On May 9, which is celebrated by the Russian-speaking inhabitants of the Baltic states as the day of the Soviet Army’s victory over Nazism, no serious incidents or provocations occurred. Due to the ongoing Russian military operations in Ukraine, the Baltic authorities have introduced a ban on displaying symbols of war inciting aggression and significantly limited the possibility of organizing mass events on that day. The long term goal of the Baltic states in the field of historical policy is to increase social cohesion by removing monuments and changing the meaning of dates and places thus far identified with the Soviet Army.
Russian war symbols are forbidden. After Russian troops invaded Ukraine, Russian war symbols, including the letters ‘Z’ and ‘V’, being official symbols of the Kremlin’s so-called ‘special operation’ in Ukraine, have appeared on some monuments and memorials in the Baltic states. They refer to the slogans ‘За победу’ (‘For the victory’), ‘Сила в правде’ (‘Strength in truth’) and ‘Задача будет выполнена’ (‘The task will be done’), but it is not entirely clear what they mean. For example, the Paneriai Memorial, Lithuania, commemorating the Jewish victims of Nazi crimes, was desecrated. Between 1941-1944, 50-70,000 people were murdered in Paneriai, most of whom were residents of the Vilnius region. Similar incidents occurred in several cities in Lithuania and Latvia.
Criticism of the aggressive symbols was expressed by the Baltic states, which forbade the public display of the symbols. In Lithuania, a law passed almost unanimously (124 MPs in favour, one against, two abstentions). The use of the symbols may result in a fine up to EUR 700, and repeated violations may result in a fine up to EUR 1,500. In addition, the regulation includes restriction of the use of the black and orange ribbon of Saint George, associated with the celebration of the so-called ‘Victory Day’. Lithuania had previously introduced a ban on the use of totalitarian symbols (flags, coats of arms and uniforms of Nazi Germany, the USSR or the Lithuanian SSR, as well as the symbols of Nazi or communist organizations).
Latvia and Estonia also decided to take a similar step. Latvia introduced a ban on the use of Nazi and communist symbols in the public sphere, as well as symbols that glorify Russian aggression and call for war. The fine is EUR 350 when a person breaks the statute. In Estonia, the law does not allow the public display of a symbols relating to aggression, genocide, crimes against humanity, or war crimes in any way that would support or justify these acts. Contrary to the regulations in Lithuania and Latvia, Estonia does not indicate precisely which symbols are prohibited. There is a fine up to EUR 1,200 for breaking the rule. 69 members of the Riigikogu voted for the bill, while three members of the Estonian Conservative People’s Party (EKRE) were against. So far, the Estonian Border Guard Board has revoked temporary residence permits in this country of some individuals who, by publishing the ‘Z’ and ‘V’ symbols, expressed their approval of the Russian aggression against Ukraine.
Restrictions for the Victory Day celebration. Due to the presence of a large Russian-speaking minority in Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia (around 6%, 32% and 27% respectively), May 9 is celebrated by members of the minority as the USSR victory over the Nazi Germany. Until now, one of the largest rallies was held in the Uzvaras Park (Victory) in Riga, next to the memorial complex, which constitute a 79-metre stele, the symbol of Mother-Homeland, and statues of three soldiers. For the Russian-speaking inhabitants of Latvia, the monument, erected in 1985, is a significant memorial, and every year over 100,000 people have attended the festivities. For ethnic Latvians, however, it is a symbol of the occupation and cruelty of the authorities of the Latvian SSR.
This year, no celebrations took place at the Victory Monument in Riga. Parliament had passed a law prohibiting the organization of events within 200 meters of monuments commemorating the Soviet Army. However, there was no political consensus: 63 MPs voted in favour and 16 (all from the ‘Harmony’ party) were against. While the organization of the rallies itself was legal, participation in them was seen as immoral and an expression of support for Russia’s aggressive actions. On the eve of the event, Latvian President Egils Levits commented that participation in those events would be an international insult that should not be allowed.
The Riga authorities decided to fence the area around the Victory Park complex due to ‘safety concerns’. There was also a photo exhibition entitled ‘Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the heroes!’. So far, several attempts have been made to remove the monument from the public space, but it shall not be demolished due to an agreement between Russia and Latvia. Recently, there have been proposals of the Ministry of Justice to transform or dismantle the monument in Victory Park. A referendum on this issue is also possible.
In previous years, celebrations on the occasion of May 9 were also organized in many Lithuanian cities as an initiative of the Russian Embassy and representatives of Russian diaspora organizations. This year, due to the Russian-Ukrainian war, no official events were organized in most cities, but some individuals celebrated individually and visited the Soviet memorials in cemeteries. In Vilnius, information leaflets concerning war in Ukraine were distributed to people who came to Antakalnis cemetery.
In turn, the Estonian Riigikogu decided to ban on April 26 – May 10 public gatherings that could incite hatred and use symbolism war because possible gatherings might take place, both on the anniversary of the so-called Bronze Night – riots caused by the relocation of a monument to a Soviet soldier from a central place in Tallinn to a more distant military cemetery – and with the approaching May 9 anniversary. While commemorating those killed in the war was not forbidden, the organization of the so-called Immortal Regimen march was forbidden. Every year about a thousand people attend the march in Tallinn.
This year, however, there were definitely fewer visitors. While the overwhelming majority of them celebrated the day individually by laying flowers on the graves of fallen soldiers, some of them, despite the prohibition, carried Soviet and Russian flags, as well as wore clothing or insignia considered aggressive. Activists demonstrating their support for Ukraine were also present at the cemeteries. In some cases, the police intervened.
1. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has updated priorities and accelerated actions in the field of historical policy in Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. In order to limit the provocations related to Victory Day celebrations on May 9 by many members of the Russian-speaking minority, the governments of the Baltic states decided to ban the use of war symbols and to restrict the organization of mass events close to Soviet Army monuments. There were additional police officers on duty to help maintain public order on that day.
2. The crimes committed by the Russians in Ukraine will mobilize the Baltic states to remove monuments from public places and to apply further regulations on that issue. This is considered by authorities in Riga and Tartu, Estonia, among others. Due to greater social acceptance resulting from solidarity with Ukraine (“IEŚ Commentaries”, no. 531), these decisions did not provoke any violent reactions from members of national minorities.
3. The authorities of these countries will make an attempt to transform the meaning of the dates and places thus far identified with the Soviet Army. For example, the Latvian Saeima established May 9 as the Day of Remembrance of Victims of the War in Ukraine. Similarly, a group of Lithuanian parliamentarians proposed commemorating May 9 in Lithuania with the day of remembrance of the victims of genocide in Ukraine. Changes of monument names are also being considered.
4. Decisions to remove monuments may provoke Russia into more aggressive actions against the Baltic states, including propaganda and cyber-attacks. For example, on May 9, the website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Estonia was attacked. It is unknown, however, whether the attack is related to Russia.
5. While the purification of the public sphere from symbols of war resulting from appropriate regulations may occur relatively quickly, in the long term it will be more difficult to change social awareness and the meaning of the monuments and ceremonies. However, the need to change how to commemorate those killed in the World War II is gradually receiving attention by representatives of the Russian-speaking minorities. Some of them distance themselves from the pro-Kremlin war narrative and increasingly accept the symbols, values, and national ideas of the Baltic states, which stimulate social integration in the Baltic states.