Russia and the Baltics: Once Friend, Now Foe

MOSCOW — This may be hard to imagine, but there was a time when the national independence movements in the Baltic states had no greater ally than Russia, and its leader. As Soviet tanks rolled into Vilnius to crush Lithuania’s independence aspirations in January 1991, Boris Yeltsin—speaker of Parliament and head of state of the Russian Federation, then still a constituent part of the USSR—made a strong public stand against the Kremlin’s aggression and backed self-determination for the Baltic republics. In what Western diplomats—and many of his own supporters—considered a “crazy” move, Yeltsin then flew to the Estonian capital of Tallinn to sign a joint statement of mutual support with the leaders of the three Baltic states, as well as separate cooperation treaties with Estonia and Latvia, recognizing their “inalienable right to national independence” in an act that, in the opinion of many observers, prevented further bloodshed. While in Estonia, Yeltsin met with Soviet troops stationed there and urged them to disobey any orders from their Kremlin commanders to crush peaceful demonstrators. On the advice of friends, who had (well-founded) fears that the KGB might try to shoot down his plane, Yeltsin returned to Russia in a private car.

Yeltsin was not alone. At home, Russian public opinion overwhelmingly backed independence for the Baltic states. The Russian Parliament passed a special motion condemning the Soviet aggression against Lithuania—as did, separately, the Moscow and Leningrad city councils. On January 20, 1991, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators went to the streets of Moscow to protest Mikhail Gorbachev’s crackdown in Vilnius and demand the withdrawal of Soviet troops from the Baltic states. Flags of independent Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia (as well as those of Ukraine, Belarus, and other captive nations) were often seen alongside the then-banned Russian tricolors at Moscow’s pro-democracy rallies throughout 1990 and 1991. For Russian democrats, freedom from Communist Party diktat meant freedom for every republic, Russia as well as the others.

Six months later, on July 29, 1991, Boris Yeltsin—by then the popularly elected president of Russia—signed a treaty of friendship and cooperation with his Lithuanian counterpart, Vytautas Landsbergis, officially recognizing what the Kremlin leadership had been denying for decades: that Lithuania (and, by implication, the other two Baltic republics) had been annexed by the Soviet Union, against its will, in June 1940. “We met with Yeltsin face-to-face, and he agreed to my formula that mentioned the Soviet annexation of Lithuania,” Landsbergis told me recently, recalling the 1991 talks. “When the full delegations met to sign the treaty, he suddenly announced that people in his government wanted to remove that clause. I said, ‘Boris Nikolayevich, you are a decent man. We have made an agreement.’ At that moment he turned to members of his delegation and told them abruptly: ‘Yes, we have made an agreement. This matter is over.’ He was a man who had a sense of honor. He was a true friend of Lithuania—and an intelligent one.”

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On August 24, 1991—three days after he led Muscovites in successful popular resistance to a KGB-led coup d’état—Yeltsin signed a decree recognizing the national independence of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania on behalf of the Russian Federation. He had no formal right to do so, since the Soviet Union was still in existence, and Russia was only a constituent part of it—but after the democrats’ victory against the coup, no one could have questioned the Russian president’s decision. It took the United States until September 2nd to follow suit. The Soviet government finally accepted the inevitable and recognized Baltic independence on September 6, 1991. Within four months, Russia itself was an independent state, with the Soviet Union discarded onto the ash heap of history.

In 2012, Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite posthumously awarded Yeltsin the Order of the Cross of Vytis for his personal contribution to bringing about the independence of Lithuania. “It came too late. We should have given it to him in 1991 or 1992,” says Landsbergis. “But it is better late than never—we have finally recognized Yeltsin’s role. The world, however, has yet to do so. Yeltsin took Russia and the whole of Europe to a point at which the red empire was dissolved without a civil war.” The only Baltic state that honored the former Russian leader during his life was Latvia: In 2006, Yeltsin accepted the country’s highest award, the Order of the Three Stars, from President Vaira Vike-Freiberga at the Riga Castle.

In 2013, a bas-relief of Yeltsin was unveiled on Tallinn’s Nunne Street. The monument, created by Estonian sculptor Rene Reinumae and inspired by legendary Russian sculptor Ernst Neizvestny, bears an inscription in three languages—Estonian, Russian, and English. The latter reads: “In memory of Russia’s first president, Boris Yeltsin, to honor his role in the peaceful restoration of Estonia’s independence in 1990–1991.” Funded by individual donations, the bas-relief was conceived and realized by a nonprofit group, Memory Initiative, whose members include Heiki Ahonen, director of Estonia’s Museum of Occupations and a former political prisoner; Marko Mihkelson, chairman of the Estonian Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee; and Matti Pats, the grandson of Konstantin Pats, the first and last president of interwar Estonia, who died in a Soviet psychiatric prison. “We gave so many medals to so many people . . . [but] Boris Nikolayevich, during his life, received nothing,” Igor Grazin, a member of the Estonian Parliament from the ruling Reform Party, said at the unveiling ceremony, which was attended by, among others, Estonian Parliament Speaker Ene Ergma, Tallinn Mayor Edgar Savisaar, former Estonian President Arnold Ruutel, the first leader of independent Belarus, Stanislav Shushkevich, and Russia’s former first lady, Naina Yeltsina—but not by a single representative of the Russian government. “When some rogue in the Duma once again raises his voice about the Baltics’ ‘disrespect’ for Russia . . . I will remember that shameful scene,” remarked Russian radio talk show host Sergei Parkhomenko. “[I will remember] a large crowd of Estonians who came to express gratitude and respect to Russia and its president, and the cowardly absence of Russian politicians and diplomats.”

