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Wednesday, June 04, 2008

The Saga of Arnold Meri

Marko Mihkelson, the chairman of the European Union Affairs Committee in Estonia's parliament, writing in the Moscow Times:

In recent days, the court proceedings in the small Estonian town of Kardla, where Arnold Meri stands trial for crimes against humanity, have gained much attention in the Russian press.

Unfortunately, this case reveals dramatically how biased and truth-fearing the media landscape of Russia is today. Naturally, no word is spoken or written about the fact that Meri is accused of carrying out deportations under Estonian legislation and international law.

The Russian media only proclaim that Meri was given the Hero of the Soviet Union award and that, in their view, the court case of the 88-year-old veteran is only a political trial orchestrated by the Estonian authorities. It is all supposed to serve the purpose of "rewriting" the outcomes of the World War II, we are told.

Following this logic, it might be assumed that all heroes of the Soviet Union enjoy a life-long immunity and can kill, rape or deport with impunity. It is sad if this is the contemporary Russian view of the rule of law.

There is no statute of limitations on crimes against humanity. It is not important who committed them and when. Eleven persons accused of crimes against humanity have been convicted in Estonia from 1995, eight of whom participated the deportation of civilians in the 1940s. Even the European Court of Human Rights in its decision of Jan. 17, 2006, supported the Estonian court practice of trying and prosecuting crimes against humanity.

Meri is accused of carrying out deportations of 251 people -- mostly women and children -- from the Estonian island of Hiiumaa on March 25, 1949. On that day, the Soviet occupation forces deported altogether 20,000 people from Estonia.

Unfortunately, that was not the only tragedy in the sufferings of the Estonian people in the 1940s. A similar episode occurred on June 14, 1941, when the People's Commissariat for Interior Affairs of the Soviet Union organized the deportation of more than 10,000 residents of Estonia, among whom nearly 5,000 women and 2,500 children. More than 3,000 of them were sent directly to prison camps, where the majority were killed or died.

For most Russians, the Soviet Union's victory in World War II, which is officially called the Great Patriotic War in Russia, has been elevated to the single most important historical event. No one today questions the importance of the Allies' defeat of Nazism. What raises concerns, however, is that the victory over Nazi Germany is told in rigorous black-and-white terms. We know that history is a growing collection of narratives with countless nuances. No historical event occurs in a vacuum. This is true for the Great Patriotic War, and it is important to analyze all of events that preceded and followed the war.

I am convinced that many Russians are more knowledgeable and balanced than the ruling elite in analyzing and interpreting World War II and its aftermath.

Deep wounds in the memory of nations heal very slowly. The feelings of distrust and even hatred can be easily fomented and manipulated. It is very difficult to earn respect by trampling on the truth, and leaders who try to stifle the historical sense of entire nations with this peculiar weapon of history are doing a terrible disservice to their citizens, the consequences of which may be irreversible.

Ilya Ponomarev, a State Duma deputy from A Just Russia and is one of the founders of the Left Front movement, offered a counterpoint in the same issue:

For the past week, Russian television has been stoking the public's passions over Estonia's charges of war crimes against Arnold Meri. Judging from the coverage, you would think that serious domestic problems, such as increasing neo-Nazism or the lack of housing for veterans, have been resolved.

Of course, it is always easier for the Kremlin and its media outlets to criticize other countries than itself. It is more expedient to fight against imaginary foes than taking on the real threats to society.

Russia's leaders never tire of displaying hypocritical self-righteousness, crying out passionately about justice -- particularly when these public stances bring in so many political dividends.

The more Russia bickers with the Baltic states, the more it resembles a fixed contest in which the results are settled beforehand. The ruling elites of both sides compete with one other at tossing out nasty accusations before their electorates in an attempt to divert attention away from the real problems of everyday life. This happened not long ago with the dispute over moving the Bronze Soldier monument from central Tallinn, and it is happening again now. It seems that those in power are happy, even if a decorated war hero must now stand trial -- and this is a man who, in 1941, didn't quit the field of battle against the Nazis, even after sustaining four battle wounds, and who is now unafraid to stand up for his fellow war veterans, despite suffering from a serious illness.

I do not want to address Meri's specific actions in 1949 for which he now stands accused -- the deportation of the Estonia civilians to Siberia. Let's leave it to the lawyers to determine whether Meri organized the deportations or was just carrying out orders. There is a more important issue that has gotten lost in the Meri affair: Instead of focusing on one person for crimes against humanity, the authorities should initiate an international tribunal against the entire Communist regime for crimes against humanity. Although the wealthy and ruling elite in the former Soviet republics might find this initiative attractive, the overwhelming majority of the people, who live worse now than they did 20 years ago, would never support this idea. In the absence of a Nuremberg-like trial, however, any attempt to single out one person smacks of a politically motivated campaign to find a scapegoat.

In reality, of course, politicians and the media don't care that much about Meri or his alleged crime of "genocide," despite the passionate debates on television talk shows. They relish the opportunity to generate good public relations with voters, especially since the government has nothing to say regarding the real problems facing society. How many rating points has United Russia racked up by renaming streets in Pskov and Altai in honor of Arnold Meri? As is often the case, one man's meat is another man's poison.

And for its part, Estonian leaders are manipulating the issue to marginalize opposition groups. They also are trying to provoke Russia to take retaliatory actions, which would then prompt the European Union to come to Estonia's defense.

Both the Russian and Estonian sides should be ashamed of themselves for how they have cynically exploited the Meri affair for political gain.

The spindoctors on both sides who stand behind their respective PR campaigns should think more about the millions of Russian and Estonian lives that were lost during World War II and its aftermath. They should also think about their children, who will grow up one day and look back on what the Meri trial and cry, "Shame on you!"

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