A Battle Against Everything Soviet

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Lithuania and Latvia have begun a new campaign in the struggle against the consequences of the Soviet occupation of their countries. Last year, Estonia also participated in this battle against everything Soviet when it relocated a monument to Soviet World War II soldiers who had fallen in the war against Nazism -- a move that sparked a storm of protest among Russians in both Estonia and Moscow.

In the latest round, Latvia has announced a decision to halt state support for colleges and universities that teach classes in Russian. Meanwhile, the Latvian government will provide funding to universities that teach in any of the languages of the European Union. This means that you can open an institute in Riga that teaches Russian-speaking students the history of Russian literature in Portuguese, for example, or even old Irish, and the institute would be eligible for state subsidies.

The Russian media responded by announcing that Latvia has forbidden the Russian language. That is a bit of an exaggeration since private institutions can still teach classes in Russian. They will probably become more expensive and therefore more prestigious.

Lithuania has forbidden all Soviet symbols, such as the hammer and sickle, equating them with Nazi symbols. Only the singing of Russia's national anthem was exempted, even though the lyrics were set to a Soviet-era melody. If they didn't add this exclusion, visiting Russian diplomats would have been in violation of Lithuanian law every time the anthem was played at official functions.

Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus believes that Russia should pay Vilnius $40 billion in compensation for the Soviet occupation of his country. At the same time, he criticized the country's parliamentary initiative that sought compensation from Germany for the Nazi occupation of Lithuania. The deputies who drafted this resolution were not as interested in gaining revenue for the state treasury as they were in appearing consistent and fair.

Yet Adamkus' logic is understandable. After all, during World War II, Lithuanian fascists joined with German soldiers -- and at times preceded them -- in exterminating Jewish citizens and squashing the Polish minority. Does that mean the Nazis were not occupiers, but allies? If that is the case, Adamkus should have gone one step further. He should have forbidden the use of Soviet symbols but permitted Nazi emblems. But this would not have won favor with the current German government.

The real issue is not so much the absurdity of the statements and actions of Baltic politicians, but why this hysteria has gripped them now -- 17 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

However paradoxical it might seem, the anti-Russian speeches in the Baltics have more in common with the failure of Ireland's recent referendum on the Treaty of Lisbon, a watered-down version of the failed European Constitution, than with events of the 20th century. During the first half of this decade, the citizens and ruling elite of the Baltic states pinned their hopes for development on membership in the European Union. They were convinced that by some magical means, all their problems would be solved once they hoisted that blue European Union banner with its ever-increasing number of stars. Unfortunately, not only did those hopes fail to materialize, but in addition to their own problems, they must now deal with the mounting tangle of problems confronting Europe as a whole.

In the end, the crisis of European integration is due less to the Baltics' 40-year occupation by the Soviets than to the flaws in the European Union's own politics. But few European leaders are willing to admit this. And that is why they seek an escape from the crisis by clinging to myths from the past and by needlessly fomenting cultural and ethnic antagonisms.

Boris Kagarlitsky is the director of the Institute of Globalization Studies.