VILNIUS - The Baltic states won a tremendous moral victory last week when the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe urged Russia to acknowledge the occupation of the Baltics and to help alleviate some of its consequences, such as supporting the return of persons deported to Siberia.
The PACE resolution was passed despite intense pressure from Russian delegates, who at the very least wanted to extirpate the word "occupation" from the final text. "We think that, as a historic fact, the occupation of the Baltic states must be included in the resolution," said Algirdas Paleckis, chairman of Lithuania's PACE delegation, during discussion over the resolution.
Baltic delegates to the assembly rejoiced at their victory.
"It was a micro Zalgiris battle. The Russian delegation did everything to cancel the word 'occupation,' but failed. All the Baltic states are celebrating this victory," Lithuania's Emanuelis Zingeris, who urged Russia to follow Germany's example in recognizing its historic wrongs, was quoted as saying.
"We have consolidated our historic positions and are very happy about it," he said.
The Russian delegation, led by Federal Council [upper house of Russia's parliament] member Konstantin Kosachev proposed canceling the word "occupied," arguing that Russia did not officially recognize the Baltics' occupation. He also reminded the summer session of PACE that the Soviet Union had returned the regions of Klaipeda and Vilnius to Lithuania.
The proposal, however, was rejected by a vote of 44 to 64, with 12 abstentions.
"[Kosachev's] statement that Russia does not legally recognize the occupation is a step back compared to an agreement signed by President Boris Yeltsin," Zingeris said.
He added that Lithuania's Foreign Ministry should ask Russia to explain whether Kosachev had expressed Moscow's official position and if it negated the 1991 agreement, referring to when former Russian president Yeltsin signed an agreement with Lithuania acknowledging the country's annexation and vowing to eliminate its consequences.
PACE's recognition of Soviet occupation of the Baltics gained even more clout when the European Parliament supported the resolution during a meeting in Brussels on June 22. EP President Josep Borrell even opened the meeting with a speech dedicated to the 65th anniversary of the occupation. In June 1940, Borrell said, three countries that are EU members today 's Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia 's lost their independence because of the Soviet occupation, calling it "our history."
The president also noted that countries forgetting their history run the risk of repeating it.
A proposal to adopt a resolution on the occupation of the Baltics had been submitted to European Parliament earlier, but it failed to earn enough support.
In another blow to Russia, the PACE resolution expresses concern over President Vladimir Putin's "strengthening of the vertical authority," which aims to restrict the activities of political parties and the media.
PACE urged Moscow to ensure democratic rights - including the freedom of speech - to peacefully settle the conflict in Chechnya, withdraw its forces from Moldova, and stop supporting separatist movements in Georgia's autonomous regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
"We are concerned about the apportionment of powers which, because of the further development of Putin's 'controlled democracy,' is threatened by strong power wielded from the top down," said Rudolf Bindig, a Germany Social Democrat who, together with British Conservative David Atkinson, presented the report on Russia to PACE.
"Media freedom is visibly limited; the Kremlin is constantly extending its influence over television and the press," he said.
"The question arises as to whether there is democracy with signs of authoritarianism or authoritarianism with signs of democracy in Russia at the moment. This reflects the spirit of the PACE report in fulfilling Russia's commitments," Lithuanian delegation member Birute Vesaite commented.
For Balts, the PACE and EP gestures, though non-binding and largely symbolic, point to a turning point in getting Europe to understand the three countries' history. Indeed, in her speech to Latvia's Parliament before the summer recess, President Vaira Vike-Freiberga said the recent public relations efforts have broadened and deepened Europe's perception of Baltic history.
"We have achieved an objective assessment of past events that so far have been neglected. We have induced Europe to think about historical lessons in a more penetrating, broader and more balanced manner. We have received a confirmed understanding about the occupation period we had to endure and sincere support toward further efforts to develop democracy," said Vike-Freiberga, adding that she had received letters of support from a number of countries.
The Latvian president, criticized by many Balts for her decision to go to Moscow to partake in the recent Victory Day celebrations, made it her personal goal to use the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II to show that May 9, 1945 signified the beginning of a new occupation.
In the meantime, Russia's anti-Baltic PR campaign has refused to let up. Foreign Minister Antanas Valionis expressed outrage over Russia's hostile statements about the Baltic states on June 15.
On June 14, the Day of Mourning and Hope, local Russian TV channels broadcast statements denying Lithuania's occupation by Chairman of the Russian Duma's CIS Affairs Committee Andrey Kokoshkin, fellow committee member Viktor Alksnis and chairman of the Duma's International Affairs Committee Konstantin Kosachev. The broadcast aired just as the nation began a ceremony in memory of the thousands of Lithuanians deported to Siberia during the Soviet era.
"I am deeply disappointed with Russian politicians' lack of human sensibility for the sufferings that our nation experienced during the years of Soviet occupation, although I am no longer surprised with such statements," Valionis. He asked that the spread of disinformation via Russian television rebroadcast in Lithuania cease.
It was hard to understand why "relentless propaganda directed against our state is being rebroadcast freely," the minister said. He added that the Lithuanian Radio and Television Commission should "not merely deliberate whether the activity of such trumpets conforms to the public information law and other effective legislation, but should also suggest ways to discontinue misinformation that offends Lithuanians and stop instigating ethnic discord."
In response to the problem, the commission took, within the limits of its competence, appropriate measures against Company Pervy Baltiskiy Kanal, which is registered in Latvia and re-broadcasts Russian TV products.
Since the beginning of its membership in 1996, Russia has ratified only 46 of 200 Council of Europe conventions. PACE has decided to continue monitoring the implementation of Russia's commitments.