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.