Saturday 3 April 2010 12.00 BST
The threat of Baltic ultra-nationalism
Efraim Zuroff

The EU is wrong to ignore the resurgence of neofascism in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia – it threatens European democracy

No one can accuse the British press of ignoring the recent march in Riga of approximately 1,000 Latvian Waffen-SS veterans and their supporters. There were detailed news reports on all the aspects of the march, as well as regarding the counter-demonstration mounted by some 150 mostly ethnic Russian anti-fascists, in the Guardian, Independent, Daily Mail, and the Times, all of which had journalists on the ground to report firsthand from the scene. This is ostensibly hardly surprising, given the fact that Latvia is a member of both the European Union and Nato. One would assume that an attempt to honour troops who fought alongside the Nazis would attract media attention, certainly in the capitals of those countries that made such great sacrifices to save the world from Hitler and Nazism.

Yet with the exception of Russia, the extensive coverage of the march in the British media was unique, not only in the European Union but also in the rest of the world, most surprisingly in the United States and Canada, where the event was virtually ignored. But even in the UK, the solid coverage of the march did not stem from a highly justified concern regarding the resurgence of neofascism in an EU member country, but for internal political reasons related to the upcoming general election. In fact, I believe that it is fair to say that if not for the fact that the Conservative party had created an alliance in the European parliament with several rightwing east European parties, among them Latvian Fatherland and Freedom party, which staunchly supports the march, the British media would no doubt would have ignored the march in Riga as well.

The best proof of this is their silence regarding a similar march conducted less than a week before in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius. The march in Lithuania, which also attracted about 1,000 participants, was organised to mark an anniversary of Lithuanian independence, but the message conveyed by both events was chillingly similar. If in Riga demonstrators carried signs with slogans such as "Jews, this Land is for Latvians", in Vilnius the main chant was "Lithuania for Lithuanians". Bearing flags with various neofascist symbols, the marchers in the Lithuanian capital sent a message of hostility to all minorities. In fact, on the same occasion two years earlier, the message was more explicit and included the famous Nazi slogan of "Juden raus" [Jews out] and specific advice to members of the Russian minority to seek residence elsewhere. In both cases, the number of participants is on the rise.

And while neither march was officially organised by the local government, the refusal of local political leaders o condemn them should concern the rest of the EU and Nato. The Lithuanian prime minister Andrius Kubilius said that the event was irrelevant and that his country was "truly a sufficiently tolerant state", like "Norway and Denmark". Quite a flippant remark, considering that it was Kazimieras Uoka, an MP from his own Conservative party, who took out the license for the demonstration. The Latvian foreign minister Maris Reikstins responded to critics of the Latvian Legion march by asserting that the event, which took place in the centre of the city and at its most sacred site (the Freedom Monument), was "private" and by condemning those who believe that any distinction should be made between the innocent victims of the Nazis and their local collaborators and those who died fighting for a victory of the Third Reich.

In this context, it was particularly shocking to read the remarks made by the new US ambassador to Lithuania, Anne E Derse, who in a speech last week at Vilnius University made no mention of the march but asserted that "The United States and Lithuania are partners in the fight against antisemitism and in efforts to address the legacy of the Holocaust." If Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, had been making serious progress in educating its people about the horrible crimes committed by local Nazi collaborators during the Holocaust and had made an honest effort to bring unprosecuted local killers to justice, then perhaps we could ignore the marches. But not a single Lithuanian, Latvian, or Estonian Nazi war criminal has been punished by a Baltic court since independence. Instead, Jewish anti-Nazi Soviet partisans in Lithuania have been singled out for legal harassment, and these countries are leading the campaign to equate communism with Nazism.

Regardless of whether the Tories add the Lithuanian Conservative party to their alliance in the European parliament, I think the time has come in the UK to stop treating the resurgence of neofascism in the Baltics as an election issue, and elsewhere in the EU to start treating it as a threat to the integrity of European democracy.