Monday, October 15, 2007

History matters

American columnist Anne Applebaum writes brilliant overview of some of the hottest Eastern European historical arguments, including that between Tallinn and Moscow. Intriguingly it starts about Skype, but it really implies that the US should support recently born European democracies, not reborn Stalinists further East.

A large part of the argument between the two lies in historical grievances, which are messy, complicated and unpleasant for an outsider:

From the safe standpoint of Washington or London, it's easy to dismiss this historical discussion as retrograde, paranoid, even a drag on economic development. And it's true that discussing history with the Russians probably hasn't been good for Russian-Estonian trade. Nor has debating what happened in Katyn fixed Poland's crumbling roads. One Estonian politician told me that a German colleague had instructed him to forget about history and move on, saying that "you're wasting your time."

Earlier I wrote about the exemption the Baltic States recently were given by the European Court of Human Rights in the ongoing Russia(ns) vs Baltic States politically charged cases. Those are the rulings of landmark importance, because they make, based on emotionless legal approach, historic arguments relevant to today’s events. By bringing history into ongoing practice the ECHR completely changed the picture.
This experience shows us, first, that in the West (broadly defined from Estonian perspective) or at least by one of its important institution, history had already been made a part of present disputes between Russia and the Eastern European democracies.
And secondly, the court test show that once looked upon with necessary thoroughness anyone neutral would make the same conclusion.
It’s good for us that awareness of the historic facts has begun spreading.

Friday, October 12, 2007

BBC Mardell's fight against windmills

BBC's Mark Mardell has recently been on a fact-finding mission to Latvia, exploring the controversy of the so-called "stateless persons" (Stateless in Latvia). He described his impressions and discoveries in his BBC blog. As a consequence of touching upon this sensitive subject he was assailed by both ethnic Balts and ethnic Russians, which compelled him to write another entry, available here: Latvia: An afternoon's blogging.

First, he notes how hot is the issue of ideological conflict between Latvians and Russians:

A hornets' nest indeed, Max. I seem to have upset a number of you by putting the case of some Russians in Latvia.
One of the important issues which he found during his endeavors is the discovery of the ban on political activity, applied by the Latvian state on the former members of Communist Party. No doubt the finding that in the EU of today some people are banned from politics on the ground of their political preferences puzzled him. Latvian commentators in his blog seemingly attempted to dispute or diminish this finding, despite this effort such thing exists and works as described. According to Mardell:

Yevgeni Drobot is not banned from Latvian politics because he was a member of the 1991 Latvian Soviet, as he told me, but because he was a member of the Communist Party and represented them in that Soviet. I don't think this merits Peteris' description of a lie.
But perhaps the greatest sign of controversy of the issue are the cynical parallels being drawn by the commentators within the question of oppressor vs oppressed, embodied in the following quote from Mardell:

Indeed, I found among the most interesting contributions those that compared the situation to whites in post colonial Africa and, introducing a very different perspective, American soldiers in Iraq.
So, who are the Soviets in the Baltics as compared to the Americans in Iraq and whites in South Africa? And is it Ok to impose political restrictions on people on the basis of their political preferences?

Concerning the first question I find it telling that Zimbabwe, a country which virtually purged its so-called descendants of the former colonist population (white farmers) has not been internationally reprimanded for this particular behaviour. Surely Zimbabwe has extremely bad international image. Many wrongs of the regime are described in a number of scary sounding reports by AI, HRW and others informal groups. None of them however seems to address the issue of expelling the descendants of former colonial masters from this African country. To cut long story short confiscating property and expelling large part of whites is at most one of the smallest accusations, which Zimbabwe's regime faces internationally (see this entry in Wikipedia on outstanding Zimbabwe's human rights issues).
Therefore I find Mr Mardell's quote, in which he addresses "the situation of whites in post colonial Africa", referring to the question whether "is it acceptable for white Africans to be excluded from the franchise on the basis that their ancestors came as colonialists and occupiers" intellectually unchallenging. It has been done and judging on the fact that Zimbabwe, as the country which recently did just that, but nevertheless does not have this particulr issue listed in the verdict, it is acceptable. If you find a colonists' descendant and if you are really angry and don't care you can just take him or her and put on the other side of the boder. You are going to hurt your international image, big time - if you have one. You are going to spoil the relations with the foreign country from which these people originate. But if you really want it you can do it without any fatal consequences. The UK may have different opinion on this, but this is because UK is the foreign country from the example.

