Many analysts are saying that President Bush’s decision to visit Latvia just two days before heading to Moscow to celebrate the victory over Nazi Germany was designed to “send a message” to Russian leader Vladimir Putin. But by choosing Latvia, a former Soviet republic that became independent in 1991, Bush is stirring bitter controversy among Nazism’s greatest victims and risking a repeat of Ronald Reagan’s Bitburg fiasco. “I am sorry that this is the time for the visit,” said Efraim Zuroff, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Jerusalem. “If the Baltics had really repented for the terrible crimes that their nationals committed during the Holocaust, then it would make far more sense to ‘reward them’ by a visit in the proximity of the sixtieth anniversary of the victory over the Nazis.”
Moscow agrees. Official discrimination in Latvia and neighboring Estonia against their large Russian-speaking minorities is one of post-Soviet Russia’s greatest ongoing grievances, leading to repeated official protests. Putin raised the issue again in his April 25 State of the Union speech, calling on Latvia and Estonia to “prove in actions their respect for human rights, including the rights of national minorities.” Another grievance, shared by Russians and Jews, is Latvia’s disturbingly tolerant view of its own Nazi past. Zuroff complained that while Latvia has managed to prosecute several former Soviet functionaries for Communist crimes, not a single Nazi collaborator has been tried since the country became independent. In 2000 Zuroff discovered that at least forty-one Latvian members of the Arajs Kommando, a notorious Latvian security unit implicated in the shootings of thousands of Jews, had just been officially rehabilitated and rewarded with increased pensions.
Ninety-six percent of Latvia’s Jews were killed in the Holocaust, one of Europe’s highest rates and only made possible by enthusiastic local collaboration. Latvia also had one of the highest per capita recruitment rates into special SS legions, whose veterans are revered as “freedom fighters.” Today Latvia is the only country in Europe to host annual SS veteran processions commemorating the day the divisions were formed (Estonia used to hold them too). Both the Latvian Parliament and President Vaira Vike-Freiberga–whom Zuroff labeled a “metaphor for the whole problem”–at one time considered combining the day of the SS march with the national memorial holiday. Aleksandrs Gilmans, a former member of the Riga city parliament and an ethnic-Russian Jew, was one of more than thirty protesters arrested at the SS procession in March. “The problem is that there was never a process of de-Nazification in Latvia,” he said. “People here do not recognize Latvia’s war guilt.”
This Latvian revisionism is not merely an emotional historical debate; it is the main justification for disenfranchising the Russian-speaking minority, whom Latvian parliamentarian Aleksandrs Kirsteins, leader of the committee on foreign affairs, referred to as “civilian occupiers.” Automatic citizenship is granted only to those who settled in the country before 1940. While half of Latvia’s Russian-speaking minority managed to obtain citizenship through grueling tests and requirements, another 500,000 of them, or 20 percent of the population, are still stateless, making them Europe’s largest disenfranchised minority. Roughly half of Latvia’s 14,000 Jews share their stateless fate. No citizenship means that they can’t vote or become teachers or civil servants.
Latvians’ contempt for Russia is so deeply ingrained that they don’t even bother hiding it. This year Vike-Freiberga presented Putin with a new Latvian history textbook that uses a Nazi-era term to describe the Salaspils concentration camp, where tens of thousands of inmates died, most of them Jews. She also famously quipped that on the upcoming victory day celebration, “Russian people will place a Caspian roach on a newspaper, drink vodka, sing folk songs and recall how they heroically conquered the Baltics.” Both of these scandals still get repeated airplay in Russia, which lost 27 million citizens during the war, a staggering figure that reflects the fact that the Soviets bore the brunt of Nazi terror, and that Soviet forces were largely responsible for defeating Germany. Russia is saturated with films and books about Nazi horrors. Yet most ethnic Balts, who were treated as allies by the Germans but who suffered terribly under Soviet occupation, view the defeat of the Nazis as their own defeat.
Tatyana Zhdanok, a Latvian MP in the European Parliament from the country’s Russian-speaking minority, lost much of her family in the Holocaust. “For me personally, the political revanchism going on in Latvia is very painful,” she said. “So of course it seems very strange to combine a visit to Latvia with a visit to Moscow [to celebrate the victory over Nazism].” Zhdanok said she was concerned by local reports that Bush’s Latvian itinerary will include a visit to the Freedom Monument, site of the Brothers’ Cemetery, where SS Legion Gruppenführer Rudolf Bangerskis’s remains were ceremoniously reburied in 1995.
If Bush visits the site, he could have a controversy on his hands equivalent to that stirred up by President Reagan’s visit to the German war cemetery at Bitburg, where SS soldiers are buried. The White House has not yet announced Bush’s itinerary in Latvia, except that he will meet with the heads of all three Baltic states, two of whom are loudly boycotting the Moscow celebration.
Many Russian speakers say that if Bush is serious about spreading human rights and democracy, then he should meet with Latvia’s disenfranchised minority. Indeed, there is a precedent. In 2001 Bush sent then-Secretary of State Colin Powell to Macedonia to help resolve that country’s conflict with its minority Albanian population, who at least had citizenship and voting rights. Powell at the time declared, “Multi-ethnicity need not be a source of conflict…if channels are opened for all to be made part of the democratic and political process.”
While there is hope that Bush will make a similar gesture in Latvia, the fear among Russians and Jews is that instead of addressing minority rights issues and historical grievances, President Bush will use his visit to pat the Baltic presidents on the head for supporting his war in Iraq, blunder his way into a controversial cemetery site and then ride into Russia to teach Putin about the lessons of history and human rights.