As It Rises, Russia Stirs Baltic Fears

The New York Times
November 11, 2007

EVEN as Jonas Kronkaitis, now retired as Lithuania’s top general, admires the transformation of this once drab Soviet city into a proud member of the New Europe, a worry eats at him: Russian power is rapidly returning to the Baltics, only this time the weapons are oil and money, not tanks.

General Kronkaitis has a unique perspective. He fled Lithuania to America as a boy in 1944, and served nearly 30 years in the United States Army before returning to command his newly independent country’s military in the 1990’s. He engineered its entry into NATO in 2004, thinking this would help cement security for the tiny Baltic nation. Now he says his hopeful view was wrong.

The signs of Russia’s resurgent influence are everywhere in Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia: in Kremlin-financed media; in the financing of local politicians and economic development; in a growing assertiveness, encouraged by Moscow, among the third of the Baltic population that is of Russian heritage; in the Kremlin’s manipulation of its energy supplies as a bludgeon.

These tactics ¬ especially the use of Russian cash ¬ have evoked stress in the Baltics that was unthinkable even five years ago.

“What we are afraid of is the very huge money that comes from Russia that can be used to corrupt our officials,” General Kronkaitis said in an interview. “And I’m talking about very large money. Money can then be used to control our government. Then Lithuania, in a very subtle way, over many years perhaps, becomes dominated and loses its independence.”

“Over many years” may be an understatement, Baltic nationalists say. In 2004, Lithuania’s president was impeached for alleged connections to Russia’s secret service and big business.

It all seems part of a strategy by President Vladimir Putin to revive Russian power in much of Eastern Europe.

For the Balts, any move that angers Russia runs huge risks. Last month, for example, the Estonian state prosecutor charged four ethnic Russians with organizing riots in April to protest the government’s move of a statue of a Soviet soldier from the capital to a suburb as the anniversary of victory in World War II neared. The Russian-language press had egged on the protesters.

“There is reason to believe that financial support and advice to organize mass disorders was also received from the Russian Federation,” the prosecutor said. After the riots, hackers briefly
paralyzed Estonia’s government and banks, and Estonia said the cyberattacks were traced to Kremlin addresses.

The tensions over the riots come as the Baltic countries are trying to challenge Russia’s energy monopoly. All three are resisting an ambitious Russian-German plan to build a pipeline under the
Baltic Sea that would send gas directly from Russia to Western Europe ¬ bypassing the Baltics and cutting them out of transit fees and access to the flow. Estonia has led this opposition, with a challenge on environmental grounds. Many Balts find it disheartening that the former German chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, sits on the board of the joint venture, in which Russians hold a 51 percent interest.

Gazprom, the Russian oil giant, already controls more than 35 percent of Baltic gas companies. Latvia has been cut off from an old Russian oil pipeline since 2003 and Lithuania since 2006,
forcing them to import more expensive oil by ship. The Russians blame pipeline problems, but Latvians and Lithuanians don’t believe that; Estonia was shut off for several weeks after the spring riots.

Any Baltic defiance of Russian pressure is made more emotional by their shared and bitter history. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania began the 20th century under Russia’s czars but gained independence after World War I.

Then, after the Hitler-Stalin nonaggression pact in 1939, Soviet troops swept in and Stalin deported hundreds of thousands of Balts to die in Siberian gulags. When Hitler’s troops marched
through in turn, many Balts saw the Germans as liberators ¬ and significant numbers collaborated with the Nazis to annihilate the region’s Jews.

After the war came an influx of Russian workers whose presence would, in time, be cited by the Soviets to claim that these states should never again get independence. For its part, the Putin
government has campaigned for ethnic Russians to insist on attaining a stronger voice by accepting Baltic citizenship.

“In the Baltics, history is a ghost that still walks the streets in a very active way,” said Daina Eglitis of George Washington University. “It’s not just past, it’s present. But people have different readings on it.”

One example is a Vilnius tourist attraction, the torture chambers of the old K.G.B. headquarters, which had been Gestapo headquarters. It is now the Museum of Genocide Victims, but “genocide”
applies only to what Russians did to Balts ¬ not to what Nazis and their local collaborators did to Jews.
The museum all but ignores the Baltic people’s role in the Holocaust, an omission that angers not only Jews, but also Russians, who view the Soviets as liberators and are now reasserting control over the historical record. For example, a new pan-Baltic Russian-language television station, financed by the Kremlin, often features documentaries that praise the Soviet Union.

About one-third of Lithuania’s television stations are already in Russian. “Russians buy our politicians, they buy our press, and they buy our minds ¬ I think that’s all,” Indre Makaraityte, editor of Revival, an independent Lithuanian newspaper, said sarcastically.

She organized a demonstration in May to support Estonia against the ethnic Russians’ protests and show solidarity with the West. But she says she was disheartened when European and American
leaders took a week to condemn Russia after the riots.

“We became members of NATO and E.U. expecting we would be defended immediately,” she said. “There’s a fear of Russia, and a fear that we are again alone, not defended by our Western partners. They are too na?ve in evaluating Russia.”