Most stubborn survivor speaks out

  • 2001-05-17
  • Nick Coleman
RIGA - In a damp flat in downtown Riga, at the headquarters of the Equal Rights Party, Nick Coleman met newly elected party chairwoman Tatyana Zhdanok. Famous for being a thorn in the side of Latvia's establishment, she recently converted to supporting European Union accession, but she insists she has stuck by her principles.

In 1999, after a two-and-a-half- year legal struggle, Zhdanok was removed from her post as a Riga city councilor because of her refusal to renounce her Communist Party membership in 1991. She is now awaiting a hearing in the European Court of Human Rights which, she hopes, will overturn the dismissal.

She only gained Latvian citizenship in 1996 after a lengthy legal battle in which she proved the Latvian origins of her Jewish family, many of whom died in Riga's ghetto at the hands of the Arajs commando - a unit of Latvian Nazi collaborators - in 1941. The Equal Rights Party is one of three parties which make up the For Human Rights in a United Latvia parliamentary coalition - known for speaking on behalf of Latvia's minorities.

The Baltic Times: Was your difficulty in gaining citizenship due to anti-Semitism?

Tatyana Zhdanok: Yes. After I got citizenship Rigas Balss newspaper claimed the court had ignored the law. They ran interviews with the immigration officials who had denied me citizenship and mocked me. They highlighted different versions of my family name on the documents I had used to prove my case - the history of these old Jewish names is complicated and the documents were in Russian.

I had been denied citizenship because my grandmother was not here in 1940 - she had gone to study in St. Petersburg before World War I. But all the rest of my family were citizens living here. They were a rich family from Rezekne. A street was named after them and they supported local charitable projects. All of them died in the ghetto. I took Rigas Balss to court for defamation and won.

TBT: Once Latvia's independence was restored, many formerly convinced communists renounced communism. They acknowledged its immorality. Why didn't you?

Zhdanok: I was a mathematics professor, a party member, but not part of the party hierarchy. People in Parliament changed their clothes once being a member of the Communist Party could no longer help their careers. But I considered it dishonest to leave one's party because of hard times. The idea of communism is nice. It is like being a Christian. You do not renounce your belief because of bad things done by the crusaders.

But I am not a real communist. Maybe I am a social democrat. I am for evolution, not revolution, for combining the good parts of socialism and capitalism.

When perestroika began I was teaching in Latvia University's economics department and I advocated economic reform within the Soviet Union. When the Popular Front was launched I saw that it was dangerously nationalistic - this was obvious from the liquidation of the Russian language as a medium of instruction at Latvia University, where one third of classes were taught in Russian.

After attempts were made to remove me from my university post in 1990 I stood for election (to the Supreme Council). We opposed restoring the inter-war Latvian republic, not because we were against independence as such, but because we preferred economic reforms to retrograde steps.

Once independence was established I believed the Communist Party could continue to be part of the democratic, multi-party system. Even though it continued to be a legal party until September 1991, people who stayed in it after January 1991 were barred from public office. So in 1999 I was punished for having been a member of a legal political party. I did nothing wrong and I will win at the European Court of Human Rights.

TBT: Until recently you consistently opposed Latvia's plans to join the European Union. What's happened?

Zhdanok: There are two types of people who may become Euroskeptics in Eastern Europe. The first are xenophobes, extreme nationalists and neo-fascists who are against democratization and opening borders to migrant workers. These people will increase in number because unfortunately Latvia is sick with xenophobia and nationalism.

Our approach when we created the Equal Rights Party in 1993 was based on economic reason. We understood the positive influence of the EU, the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in democratization and guaranteeing the rights of minorities. But we also knew that complete acceptance of the EU's rules would lead to the destruction of our industry and agriculture. Historically our industry was linked to that of the Soviet Union. Raw materials were cheaper on the Soviet market. Our policies were based on serious economic investigation, not populist slogans. We looked at Finland, which had good relations with the Soviet Union as a source of cheap raw materials. We wanted to be a financial bridge between the East and the West.

But now Latvia has missed the train. EU accession is irreversible. The older members of the EU have profited from enlargement and the candidate countries have been sacrificed economically. A girl has been violated and now she needs to be married. We have to say yes to membership in order to get some profit.

At a congress of the New European Left Forum in Sweden last September there was a big debate between groups in favor of the EU and those opposed. That was the final step when I realized we have to stop our Euroskepticism.

TBT: But you are still opposed to NATO?

Zhdanok: Yes. Events in Yugoslavia show how dangerous NATO is for Europe. I just read an interesting book which claims the purpose of the war in Yugoslavia was to weaken the euro.

TBT: You believe that?

Zhdanok: I'm a scientist so I have to investigate things carefully, but it may be true. The Baltic states are not the same as Poland, as we hear in the official propaganda. If the Western forces don't want the destruction of Russia and the whole region, which would be dangerous for Europe, they have to agree to the Baltic region being free of nuclear arms and to it keeping this historical closeness to Russia.

TBT: The introduction of the new language law last autumn did not produce the disturbances threatened by your party. Does that mean the Russian-speaking community has no objections?

Zhdanok: The goal of the campaign was to change feelings and behavior. Russian people were afraid to use their language, even though the majority of Riga's inhabitants are non-Latvian. Russians are afraid to speak when traveling by public transport, whereas Latvians speak loudly. We encouraged people to use their language, so that it won't be lost in public places. We wanted to show that Russian is a minority language which is not to be lost. It wasn't a campaign against the Latvian language but a campaign against assimilation. Minorities everywhere are afraid to lose their identity. Children are split from their parents, they belong to a different nation. But the introduction of the language law produced less conflict because of our struggles as well as the international involvement.

