In 1991, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania achieved independence from the Soviet Union. Or did they? The Russian Federation, it seems, has its doubts. On 30 June, the Chief Prosecutor’s Office announced that it would examine the legality of Baltic independence following a request from two parliamentary deputies. Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicus has called the move an, ‘absurd provocation’.
To say that the independence of three sovereign nation states was granted ‘by an unconstitutional body’, as asserted by the MPs in question—United Russia’s Yevgeny Fedorov ¬and Anton Romanov, the duo who requested that Mikhail Gorbachev be investigated and tried for the collapse of the Soviet Union — is indeed absurd. And to request that Russia, a separate sovereign nation state, investigate the legality of that independence 24 years later is even more absurd (as was the recent and somewhat belated declaration of the illegality of the 1954 transfer of Crimea to Ukraine). To then grant that request by conducting an examination — particularly one that, by the Prosecutor’s own admission, will have no legal ramifications for the Baltic States — is most absurd of all.
Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania were occupied by the Soviet Union in 1940 following the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which partitioned the independent countries between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.
Throughout the second half of the twentieth century, Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian claims to independence took this illegal occupation as their foundation: these countries had come to be a part of the Soviet Union by virtue of an agreement signed in flagrant violation of international law.
Late Soviet dissidence was focused on legality
For Baltic dissident movements, in particular, this refusal to recognise Soviet sovereignty became the core of their activities and programmes. After all, late Soviet dissidence was focused on legality.
In Soviet Russia, this meant trying to hold the government accountable to its own laws (arguing, for example, that, based on the criminal code as it then existed, writers who were published abroad could not legally be charged with anti-Soviet agitation based on what their fictional characters said, as happened in the 1966 trial of Andrei Siniavskii and Yuli Daniel).
In the Baltic States, however, legal dissidence meant asserting that the laws to which all should be held accountable were not Soviet, but rather Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian.
In Estonia, for example, the Estonian Democratic Movement and the Estonian National Front issued joint appeals to the United Nations demanding the restoration of their independence, thereby invoking international law. Further to this, dissidents argued that, because the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was illegal, Estonians were technically Estonian, not Soviet, citizens, and could therefore be registered as voters in a parallel Estonian election, which led to the establishment of the Congress of Estonia early in 1990.
The famous Baltic Way, during which Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians held hands to form a 600km long chain in peaceful protest, took place on the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. These movements appealed to a respect for state sovereignty and international law. It could be argued that, after 1991, it was this respect that allowed these nation-states to distinguish themselves from the Soviet Union and to follow a path to the European Union and its conceptions of legality.
This latest news is therefore a reminder to the Baltic States that Russia can (and will) use their own history, rhetoric, and indeed their very identity against them. Russia can have its navy practice anti-submarine combat in the Baltic Sea, and threaten that NATO’s anti-missile shield makes the Baltic States more vulnerable to, not safer from, Russian aggression. But that is not all it can do. Russia can assert itself by twisting history as well as arms.
Twenty four years after the Baltic States gained independence (and 11 years after accession to the EU and NATO), Russia is questioning their independence, not simply to bolster its own self-image. That may well be only part of what motivated Fedorov and Romanov.
As Brian Whitmore of The Power Vertical explained, the request was not the result of two clowns wasting the Prosecutor’s (and everyone else’s) time, but rather one of many moves made to make the Baltic States seem unstable, to instigate tensions amidst ethnic minorities, and to remind those in Tallinn, Riga, and Vilnius that nobody in either Washington or Brussels is going to go to nuclear war for them, no matter how much of a mess the rouble may be.
That all sounds compelling and may be true. But it is also a demonstration that, even though the Baltic States were able to leave a struggling Soviet Union in 1991, they will not be so easily rid of an imperialist Russia in 2015. For if the Baltic States can use international law to secede from the Soviet Union, then the Soviet Union’s successor can employ it to bring them back again.
Letter of the law
This is not to say that Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have never faltered in their respect for international law. The Baltic treatment of ethnic Russian minorities in particular has been called into question. It is to say, however, that, decades ago, the Baltic States learnt the language of international and European law, and that they have used it to move out of, first the Soviet Union, and then Russia’s orbit.
If the Baltic States can use their history to secure their independence, then Russia can use its own history to question it.
This is the language that Russia is now snidely parroting back to them. If the Baltic States can use their history to secure their independence, then Russia can use its own history to question it.
For if the Baltic States can use rights and laws to speak to the European and international community, then Russia can use them to mock it. And if the Baltic States can cite a central tenet of an international agreement—say, Article V of NATO—to protect itself from aggression, then Russia can use it to argue that it is being provoked. And so on.
There have been other relatively recent incidents of Russia forcing the Baltic States to join it in this legal linguistic funhouse. Last September, Russia asked Lithuania to investigate an individual who refused to serve in the Red Army in the early 1990s. A previous request had been made about a decade prior—and had been refused by the Lithuanian prosecutor. Although this was considered a crime in Russia, it was not so in Lithuania.
But the investigation itself is less relevant than was the reality that Lithuania was forced to argue its judicial independence in Russia’s constitutional court. Similarly, in December 2014, Russia began to award pensions to Red Army veterans living in the Baltic States. These are reminders that Russia, too, could speak of citizens’ rights and responsibilities; even—or especially—if those citizens are Lithuanian.
Russia knows the language (if not the true meaning) of international rights and laws, too, and it can use it to tell the Baltic States and its citizens that it has no intention of going anywhere; and that they cannot use the language to move very far from it.
Are the Baltic States really independent? It’s an absurd question. But it’s the one that Russia is asking, however absurdly, and, for however long it decides to do so, it is therefore the one that Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania must try to continue to answer affirmatively. The very fact that they must do so undermines the affirmation.