The Black Berets: Headed For Siberia?

Even as they faced the prospect of Soviet disintegration, the Black Berets seemed to have learned nothing. In Vilnius, Lithuania, Maj. Boleslav Makutinovich reluctantly agreed to a Soviet Interior Ministry order to disband his Black Berets. But at the gate of his redoubt in Riga, Latvia, the commander of the local Black Beret unit told reporters last week how he would respond if the newly independent republic tried to throw his men out by force. "This is our answer," he said, slapping his machine gun.

More than any other occupation troops in the Baltics, the Black Berets have reason to fear a bloody payback. This special unit of the Soviet Interior Ministry has come to embody Soviet terror in the minds of Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians. They arrested people at random, pushing them against the nearest wall at gunpoint. They looted stores, seized banks and harassed the leaders of the Baltic independence movements. When Soviet forces stormed government buildings in Lithuania during the crackdown last January, the Black Berets were the vanguard. Lithuanians suspect that members executed seven border guards with shots to the head in July after forcing them to lie on the floor of a customs office. Last January they led an attack on the Latvian Interior Ministry. During the failed coup last month, they occupied key official buildings--and were poised to storm the Baltic parliaments as soon as the signal came from Moscow. Instead their commander, Soviet Interior Minister Boris Pugo--himself of Latvian origin--committed suicide.

Now, their reign of terror may be headed toward a peaceful resolution. As Russian leader Boris Yeltsin visited Riga late last week, Latvian officials reported tentative agreement on a plan to ship the local Black Beret detachment to Siberia, and Lithuanian parliamentary spokesman Audrus Azubalis predicted that the problem would be resolved within three days.

The Black Berets may be headed for ignominious exile before anyone has had a chance to penetrate the mystery that surrounds their origins and internal workings. Their numbers were never very large: reportedly 35 units throughout the Soviet Union totaled about 10,000 men. When first formed in 1989 in Lithuania, they numbered about 150, all in Vilnius. Formally they were known as the Special Assignment Militia Detachment--an elite unit created in the late '80s to crack down on organized crime. In reality they were neither highly trained nor especially respected as crime fighters. Some of their own leaders were believed to be thugs with long rap sheets.

Those implicated in killings now could be arrested and tried; authorities in both the Baltics and Moscow may press for criminal investigations. "They are vandals and maniacs," Latvian legislator Janis Krumins told Reuters. "Wherever they go we will send prosecution documents after them." Such demands for a legal accounting may explain a bizarre request by the Black Beret garrison in Lithuania, holed up in an Army base outside Vilnius: political asylum in the West.

Of course, no Western government is likely to comply. And even exiling the Black Berets to Siberia could be complicated. Many are Lithuanian-born or ethnic Poles who don't speak the Russian language and would he unlikely to find work. And even the Russians among them hardly face bright prospects back home. Almost no one likes--or wants--the Black Berets.