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Russia judiciary questions legality of Baltic countries’ independence

Europe's East

Russia judiciary questions legality of Baltic countries’ independence

The television tower in Vinius, where 13 people were killed by the Soviet army in 1991.

[Lithuanian Presidency]

A move in Russia to review the legality of a 1991 decision formally granting Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia independence from the USSR has alarmed the Baltic states and stoked tensions with Moscow.

The Baltic states declared independence in 1990 and 1991, and activists in Lithuania and Latvia were killed in attempts by Soviet forces to quell rebellions. The events have been a matter of particular sensitivity in the three countries since Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine, another former Soviet republic.

The Russian prosecutor-general’s office said yesterday (30 June) it would review a decision by the Soviet Union’s State Council, the highest organ of state power, in the last months of the Soviet empire, to recognise the break. Two members of the United Russia party loyal to President Vladimir Putin have termed it treason.

The Kremlin said on Wednesday it was not familiar with the move. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said he knew nothing of it and experts said the legal consequences of such a review would not be far-reaching.

But the Baltic States, now members of the European Union and the NATO defence alliance, were outraged.

“The entire issue is legally absurd,” Estonian Foreign Minister Keit Pentus-Rosimannus told Reuters in response to an emailed question. “It serves as yet another example of the resurgent imperialistic mood that unfortunately exists in Russia.”

Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskait? said:

“Our independence was gained through the blood and sacrifice of the Lithuanian people. No one has the right to threaten it. Only we will decide our fate.”

Thirteen civilians were killed in January 1991, 11 months before the Soviet Union collapsed, when the Soviet army stormed a Vilnius television tower and the headquarters of the TV station.

Struggle for independence

Relations between Moscow and the Baltic states, annexed by the Soviet Union during World War Two under a 1939 Nazi-Soviet pact, have long been strained; but tensions have increased since the start of a rebellion in largely Russian-speaking parts of eastern Ukraine.

Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia have Russian-speaking minorities and were unnerved by a statement by Putin last year declaring Moscow had the right to intervene with military force if necessary to protect Russian speakers abroad.

Russia’s chief prosecutor has already provided a legal opinion that the transfer of Crimea from Russia to Ukraine in 1954, when both were parts of the Soviet Union, was illegal. Crimea was annexed by Russia last year.

Some historians say Russia is waging “wars of memory” with the West and countries that were once in the Soviet Union, such as the Baltic states, by interpreting history in different ways to suit political views.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov appeared to seek to distance the presidential administration from the moves by the prosecutor-general’s office.

“In the Kremlin we were not familiar with this initiative, and I struggle to understand the essence of this initiative,” he told reporters.