There was good reason for this absence. During his fifteen-year rule over Russia, Vladimir Putin has erased Yeltsin’s democratic legacy, both in domestic affairs—by censoring the media, fixing elections, jailing opponents, and turning Parliament into a rubber stamp—and in foreign policy, particularly with regard to the “post-Soviet space.” Defying historical fact and common sense, as well as Russia’s official position expressed in its 1991 treaty with Lithuania, Putin’s Foreign Ministry has declared that the incorporation of the Baltic states into the USSR in 1940 was conducted “on consensual basis” and “did not contradict the norms of international law.” For years, the Kremlin’s propaganda machine has accused Baltic governments of “Russophobia” and “the rehabilitation of Nazism”—the same clichés that were used to justify the aggression against Ukraine.

When foreign governments really do discriminate against Russians—as, for example, Turkmenistan’s dictatorship did in 2008, when it unilaterally withdrew recognition of Russian citizenship from more than one hundred thousand ethnic Russians living in the country—the Kremlin remains remarkably indifferent.

Speaking in Riga in September, Konstantin Dolgov, who holds the Orwellian-sounding post of “special representative for human rights, democracy, and the rule of law” at the Russian Foreign Ministry and regularly publishes Soviet-style reports on human rights abuses by Western democracies, pledged that the Kremlin will “go as far as needed” to protect “the interests of compatriots” in the Baltic states. He insisted that this would be done “on the basis of international law,” a claim whose credibility was somewhat undermined by the fact that the Kremlin’s landgrab in Crimea—the first territorial annexation in Europe since World War II—is also considered by the authorities in Moscow to be “lawful.”

While an actual attack on a NATO country is highly improbable, provocations are plenty—including the kidnapping of Estonian intelligence officer Eston Kohver, who is currently in detention in Moscow, and the seizing of a Lithuanian fishing vessel in international waters by the Russian Coast Guard. Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius has called these incidents “a challenge to NATO and [its] credibility.” Meanwhile—in another attempt to rewrite history and erase the memory of Russia’s onetime support for Baltic independence—prosecutors in Moscow have opened criminal cases against Lithuanian citizens who refused to serve in the Soviet army in 1990 and 1991.


Almost a quarter-century after the breakup of the Soviet Union, the Kremlin still holds considerable influence in the Baltic states. Latvia’s Harmony Party and the Estonian Center Party—the ruling parties in the town halls of Riga and Tallinn—have official “cooperation agreements” with Putin’s party, United Russia. While these parties are careful to adopt measured positions with regard to the Kremlin, some political figures are much more outspoken. These include Alexander Mirsky, who represented Latvia in the European Parliament from 2009 to 2014 and has on numerous occasions defended the Kremlin’s actions and badmouthed Russia’s pro-democracy opposition; and Tatiana Zhdanok, a current member of the European Parliament and co-founder of the International Front of the Working People of the Latvian SSR, which campaigned to keep Soviet rule in Latvia in 1989–91. In March 2014, she joined a group of far-right and far-left EU legislators who went to Crimea to pose as “international monitors” at the bogus annexation “referendum,” which they promptly certified as free and fair.

The political views of the Russian-speaking minority in the Baltic states are heavily influenced by pro-Kremlin media, which hold a near-monopoly in the Russian-language news sector there. Whether for lack of means or for lack of will, the governments and the private sector in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have, until now, failed to counter the Kremlin’s well-funded propaganda machine with an adequate media response in the Russian language.

The extent of the Kremlin’s media influence can be seen in the results of Russia’s 2011 parliamentary election among Russian citizens living in the Baltic states. While in Russia itself—despite large-scale fraud—Putin’s party failed to surpass the fifty-percent mark, and while Russians living in other EU states mostly backed the liberal Yabloko party, United Russia received fifty-four percent of the vote in Lithuania, sixty-seven percent in Estonia, and an astounding seventy-seven percent in Latvia.


With time, despotic regimes invariably turn their aggression outward. A government that mistreats and harasses its own citizens and breaks its Constitution can hardly be expected to respect its neighbors and abide by international rules. An uncharitable observer would point out that Putin’s aggressive foreign policy is the price Western leaders are now paying for having turned a blind eye when his regime shut down independent television, purged opponents from Parliament, and dispersed peaceful demonstrations. Now, freed from the democratic checks and balances, the Kremlin can do as it pleases without regard for public opinion.

