Who has the right to pass judgment on what a man does in the service of his country during wartime and what should the legal grounds for such a verdict be? These are some of the key issues surrounding a legal process on WWII war crimes against a soviet veteran, Vasily Kononov, that has been dragged through the Latvian legal system since 1998. However, earlier this week, the European Court of Human Rights found that Latvia lacked legal grounds for prosecuting Kononov. Following the verdict, the Russian blogosphere has generally reacted with joy and relief, although there have also been some opposing voices.
In May 1944, in the final year of World War II, Kononov commanded a unit of Red Partisans in a retaliatory action against a Latvian village, which had previously given away another group of partisans to the Germans. In the process, nine Latvian alleged collaborators were killed, among whom were three women, including one in the final stages of pregnancy.
The positive voices on the European Court verdict in the Russian blogosphere have generally taken aim at criticising Latvia as a nation, and not at the case itself.
LJ user gealex considers the verdict a moral victory and argues that Europe has too long looked through the fingers when Latvia has allowed SS-veterans to march the streets of Riga.
Oleg Motkov sees the verdict as a warning to Latvia not to try rewriting history.
Iz bloknota zhurnalista believes that the European Court, by its verdict, recognises that Latvia in 1944 was a soviet republic and that the Red Army was an army of liberators and not occupants as Latvia claims.
Adding to this theme, Sokol iz Narnii thinks that Latvia has now been brought to its knees, and that there might be an analogy also with Estonia.
However, there are also opposing voices.
LJ user gibaldi urges people to first read the verdict and then think for themselves. His own position is that Kononov is “a war criminal and a sadistic murderer.”
Also, in an anonymous LJ comment, fellow bloggers are reminded that “our troops – sent crowds [of Latvians to Siberia] together with their families, arrested and executed [people]. So why are you now accusing them [Latvians] of anti-russianness?”
They dressed up in German uniforms, went into the village and destroyed it, and burnt people alive in their houses, among them a nine months’ pregnant woman. And all this ugliness and filth you call an act of justice and you pride yourselves of this man.
So, who is right – Kononov's supporters or his opponents? Actually, the European Court of Human Rights founded its verdict on quite different grounds than those addressed by the bloggers. The core issue of the ruling is whether or not Kononov committed a war crime according to existing international law in 1944. However, Latvia failed both to apply the law applicable at that time and to produce material evidence to that fact. Instead, Kononov was prosecuted under laws adopted only after 1944 or by domestic legislation no longer relevant to the case. Thus, the Court points to a failure of the Latvian legal system, which in effect will also make it impossible to ever correctly try Kononov's guilt or innocence. Latvia lost and Kononov won, but the question whether the old soviet veteran was a hero or a hoodlum at war will probably never be resolved.