MPs seek Soviet occupation damages: Softly softly should be the Latvian approach, says victims' representative

  • 2000-10-12
  • Nick Coleman
RIGA - A move by Fatherland and Freedom MPs to claim compensation from Russia for Soviet-era damage to Latvia has met with a lukewarm response from other members of the country's coalition government.

Fatherland and Freedom will present a bill to Parliament which, if passed, would establish a commission to assess damage inflicted by the Soviet Union and the Russian Federation between 1940 and 1994, the year of the last troop withdrawals from Latvia. A delegation would also be established to negotiate levels of compensation and methods of payment with a corresponding delegation which Russia would be asked to form.

But the main object of the bill is moral rather than financial, said Juris Sinka, Fatherland and Freedom MP.

"Damage done by Soviet rule now causes real difficulties and sadness. This is also an attempt to save Russia's soul," he said. "It would be great if we could bring them to the conference table."

Sinka expressed particular concern for the tens of thousands of Latvians deported to Siberia in the Soviet era and their families. Compensation money could be used to help returnees whose land has been settled by others and to help deportees and their families who are still living in the Krasnoyarsk region of Siberia and experiencing hardship, he said.

Among those who lost property Sinka highlighted the cause of Latvians deported from the Abrane region of Latvia before it was annexed to Russia in 1944 when it was renamed Pytalovo.

"It's reasonable to ask Russia to find a way of paying these people," said Sinka.

As the Soviet Union's successor Russia could also be asked to top up the pensions of those who worked during the Soviet era, said Sinka.

But Kristiana Libane, leader of Latvia's Way, was at the forefront of those questioning Fatherland and Freedom's initiative.

"Why wake up to this issue now? There have been extensive consultations with experts around the world over the last ten years and none have offered to help or said we are guaranteed to receive reparations," Libane said.

"Fatherland and Freedom should have asserted their moral viewpoint ten years ago. If this bill is passed, we'd ask a minister from their party to take responsibility for leading the delegation to Moscow."

Speaking on state radio Foreign Minister Indulis Berzins said the bill would damage relations with Russia.

"Our relations with Russia are already not at all simple," said Berzins.

"This would complicate them further."

Russia has reacted angrily to similar moves in Lithuania supported by the chairman of the Lithuanian parliament Vytautas Landsbergis.

The record of Latvian collaboration with the Soviet regime may undermine attempts to lay all the blame at Russia's door. But a Lithuanian government inter-departmental commission last week calculated the harm done by Soviet rule in Lithuania at 80 billion litas ($20 billion). Latvian damages could total 15.29 billion lats ($25 million), said Karlis Daukts, a lecturer in political science at the University of Latvia.

Sinka acknowledges that there is not now a great thirst for justice among Latvians.

"People are resigned," he said. "But if they could separate themselves from their everyday lives and needs, the vast army of pensioners who are very short of money would say 'yes'."

Dainis Vanags is the leader of the Commission for Assessment of the Crimes of Totalitarian Regimes, a Riga-based non-governmental organization that supports victims of both Nazi and Soviet occupation.

"The Latvian state currently supports returnees from Siberia. But Russia should be paying for the damage it did," Vanags said. "If Germany is paying money to support victims of the Nazis, then Russia should do the same."

Compensation should not only be for direct victims of the Soviet regime, Vanags believes.

"They damaged our economy, culture and language," he said. "People were imprisoned for celebrating traditional holidays. Anything connected to Latvia's pre-occupation independence such as symbols and colors was banned. Of course, it's difficult to say how much should be claimed for cultural damage and Russification of our language, but many books and paintings were taken from Latvia."

Gaining financial compensation could be an uphill task, Vanags acknowledges, but the process is important, he says "if only to show the world what Russia has done."

Like Sinka, Vanags emphasizes the symbolic importance of a compensation process to the Soviet Union's aging victims.

"We only need understanding from Russia. We shouldn't make ultimatums," he said.

"If those who suffered knew that what they lost would one day be restored to their children, that would be enough. It could take 10 or 20 years."