Moscow.

The collapse of the CCCP has had such far-reaching and deep-rooted problems (I'm thinking Chechnya and Nagorno-Karabakh particularly here) that the more peaceful areas' problems often seem to be left behind.

Andres said...

I would like you to come and visit Estonia (if you need, I can find you a place to stay etc). Perhaps then you could find out that the problems you describe here really are not as severe as you describe them.

Firstly, about the exams. It's not really that hard to pass the language-exams. I have many Russian friends that have passed these and have said that it wasn't really as difficult as people say.

Secondly, about the "humiliations" that the Russian youth "have to live through". This is another myth, really. There are quarrels, sure, but these happen just as much anywhere else as they happen here. They are just kids, you know. It really isn't that political.

Thirdly, the Russians that are living in Estonia (around 250 000 in total), really don't want to stop living here. It's not just that they like the land itself and don't want to leave the place they have lived in for 40-50 years. They don't want to leave Estonia because their life is much better here than it would be in Russia. Wages are higher, crime is lower, people can travel freely, etc etc.

I must say I like Russia and Russians. And I really do not understand why some people (Russians and Estonians as well) sometimes tend to exaggerate all these "problems". It's just that... we shouldn't always say that these problems are there because of the nationality-issues. That way of thinking can really lead to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering. Now that's something that nobody wants.

Vlad said...

Unfortunately, I could say, you know nothing about Baltics :( As well as about russians living there.

Trust the propaganda, go on.

Vladimir said...

"At the same time young ethnic Latvians and Estionians don't remember the "horrors" of the Soviet occupation."

I would have to disagree with you on this point. I haven't been back to Latvia in a couple of years now, but it seems to me that the ethnic unrest is caused primarily by angry expatriates (such as the ever humorous Mrs. Freiberga, who I am convinced has some deep-seated issues unresolved from her childhood) and the impressionable young kids they brainwash. Most of the people who actually lived under the "terrible Soviet occupation" do not view it as such. A telling example is that the "Museum of the Occupation of Latvia" is funded almost entirely by Latvians living abroad.

As for language exams, as Andres said they are not impossible to pass (I never tried, much easier and cheaper to get a Russian passport and emigrate to Canada, but my Latvian relatives have passed it), but the very fact that there are language exams is a clear indication of racism. When over 30% of your population (thanks to the Latvian government for helping to reducing it from 40%) speaks a different first language and the only thing you do about it is a language exam, there is a serious problem. Take Canada as an example - currently somewhat less than 20% of the population speak French (the number who speak French as a first language is around 10%), but both French and English are official languages, and citizens are free to use either when conducting business or dealing with the government. It would not have been a problem (in truth, it would actually have solved most of today's ethnic problems and saved a whole bunch of money for the government, not to mention making a huge increase in private business) for the Baltic countries to do the same. But I guess individual politicians' racist agendas are more important than the public good. This is why I'm not exactly aching to go back to mother Latvia.

Anonymous said...

Take Canada as an example - currently somewhat less than 20% of the population speak French (the number who speak French as a first language is around 10%), but both French and English are official languages

The only problem with Russian language becoming official, that then, very soon, it'll become the one and only official language. That is. Take a look at Byelorussia.

It's not a joke - it's serious.

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