The Kremlin placed Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas and other Baltic officials on a list of wanted criminals on Monday in a move aimed at preserving Russia’s view of its glorious past from present-day challenges. The Kremlin said Kallas was put on the list for her efforts to remove WWII-era monuments to Soviet soldiers, moves seen by Moscow as unlawful and “an insult to history”.
Russia has a track record of putting foreign officials on wanted lists, but this latest move makes Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas the first foreign head of government to be sought by Russian police. Estonian Secretary of State Taimar Peterkop and Lithuanian Culture Minister Simonas Kairys are also on the list, along with dozens of other Baltic and Polish politicians.
Kallas and Peterkop made the list because of their efforts to remove monuments to Soviet soldiers who served in World War II, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova confirmed. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was blunt, saying the move was a response to those who have taken “hostile action toward historic memory and our country”.
A Russian security source told the TASS state news agency that the Kremlin is seeking to prosecute Kallas and Peterkop for the “destruction and defacement of monuments [honouring] Soviet soldiers” along with the Lithuanian minister of culture, Simonas Kairys.
“These wanted notices are Russia’s way of saying: ‘You come under Russian legislation and we consider you still, more or less, part of the Russian Empire,’” says historian Cécile Vaissié, professor of Russian and Soviet studies at Rennes-ll University.
“It’s simply provocation and an insult to an independent, autonomous country.”
Moscow has issued such wanted notices in the past, for instance, against exiled writer Boris Akunin over his condemnation of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Akunin was accused of “terrorism” and placed on the Kremlin’s list of “foreign agents”.
The Kremlin’s list is long indeed.
Meta spokesman and Ukrainian farmer on the list
More than 96,000 people – including over 31,000 Russians and nearly 4,000 Ukrainians – are on a Russian wanted list, according to the independent Russian news outlet Mediazona, which published a compilation of various Russian interior ministry databases on Monday.
The range of people targeted is wide. The list includes Andy Stone, spokesman for Meta (parent company of Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram), accused of “supporting terrorism”. The Polish president of the International Criminal Court (ICC), Piotr Hofmanski, is also on the list. His name was added after the ICC issued an arrest warrant for Vladimir Putin in March 2023 for the Russian president’s role in the deportation of Ukrainian children.
Given the war in Ukraine, it’s no surprise that the majority of foreigners targeted by Russian law enforcement agencies are Ukrainians. Mediazona has identified at least 176 people “prosecuted in absentia” for various reasons: participation in the war, links with Ukrainian authorities, public statements. The list includes the former commander-in-chief of the Ukrainian army, Valery Zaluzhny, and even a Ukrainian farmer who supported Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky and made unflattering remarks about Putin.
Some 59 Latvian MPs – two-thirds of the parliament – are also under investigation after voting in May 2022 to withdraw from an agreement with Russia on the preservation of Soviet memorials. The parliamentary vote, taken a few months after the start of the war in Ukraine, was followed by the demolition of a Soviet-era monument in the capital, Riga.
“All these wanted notices give the impression of a catch-all approach, a hodge-podge of people supposedly hostile to Russia and against whom it is taking action,” notes Marie Dumoulin, programme director at the European Council for International Relations think tank.
Only one version of history
For Dumoulin, there is “no doubt that Russian prosecutors can support their contentions for each of these people”. But she has reservations about Kaja Kallas: “The case of the Estonian prime minister seems to me to be legally a little shaky: to single out foreign public figures on the basis of their discourse on history, that’s quite a reach.”
The prime minister, a fierce critic of Russia who has supported the removal of Soviet monuments in recent years, doesn’t seem to be fazed by her new status in Russia, dismissing the move as a “familiar scare tactic” by Moscow.
Posting on X, formerly Twitter, she said: “The Kremlin now hopes this move will help to silence me and others – but it won’t. The opposite.”
The Kremlin now hopes this move will help to silence me and others – but it won’t.
The opposite. I will continue my strong support to Ukraine. I will continue to stand for increasing Europe’s defence. 3/
— Kaja Kallas (@kajakallas) February 13, 2024
The threats of prosecution are largely symbolic, since they have little chance of leading to an arrest. But they are representative of Moscow’s continuing battle with the former Soviet countries of Eastern Europe over the historical narrative.
Above all, Vaissié explains, Moscow “aims to reaffirm the existence of a ‘Russian world’ (a concept born after the collapse of the Soviet Union to encompass the entire Russian-speaking diaspora outside Russia) and of a Russia at the centre of an empire and overseeing the lives of its citizens”.
“Since the 1990s, the Kremlin has maintained a deliberate confusion between Russian speakers, Russians, Russian citizens, former citizens of the USSR and former citizens of the Empire,” she said.
Dumoulin cited Moscow’s “long-standing hard line with the Baltic States on the question of memory”, adding that tensions ratcheted up a notch after the 2020 reform of Russia’s constitution.
“The historical memory of the Russian state was then enshrined in the constitution,” she said. “And from that moment on, there was a stiffening of internal attitudes, notably with the dissolution of the NGO Memorial (which, among other things, was the guardian of the memory of the Gulag).”
“It’s an approach in which there is only one possible historical discourse,” she said. “It’s not good to be a historian in Russia today.”
This article is a translation of the original in French.
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