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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

EDITORIAL: Judge a Man By Deeds, Not Politics




Boris Yeltsin is upset that a Latvian court has sentenced Vasily Kononov, 77, for crimes committed 56 years ago. Kononov was a Communist partisan fighting Nazi occupiers of Latvia; the court found him guilty of killing nine people, including a pregnant woman who was burned alive.


Kononov's account differs. He says Latvian defense forces ambushed and killed Soviet partisans; that Kononov was ordered to find and destroy six of those Latvian fighters; that his men did so, but without his personal participation; and that killed in the crossfire were three civilians. The court ruled otherwise, and gave Kononov six years.


Latvia and Russia have taken different approaches to the not-so-distant, not-so-admirable past. Neither is perfect.


Russia has simply kept the archives closed. KGB agents who tormented dissidents, Politburo members who ordered massacres - all get a free pass. In many cases, both victims and their persecutors are alive, but instead of justice in the here and now, their disputes are set aside for future historians to untangle. Latvia - like East Germany and other Baltic nations - has eagerly waded into identifying past criminals.


These differences have a certain logic. The Latvians see themselves as victims of other peoples - those behind the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact and the deportations to Siberia. The Russians can only blame themselves, and that demands introspective courage, perhaps more than is wise to bank on in these difficult days.


Latvia's justice has been imperfect, as Latvians admit; and there is talk, which Latvians are less willing to entertain (so much for introspective courage), that they are reluctant to condemn things Nazi.


We can't know what really happened in the spring of 1944 in the Latvian hamlet of Maliye Baty. After hearing testimony, however, a court has ruled. And if Kononov really did burn a pregnant woman at the stake, does it matter whose side he was on? Yet Yeltsin and acting President Vladimir Putin have both protested the Latvian court ruling - precisely on grounds that Kononov was an anti-Nazi, pro-Soviet partisan.


We are struck that Putin is willing to defend a Latvian citizen from the Latvian justice system, yet can't be bothered to defend one of his own citizens, journalist Andrei Babitsky, from an obvious abuse of his own government's power. Babitsky was de facto sentenced to Chechen slavery, for no particular crime and without due process; Kononov gets six years for mass murder. Yet Putin - in a chilling signal of the first-class/second-class social divisions to come - defends the man he sees as the better patriot.


- Matt Bivens