Indeed, the regime uses foreign policy—backed up by its control over national television, which serves as the primary source of information for more than eighty percent of Russian citizens—to shape public opinion inside Russia. Putin’s “neo-imperial” behavior has domestic origins; his aggression against Ukraine was not primarily motivated by a desire to restore “geopolitical influence” in the former Soviet states—although that would be an added benefit. The chief motivation, after the success of the Maidan in Kyiv, was to prevent its repeat in Moscow. The image of a corrupt authoritarian ruler fleeing his country in a helicopter amid mass popular protests struck too close to home. After tens of thousands of people went to the streets of Moscow in 2011–12 to protest election fraud and Putin’s return to the Kremlin—Russia’s largest pro-democracy demonstrations since 1991—staying in power at all costs became the regime’s principal focus. To keep Ukraine’s revolution from becoming an example for Russian citizens, the Kremlin had to convince television viewers that it was a “coup d’état” and its leaders a “fascist junta,” while the chaos and bloodshed created primarily by Putin himself were claimed to be its inevitable result. The annexation of Crimea and the accompanying propaganda drumbeat was a classic authoritarian ploy to distract domestic public opinion from pervasive corruption, a stagnating economy, and a growing middle-class fatigue with authoritarian rule. “Russian television today is worse than Soviet television was,” says one prominent journalist. “Soviet television took facts and twisted them to suit the Kremlin’s goals. Today’s Russian television simply invents the facts.” These inventions have included a “news story” about Ukrainian soldiers crucifying a child in the eastern city of Slavyansk, and the use of pictures from the war in Syria in stories about Ukraine.

Aggressive policies will not end until Putin’s regime is replaced by a democratically elected government, one that respects its citizens and its neighbors. Needless to say, such political change in Russia is a task for Russian citizens alone. But the Western community has an important role: It must stay true to its values and be careful about its choice of words. For years, Western leaders chose to ignore Putin’s domestic authoritarianism for the sake of continuing “business as usual” with the Kremlin. Now they seem to be rushing to the opposite extreme, talking about “Russia’s” (as opposed to Putin’s) aggression in Ukraine and referring to the restrictive measures introduced against Kremlin officials and oligarchs as “sanctions against Russia.” In the same way, Western media in the 1980s bizarrely referred to the “Russian” war in Afghanistan and the protests against it by “Soviet” academician Andrei Sakharov.

Sometimes words matter no less than actions. In 2012, when the US Congress debated and overwhelmingly passed the Sergei Magnitsky Act, which imposed travel and financial restrictions on Russian officials involved in human rights abuses and corruption, the Kremlin went to great lengths to present it as “sanctions against Russia.” The trick failed: A strong plurality of Russian citizens, according to opinion polls, backed the measure directed against those who violated their civic rights and stole their tax money. Yet too often now, Western leaders do Putin’s work for him, holding “Russia” responsible for what are really Putin’s misdeeds. Targeted sanctions on senior Kremlin figures and financiers were a natural and, indeed, necessary response to the aggression in Ukraine. If anything, they should be expanded. But they should not be presented as “sanctions against Russia.” Indeed, the only sanctions on the Russian people have been imposed by Putin himself, when he banned most food imports from the European Union, and when his government backed a law that would use Russian taxpayers’ money to compensate oligarchs affected by Western sanctions.

Western democracies should be very careful not to be seen as “punishing” Russian citizens for the actions of a regime they can neither hold to account through the media or Parliament nor change in a free election. “The reaction of the international community should be targeted not against Russia but towards creating an atmosphere of moral alienation for the champions of the regime, at the prevention of export of corruption and unprecedented laundering of money stolen from the Russian people,” Mikhail Khodorkovsky, former political prisoner and founder of the Open Russia initiative, said in October addressing a civil society forum in Prague.

As importantly, the international community should engage with Russians who strive for a democratic and European future for their country. Their voices can be heard even now, speaking over the regime’s propaganda bullhorn, which routinely labels Putin’s opponents as “national traitors.” In March and September, tens of thousands of Muscovites marched through the center of the capital to protest the war on Ukraine, chanting “Peace to Ukraine, Freedom to Russia!” and “Russia without Putin!” A nationwide poll conducted by the Levada Center in September showed that nearly one in three Russians support the protesters. These are the voices of tomorrow’s Russia. The West would be wise to listen to them as it considers its strategies toward Vladimir Putin’s regime. If the goal is still a Europe whole and free, it can only be achieved once Europe’s two largest countries, Russia and Ukraine, can be welcomed as full participants.

Vladimir V. Kara-Murza is the coordinator of Open Russia, a platform for democracy and civil society activists. He lives in Moscow.

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