The de-Russification of the Baltics serves a geopolitical purpose
The liberal outrage against the perceived insult delivered by the Swiss electorate to its Muslim minority on Sunday, when it voted to ban minarets, has not cooled. Vatican officials and Catholic bishops, fresh from celebrating 40 years since the introduction of the New Mass, have been in the forefront of the campaign against the referendum result. Meanwhile activists in Switzerland itself are preparing to overturn the result in the European Court of “Human Rights” in Strasbourg.
They may well succeed. That Court recently banned the Italian practice of putting crucifixes in state schools, even though Catholicism is the religion of the vast majority of the country. The ECHR is in the forefront of another campaign to promote the rights of a vocal minority, homosexuals and transexuals, of whom even the expression of disapproval is now illegal.
All these campaigns in favour of minorities are waged by people who proclaim themselves democrats. Yet their campaigns often go clearly against the democratic process and by definition against the opinion of the majority. The apparatus of “human rights” is deployed to impose the agenda of a liberal elite against the allegedly reactionary views of the people. At a recent conference in Paris organised by the Council of Europe (the body which hosts the European Court of Human Rights), and in the course of a discussion about how to promote human rights, the former Secretary-General of that body, the Radical Socialist Catherine Lalumière, made the dichotomy quite clear between human rights and democracy:
“There really is a problem at the level of the mass of the population,” she said. “Ordinary citizens do not really support human rights. It is here that we really need to go on the attack.” [“Il y a vraiment un problème au niveau de la masse de la population. À la base des citoyens, on n’adhère pas vraiment au droits de l’homme. C’est là où il faut absolument s’attaquer.” Speaking in Paris on 11 September 2009 at Council of Europe conference “What future for Human Rights and Democracy?”]
Such views are extremely irritating for conservatives who believe in the inherent value of many acquired historic habits. That Europe has church steeples not minarets, that heterosexual family life is the norm, that the Catholic Church plays a prominent role in public life in Italy – these are all part of the way things are and should remain. But what is perhaps even worse is the fact that these so-called “rights” are in fact applied not objectively, as is claimed, but instead hypocritically and according for the most obvious and short-term political reasons.
Take the case of the Baltic States. These territories formed part of the Soviet Union from 1944 to 1991, when they became independent a few months before the Soviet Union itself was dissolved completely. They had enjoyed a brief period of independence between the wars, as a result of the humiliating peace forced on a defeated Russia, weakened by revolution, by Germany and Austria at Brest-Litovsk in 1918. During independence, the Baltic states became dictatorships (Lithuania in 1926, Latvia and Estonia in 1934). Prior to 1918, Latvia and Estonia had never existed as states: they had been part of the Russian empire from the 1720s onwards, i.e. since shortly after Scotland and England united to form the United Kingdom, and before that they had belonged to Sweden and earlier to the Teutonic Knights. (The history of Lithuania is different.) Their incorporation into the USSR in 1944 was therefore not, as many claim today, an act of naked Russian aggression but instead the restoration of a status quo ante which had existed for centuries and which in any case was supported by a significant section of the Baltic political class, many of whose members were ardent Communists. Amusingly, it was the much-decried Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939 which agreed that the Polish city of Wilno should be the capital of Lithuania, which it remains to this day (Vilnius).
As a result of their long existence as part of Russia (and, later, the Soviet Union) these territories, especially Latvia and Estonia, have large Russian minorities. When they achieved independence in 1991, the Baltic States decided to adopt as their founding constitutional principle a piece of political fiction known as the theory of occupation. They claimed that they had been “occupied” by the USSR, rather than incorporated into it, and that their independence was merely the restoration of an interrupted statehood. Latvia even managed to find a great-nephew of the inter-war dictator, Karlis Ulmanis, to become president in 1991: Guntis Ulmanis was elected president of Latvia in 1993.
This theory of occupation is, quite simply, a lie. Occupation is a specific situation in international relations when one country dominates another by installing troops on its territory. The laws of occupation are laid out at length in the Hague Conventions of 1907. When a country is occupied, political and military power lies with the occupying authority. The citizenry remains legally powerless: it remains a separate legal category from the occupier. By contrast, when a country is incorporated into another state, its citizens become citizens of the incorporating state.
This is what happened to the Balts. They were Soviet citizens throughout the period 1944-1991. No doubt many of them resented this status and wanted to change it: this is what national liberation movements are about. But it is much a lie to say that these countries were occupied as it would be to say that Flanders is currently “occupied” by Belgium.
The first purpose of this lie is to exonerate the Baltic nationals collectively for their own collaboration with the Communist project. There were statues all over the USSR to the Latvian Riflemen who had fought on the Bolshevik side, while Latvians were one of the largest national groups in the Bolshevik secret police. Since 1991, by contrast, there has been a tendency, encouraged by the Balts and the Poles, to pretend that Communism was a purely Russian phenomenon and that the Soviet Union was nothing but Russian imperialism. The pretence is that there were never any Polish or Baltic Communists and that “Communist” and “Russian” are interchangeable terms. The truth is that Communism was supported from Havana to Hanoi, while in any case the “imperialism” of pre-revolutionary Russia was imperialism only in name. It was qualitatively different from the imperialism of, say, Britain. The Russian empire was not built on the colonial subjugation of foreign peoples, as was the British Empire in India or Africa. Instead, it made different peoples equal subjects of one Emperor – members of one political family – rather as the Habsburgs had done.
The second purpose of the lie is to justify a series of legal measures which would send the liberals at the Council of Europe into a spin if they were applied to any other minority in Europe. Their purpose is to gerrymander the electoral map in order to maintain an elite in power. The most important of these measures has been, in Latvia and Estonia, the dogged introduction, over two decades now, of laws on citizenship whose goal is to erode the national identity of Russians by closing their schools and by preventing them from voting.
As a result of this clear policy of discrimination – and against a well-established historical community, to boot – hundreds of thousands of Russians to this day live in legal limbo because have no citizenship and therefore no political or civil rights. Baltic politicians often tell their Russian residents to “go home,” even though the vast majority of them were born there. It is inconceivable that such a situation would be tolerated by human rights activists if it were applied to any other minority. Such people precisely campaign for citizenship for foreign immigrants, which is not the case here. Yet citizenship is denied on the basis that non-ethnic Balts (Russians, Ukrainians, White Russians etc.) and their children are “occupants”. The double standards are all the more breathtaking because the anti-Russian rhetoric in Latvia is often overtly anti-Semitic too.
The reason why they get away with it is that the Baltic States occupy strategic territory along what, for two hundred years, was Russia’s Western coast-line. Their de-Russification now serves a simple geopolitical purpose – that of pushing Russia North and East, out of the European affairs in which she ought to be a natural player. This geopolitical push is a zero-sum game from which only the United States benefits. Russia still has a small Baltic coast, to be sure, but there can be no doubt that the Americans understand the strategic value of its new NATO possessions highly enough for George W. Bush to have made a high-profile visit to Riga in 2005. It’s just a short flight by bomber from Russia’s second city and from its Baltic naval base. Many of the heads of state in the post-Soviet Baltic states, indeed, have in fact been North American citizens (Valdas Adamkus, the former president of Lithuania, Vaira Vike-Freiberga, the former president of Latvia, and Toomas Ilves, the current president of Estonia, all grew up in either the USA or Canada.)
John Laughland is a British conservative journalist, academic and author who writes on international affairs.
This article first appeared in www.brusselsjournal.com