Russia and Lithuania Lock Horns Over Soviet-Era Reparation That Would Be Worth Billions

Lithuanian flag
People carry an almost-656-foot-long sash in Lithuanian flag colors during a Day of the Defenders of Freedom celebration in Vilnius, Lithuania, on January 13, 2011. Soviet troops attacked the Vilnius Television Tower and killed 14 Lithuanian civilians on the night of January 13, 1991. Ints Kalnins/Reuters

Lithuania has accused Russia's ambassador of defying logic, politics and morals in a controversial debate about World War II death tolls and the two countries' tense Soviet history.

The Baltic country's Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis and foreign minister Linas Linkevicius have dismissed as "absurd" Russian Ambassador Alexander Udaltsov's claim that Lithuania could owe Russia $72 billion to compensate for Soviet-era investment. Speaking to the local Russian-language newspaper Litovskiy Kurier earlier this week, Udaltsov said "no Russian officials" took seriously a prior agreement among the Baltics that the Soviet Union's acquisition of their territories was an "occupation" that could equate to billions in reparations.

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Baltic ministers drafted protocols to calculate the potential financial cost of Soviet membership until the union's collapse in 1991 with the intention of promoting historical "objectivity," but have not officially asked Russia to foot any bill.

"It is obvious that possibly raising of the question of Russian compensation by the Lithuanian side…is unjust and even absurd. Rather it is the other way around," Udaltsov said. "Russia, as the biggest republic within the framework of the former union, contributing the main deposits to the common budget, is within its rights to pose the question of compensation to the Lithuanian republic."

The ambassador's comments sparked a negative response in Vilnius on Friday. "To speak of such things after a widely recognized occupation of our country, after the deprivation of its independence, after the damage done to the people and the state, to speak of such sums–this is truly insulting," Linkevicius told the BNS news agency.

He said especially in light of the upcoming Day of Grief and Hope, which commemorates war victims, he could not reconcile Udaltsov's position "logically, politically or morally." Lithuania was overrun both by Nazi and Red Army forces during the war.

"If there were no Soviet occupation in the Baltic countries, including Lithuania, then today we would have been a totally different state," Skvernelis told the Delfi news site. At least 130,000 Lithuanians were deported by the Soviet Union between 1941 and 1953 according to official statistics.

The Baltics' World War II–era history and the Soviet role in it is a controversial and fundamental dispute between Moscow and its northwestern neighbors. Moscow's agreement with Nazi Germany in 1939 to regard the Baltics' territories as within its sphere of influence is a contentious point that Moscow considered a strategic move to contain Nazism but the Baltics viewed as a swipe at their sovereignty.

With Germany's ultimate violation of the treaty and attack on the Soviet Union, the two went to war, and the Baltics became part of the battlefield. All three Baltics remained Soviet until the Union's final days in 1992. Yet Russia continues to regard its triumph over Nazi troops in the Baltics in the final year of the war as a liberation.