Who’s a Freedom Fighter? A Simple Question, Difficult to Answer

By Laas Leivat (January 6, 2012)

Defense minister and former prime minister Mart Laar has declared that by next summer all those Estonian Second World War veterans who fought against Soviet forces will be officially designated as ‘freedom fighters’. This is the recognition that the veterans themselves have been demanding for two decades.

It had seemed to be a straight forward promise, taking into account that it was also part of the political agreement struck between the governing Reform and Pro Patria-Res Publica Union parties. The agreement details the legislative initiatives to which both parties will lend their support – in reality the glue that holds the government together.

But Laar’s announcement was the perfect target for the inevitable attack surmounted by the opposition. One of the more cynical criticisms was the suggestion that Laar, by raising a predictably controversial issue was attempting to divert attention from the recent ‘resident permits’ scandal with which two members of his party were imputed to be involved. It would follow that the ‘freedom fighter’ designation would thus be welcomed by the nationalistic wing of the Pro Partia party and also be attractive for all similarly oriented voters.

Some critics have raised the ever-lingering issue of Moscow’s reaction. They point to the timing of the debate, a time where Putin would welcome a foreign policy controversy that would hopefully galvanize Russians irrespective of their pro- or anti-Putin stances and at least partially distract them from the current wide-spread condemnation of the Kremlin. Most claim, that this argument mainly posed by Moscow-friendly Estonians is wishful thinking and carries little credibility.

Perhaps more reason for concern would be the position of the UK’s Daily Mail that Estonia has provoked international anger with plans to honour ‘nazi collaborators’. It uses as an expert source Johan Bäckman, a Finnish pro-Russian activist, the head of the World Without Nazism organization who is rabidly anti-Estonia and is said to have a close affiliation with Russia’s clandestine services.

(The current verbal confrontation in public follows the aftermath of Latvian prime minister Valdis Dombrovskis’ threat in November to dismiss any government minister who participates in the March 16 remembrance day of Latvian Legionaires who fought in German uniforms. The vast majority of Latvians who made up the two-division military complement were organized by forced mobilization, not by voluntary recruitment. The 16th of March was designated as a national remembrance day, but through opposition by the Russian speaking population and international pressure it has been removed from the official list.)

Related to this is Moscow’s threat to bring the issue up with the European Union and Nato. In a statement the Russian embassy in Tallinn emphasized that, “As in the past, we refer to the cover-up of crimes committed by Nazi collaborators by posing them as freedom-fighters and more importantly by bestowing them with a legal justification is to profane that which is holy and is unacceptable.”

Countering this is Laar’s reminder that, “Estonia has clearly condemned both fascism and communism with which we strictly abide. We are involved in the initial phase of formulating legislation, which is too early to place for an open debate. Someone has opened the discussion inappropriately and this has been disadvantageous for Estonia.” He said that to bring the wearing of a German uniform as the only criteria for qualification as a ‘freedom fighter’ is deliberately spiteful.