BEAR BEHAVING BADLY

Russia often complains about its waning influence and says it gets no respect from the West. But respect has to be earned, and so far, Moscow is far from worthy.

The reaction to Latvia's attempt to charge former Soviet officials with crimes against humanity is a case in point. Russia's ambassador to Latvia called it "a witch hunt" of sick old men.

Indeed, two men charged this week are 77 and 85 years old. Mikhails Farbtuhs, in the process of appealing his conviction, is 83.

No complaints from Moscow, however, when the subject turns to suspected Nazi war criminals such as Aleksandrs Lileikis in Lithuania, who is 92. (Former Nazi officials should be tried as well, and to be fair, the Balts ought to show that they understand this as well).

Sadly, Russian hypocrisy is visible in Moscow's every move. In 1998, when a handful of Latvian police used their batons to disperse a pensioners' protest in Riga, Russia roared with anger and successfully portrayed Latvia as a neo-fascist state.

But when Belarusian thugs in riot gear savagely beat demonstrators in Minsk this month, barely a whimper from Russia. It was Belarus' internal affair, said Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov.

When NATO went to war in Yugoslavia earlier this year, Boris Yeltsin and Yevgeny Primakov said Russia was "morally superior" to the Americans.

After Russian missals leveled a central market in Grozny last week, spilling the blood of hundreds of innocent women and children, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said Russia didn't do it. Then, he said it was the work of warring bandit gangs.

Latvia has every right to try former Soviet officials involved in one of the two waves of deportation in 1941 and 1949 that decimated Latvia's population.

Russia should be trying its own KGB operatives for the crimes committed against the Russian people in this century. But there, the KGB still exits, though it goes by a new name, and former officials sit in high places - the prime minister's chair for one.

The Soviets may not have planned to exterminate all Latvians, but they did want to subdue and Russify them. And in the process, the regime committed crimes against humanity by deporting and murdering innocent people simply for their nationality or politics. Who in today's world, so intent on proving how enlightened and democratic it is, could deny this is a crime? Otherwise, what was the war in Kosovo all about?

Baltic leaders are often asked what they are doing to improve relations with Russia. But maybe it is time for Moscow to talk about what it is doing. A little free advice: Start by apologizing for the illegal occupation of these countries in 1940. Doing anything less breeds insecurity and tells the Baltic people that the terrible past can be repeated.

The Baltic Times

to: Crimes Against Humanity