On January 27th, the world marks Holocaust Memorial Day. A scandal broke out in Europe on the threshold of this day with Latvia being the center of it. This small country in the Baltic region is not willing to return property to the Jews, nor does it want to pay compensations to the descendants of those, who suffered from the hands of Latvian fascists.
Over 100,000 Jews were exterminated in Latvia during WWII, which was equal to 90 percent of the Jews, who lived in Latvia before the war broke out. Many of them were killed in Salaspils concentration camp. Latvian nationalists destroyed the majority of the Jews in the summer of 1941, before the country was occupied by German Nazis. Needless to say that the victims of Nazism were deprived of all their possessions.
It is an open secret that Latvia glorifies Nazi criminals. It is not only Russia and Latvian Russian-speaking politicians, but also international Jewish organizations that bring this issue to public attention. More than three years ago, Efraim Zuroff, an Israeli historian of American origin, the director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center office in Jerusalem, criticized the Latvian authorities for their attitude to Nazi criminals.
"Not a single Lithuanian, Latvian, or Estonian Nazi war criminal has been punished by a Baltic court since independence," he stated.
Arkady Sukharenko, the leader of the Jewish community of Latvia, has recently stated that in 2006, the nation's parliament voted down the bill about the compensations to Holocaust victims. Sukharenko urged Israeli's foreign minister to look into the questions of restitution in Latvia in detail.
The West preferred to ignore the events in Latvia for years. Europe and the USA treated this country as a victim of "Soviet occupation." Moreover, Latvia became the new eastern platform for the EU and NATO. It seems that the situation is changing now. The US Department of State's Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues Douglas Davidson has recently visited Latvia and urged the local authorities to pay $60 million of compensations to the Jews for the property lost during the war.
The official said that he was not setting any deadlines for anyone. He only asked the government and people of Latvia to acknowledge that the property had been confiscated from the members of the Jewish community. His request triggered quite a reaction among the politicians of Latvia.
It turned out that even the members of the nation's largest party, Unity, did not have the unified approach to the issue of compensations for the Jews. Defense Minister Artis Pabriks stated that Latvia must return the property to the Jews.
"One must understand that we are not living in an isolated country. We either want to be a country that respects itself, or we become just a province," the minister said.
Valdis Dombrovskis, the Prime Minister, said that Latvia was ready to continue discussing the subject. However, Dzintars Zakis, the head of Unity's parliamentary faction, stated that Latvia was not supposed to return anything to the Jews. Both privatizations and restitutions were conducted after the collapse of the USSR, and that was it, the official said.
Other politicians were even less diplomatic. Gundars Berzins, a former member of the People's Party, said that Latvia could not accept the way the compensation claims had been presented to the country. Aivars Lembergs, the leader of Greens and Farmers, said that one should not speak about the Jews only. "If we speak about victims, one should speak about all victims - the victims of fascist and communist repressions - and compensations should be paid to all of them," he said. The politician obviously hinted at Latvia's attempt to receive a compensation for the "Soviet occupation" from Russia.
Well-known Latvian lawyer Andris Grutups stated that it was Latvia that was supposed to seek compensations from Israel and the USA.
"In 1941, many Jews joined Komsomol, work guards and repressive agencies. They all took part in the deportation of Latvians. What difference does it make - killing a person in a gas chamber or throwing him out on a deserted island behind the polar circle? I believe there is no difference," the lawyer said.
It just so happens that Latvia is not going to pay for its obvious sins of the past despite its EU membership. Will the country eventually face any international sanctions for it?
Mikhail Alexandrov, the chairman of the Baltic Department of the Institute for the CIS and Baltics:
"The stolen property must be returned. This touches upon Latvia, Russia and any other country. It should be returned to Jews, Russians and people of other nationalities. Alas, on the territory of the former USSR, including the Baltic region, property was either returned partially or never returned at all. The case with Latvia shows that even in the European Union there are territories with a different degree of property justice. The Latvian government does not want to return property to the Jews, although they have to do it. Latvian associates of Nazis took a very active participation in Holocaust. The question is who killed more Jews in Latvia in the beginning of the 1940s - the Latvians or the Germans?
"Latvia refuses to compensate anything for the Jews because neither the EU nor the USA put any pressure on the country. The West also turns a blind eye on the violation of rights of the Russian-speaking population in Latvia. I should also say that neither Israel, nor international Jewish organizations do not take much effort in exerting influence on Latvia. Jewish organizations are wealthy and influential, but the West is ready to sacrifice their interests just to preserve anti-Russian sentiments in Latvia the way they exist there today," the expert said.