TBT: Don't you think leaders such as yourself have a responsibility to restrain the Russian-language media in their adulation of the National Bolshevik movement, which glorifies violence?

Zhdanok: That is not my task. I've done what I can to keep the process peaceful and for this I've been criticized by the National Bolsheviks and become their enemy. They have tried to participate in our public demonstrations, which has erased their purpose. In 1998 when there were a lot of protests we were using normal, peaceful slogans, but the National Bolsheviks were campaigning nearby with their radical slogans, their bad language and cutting up symbols and pictures of officials. It was similar to racism. Latvian journalists filmed them and portrayed them as the same as us. On Victory Day (commemorating the end of World War II) they joined the procession of veterans and we asked the police to arrest them, which provoked a lot of discussion in the Russian press.

Similarly on March 16 when the Latvian legionnaires marched we got permission for a counter-protest and we held up slogans against fascists and nationalism. Suddenly (Vladimir) Moskovtsev (convicted last week for assisting in the seizure of St. Peter's church tower by members of the National Bolshevik Party) appeared with a red balloon bearing a portrait of Stalin. Our boys tried to stop him. It's pure provocation for the foreign media. It makes us look the same. But if minorities are deprived of their rights the National Bolsheviks will win more supporters.

TBT: You were recently accused by the former chairman of the Equal Rights Party, Sergejs Dimanis, of being responsible for your party's inability to unite with other members of the For Human Rights in a United Latvia coalition to form a single party. Was the accusation true?

Zhdanok: Dimanis lied, saying that I opposed unity. It is regrettable that he didn't want to leave peacefully. He had lost all his support because of his absence from party affairs. Many people complained about him at last year's party conference, but I didn't want conflict. We re-elected him for another year but he disappeared completely. There are no problems between the three parties which make up For Human Rights in a United Latvia. We had good results in the municipal elections in March.

TBT: Some Latvians seem frightened by the success of the left in the elections.

Zhdanok: The idea of us as a red threat is false. We're a normal party, not a typical left wing party. Our priority and that of Mr. (Janis) Jurkans (leader of the coalition) is integration, minority rights and human rights. As long as these are not guaranteed we can't use leftist slogans because private initiative helps minorities survive when they are not allowed into the civil service. We look for practical solutions. Sometimes we vote for right wing solutions, for example regarding privatization. We supported the rights of foreigners to own privatized land because we wanted non-citizens to be able to buy that land too. We make decisions through the prism of equal rights.

TBT: It sounds like you've moved a long way in 10 years.

Zhdanok: We're unorthodox. There were attempts to label us Stalinists in 1990, but I was inconvenient because I was not like my colleagues. That is why they deprived me of my mandate. Equal Rights is composed of constructive, thinking people. We haven't changed in that. But our opponents have needed an enemy and have tried to cast us in that role.

Anti-Balt talk trips up Ilves again


Estonian Foreign Minister Toomas Hendrik Ilves has caused another wave of fury among supporters of Baltic unity by a recent interview to the Wall Street Journal Europe. Only a week ago Ilves praised Pan-Baltic cooperation and named Latvia and Lithuania as Estonia's closest political partners, but now it seems he has turned his back on the Baltics again.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs was not troubled by Ilves' usage of four-letter words when speaking about the Baltic states. Taavi Toom, head of media relations at the ministry, said the quote was taken out of the context of the interview, which Ilves gave last fall. The story was eventually published on May 10 this year.

"I do not feel like a Balt. And who the f*** are they to tell me how I should feel?" Ilves is quoted as saying. He claims the lines were misused by the journalist, Benjamin Smith.

Ilves told the Baltic News Service agency that rather than referring to Latvia or Lithuania he was commenting on the opinion of one Western diplomat who said Estonians should not think of themselves other than as a Baltic state that used to be part of the former Soviet Union.

"The foreign minister's emotional reaction was directed against supercilious attitudes that lack an understanding of our history and cultural values. No one else should have the power of decision over us as the case has repeatedly been in the past," commented Toom on Ilves' statements.

Toom added that the minister's opinion of Baltic cooperation was expressed by his recent foreign policy report in Parliament in which Ilves lauded its success.

However, Ilves admitted that after the publication of the story he was honest when he mentioned he did not feel like a Balt and that the root of the problem is the notion of the three Baltic states linked together. All that Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have in common are negative things, Ilves argues.

"You get invaded on the same day, you get forcibly shoved into the Soviet Union on the same day, you have mass deportations on the same day. I don't think this is a national bond," the Wall Street Journal Europe quotes Ilves as saying.

The opposition reported it was disappointed, but could barely conceal its pleasure at being handed a ready-made scandal. The Center Party in a written statement released on May 11 demanded Ilves apologize to Latvians and Lithuanians.

"The Center Party is disappointed with another of Ilves' statements disparaging Baltic cooperation," read the release.

The foreign minister's idea that by insulting its neighbors Estonia can change its image for Northern and Western European countries is erroneous, the statement continued.

Edgar Savisaar, chairman of the Center Party, said Ilves had never behaved like the foreign minister of Estonia. "Above all he has been simply a representative of U.S. business interest groups in Estonia. Until now he has not realized what reality is in Estonia and will probably eventually settle in some comfortable professorship overseas," said Savisaar.

The opposition leader added that the foreign minister is harming Estonia's relations with her neighboring countries.

Ilves' party colleagues from the Moderates said his remarks do not deserve to be condemned.

Juri Tamm, a member of the Baltic Assembly delegation and a member of Parliament, said it is necessary in politics for one not to hide behind a curtain but to state outright what one thinks.

"Criticism makes us step up efforts so that Baltic unity will no longer be just a notion," said Tamm.