But what about another parallel made in Mardell's blog, the parallel between the Russians in the Baltic states and the American soldiers in Iraq? The (civilian) Baltic Russians shouldn't be held responsible for the actions of Stalin regime and its infamous NKVD executioners, should they? How about non-civilian?
The Red Army in the Baltics and the US (or British) Army in Iraq cannot be compared. Though the war in Iraq itself could not be considered "perfect" by strict standards - far from it - the soldiers fighting it are, however, protected as they occupy Iraq legally, doing so on the basis of several UN Security Council's subsequent resolutions. Though the US has got no per se clear permit for the start of the war, follow-up occupation is explicitly endorsed by the international body, the UN.
The Red Army in the Baltic states lacked that protection with the USSR expelled from the League of Nations shortly before the invasion. Important source of legal expertise on the occupation of the Baltic states is the following quote from the European Court of Human Right's caselaw (Penart vs Estonia 2006 ruling, Wiki):
The Court notes, first, that Estonia lost its independence as a result of the Treaty of Non-Aggression between Germany and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (also known as “Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact”), concluded on 23 August 1939, and the secret additional protocols to it. Following an ultimatum to set up Soviet military bases in Estonia in 1939, a large-scale entry of the Soviet army into Estonia took place in June 1940. The lawful government of the country was overthrown and Soviet rule was imposed by force. The totalitarian communist regime of the Soviet Union conducted large-scale and systematic actions against the Estonian population, including, for example, the deportation of about 10,000 persons on 14 June 1941 and of more than 20,000 on 25 March 1949. After the Second World War, tens of thousands of persons went into hiding in the forests to avoid repression by the Soviet authorities; part of those in hiding actively resisted the occupation regime. According to the data of the security organs, about 1,500 persons were killed and almost 10,000 arrested in the course of the resistance movement of 1944-1953. Interrupted by the German occupation in 1941-1944, Estonia remained occupied by the Soviet Union until its restoration of independence in 1991. Accordingly, Estonia as a state was temporarily prevented from fulfilling its international commitments.
Here I attempt to list the differences between Iraq's and Baltics' situations, which arise from ECHR ruling:
1. The Baltic states (provided that the events of Soviet occupation were similar in all three Baltic entities) were occupied illegally as opposed to legal occupation of Iraq. This creates whole specter of problems both for Russia and former Soviet Union citizens in the Baltic states. For example it may turn those people (there seems to be no political will to do so) into illegal colonists under international war conventions;
2. There's no question on who were those opposing the illegal occupation by force. According to the ruling they were members of the resistance movement. Those in Iraq have not so far been proclaimed members of resistance movement, but terrorists by every government I can think about and this part is unlikely to ever be reversed.
An important consequence of this conclusion for those who had taken part in the anti-occupation movement is that in one case they may be convicted for their violent struggle (Iraq), in the other case they may not (Baltic states). Even more important: these definitions are also relevant to the fate of those who fought back;
3. There were massive war crimes committed against the peoples of the Baltic states. Even though US soldiers have occasionally been arrested for crimes committed in Iraq against civilians, the war in question is clean - they had not taken part in any deportations or military-approved executions;
4. Estonian state is proclaimed by the Court to temporarily cease to exist. It was continuously recognized as de jure state, as opposed to de facto state of the former Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic (in real control of the territory) by a number of countries as opposed to Iraq's former government, which has no exile officials and is not recognized by any country anymore. Therefore whoever entered a Baltic State in between 1940 and 1991 had obligation to take into consideration the laws of that particular state, that is not the laws of Estonian or Latvian SSR, which are and have been null and void.

Papa, kill NATO man!
Russian nationalist poster of 2005, modelled after famous WWII anti-German poster,

Last but not least, we are talking about ruling of the international court from 2006.
Even though the courts sometimes rule on historic claims they never rule on history on merits. The reason why the international court gives historic perspective in operational part of his judgment in 2006 is that the events of 1939-1945 are in fact relevant today. They are changing the lives, material well-being and self-esteem of the people of 2006, in particular cases the lives of former CPSU, Soviet Army and security forces personnel. This makes it necessary to look into the relevant historic events, which the court did.
The idea that history can be sidestepped in modern power relations is sometimes an illusion, even though wide-spread and compelling. One could go even further by saying that even though an expression exists that all humans are born equal, circumstances surrounding the birth make virtually every one of us unequal. Mr Mardell has taken the easy path if he thought he could sidestep history and look at today's events, as if today's picture can be miracleously separated from the past.
But on this seemengly easy path he is facing the danger of making miscalculations. I refer to his astonishment over the case of the political ban on some of the former communists in Latvia. Mr Mardell obviously does not know that this case has already gone through the hurdle of European court's bureaucracy (see case Zhdanoka vs Latvia) and can now be considered "settled". For good.
The ban on some former communists might be illegal in UK (and Mr Mardell's amazement quite right), but - according to ECHR - it is legal in Latvia, because exactly that: in Latvia and elsewhere in the Baltic states historical circumstances were different.
And even for the left-leaning thinkers such as found in the ranks of BBC, European human rights' court has to be a big deal. After all it is the old good court of people's law, set by the left-leaning thinkers of the past. If even that court gives justice to Latvia then what more is it there for a BBC correspondent to investigate?
Finally, Mardell hopes that his corporative ethics would guide him even trough the waters as deep as those:
As a long-term BBC journalist, I hope fairness and balance are in my blood, and inherent in that is reflecting a whole range of opinions and giving you an insight into how other people think, however infuriating some of you will find that.
I find that Mr Mardell might have placed too high hopes on his professional ethics and training. In his blog he applied massive (though not complete) censorship against my comments. This is understandable, given his apparent inability or unwillingness to take into consideration background, historic information. This is done despite the fact that background and history are of paramount importance for comprehension of the events of the past and the present. His unwillingness is understandable. But wrong.

As a commentator I have written thousands of comments in dozens of online as well as sometimes offline publications. BBC blog makes it the only one in its kind where my comments were censored, on part with a German leftist russophile blog and Kremlin-controlled news portal in Russia, where I have been banned for 10 years for voicing opposition to the anti-Georgian hysteria in the country.

But I believe that in an open society censorship may create more problems than it provides solutions. In particular case my thoughts on the subjects (above) are still there for those who care, as well as my added criticism of the policy of BBC, which is both googleable and technorati-able, meaning it still floats above BBC blog page almost as clearly as if it were posted right there.

There's no wins for Mr Mardell and BBC, only loses.