By Ilya Khineiko
In Russia as well in other post-Soviet states, history, particularly the history of the Second World War, is not merely a matter of academic debate. Politicians from the highest echelons of power often find it instrumental to dwell on controversial historical issues. Last October, in a letter sent to the Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev weighed in on the proper interpretation of the Ukrainian Famine, the Holodomor. In December 2008, the Russian parliament decided to move in a similar direction, creating a working group to draft a new law against the rehabilitation of Nazism and Nazi collaborators in the post-Soviet states. Chaired by deputy head of the Duma’s Committee for CIS Affairs, Konstantin Zatulin, the group produced a legislative draft proposal with a lengthy title “On the countermeasures against the rehabilitation of Nazi criminals and their facilitators in the new independent states on the territory of the former Soviet Union.” It was published by the pro-government news agency Regnum on 20 April 2009 (full Russian text is available here: http://www.regnum.ru/news/1153517.html).
Probably the most striking feature of the bill is the issue of jurisdiction as it explicitly targets Russia’s neighbors. While the notion of universal jurisdiction has gained ground in the past decade, an attempt to direct domestic legislation against a specific set of countries represents a novel approach to international law. Furthermore, according to a Russian legal expert quoted in the Moscow Times, the proposed legislation would violate the Russian Criminal Code as it “only allows penalties for crimes committed in Russia.”
However, even the stated intention to focus on all former Soviet republics is somewhat misleading. In an interview with Radio Liberty, Konstantin Zatulin singled out Latvia, Estonia, and Ukraine where “the attempts to rehabilitate Nazi criminals and their facilitators… have become a matter of state policy”. He admitted that any similar actions in other, more remote, countries, such as Australia for example, would be of no concern to the bill’s authors. According to Radio Liberty, many Verkhovna Rada deputies are convinced that the bill is directed primarily against Ukraine. This comes as no surprise as Zatulin’s troubled relationship with Ukrainian authorities is well known. In July 2008 he was denied entry into Ukraine. Ukrainian Security Chief Valentyn Nalyvaychenko later explained that Zatulin had violated a Ukrainian law on the status of a foreigner during a previous visit to Ukraine when he made statements regarding the country’s territorial integrity.
The reaction of Ukrainian parliamentarians has been uniformly negative. Yuri Kostenko from Our Ukraine sharply criticized the bill, saying that it would turn Russia into a new “gendarme of Europe.” Even members of the ostensibly pro-Russian Party of Regions were not impressed. According to Valery Konovalyuk, as far as the international law is concerned, such legislative initiative does not represent a sound approach. In the context of Russian-Ukrainian relations, the bill can be considered a response to the draft law against Holodomor denial that President Viktor Yushchenko submitted to the Verkhovna Rada in December 2008. Although the Ukrainian bill does not attempt to prosecute people outside Ukraine, it proposes to imprison those who deny the genocidal character of the Holodomor against the Ukrainian people, an interpretation vigorously contested by Russia’s authorities and most Russian historians.
Perhaps the most ambiguous and controversial aspect of the new legislation is its definition of what constitutes a rehabilitation of Nazism and who should be deemed Nazi facilitators. The draft states that a Nazi facilitator (posobnik) is someone who served in or collaborated with the German occupation administration on the territory of the USSR voluntarily or as a result of mobilization (sic! – I.Kh.). Rehabilitation of Nazism is defined as “any actions aimed at… the reinstatement of rights, glorification, [as well as any attempts] to restore reputation of Nazi criminals and facilitators and their organizations by bestowing them with benefits, state or societal awards and to deny Nazi genocide and crimes against humanity”. This incredibly vague definition leaves a lot of room for interpretation, and obfuscates the true intentions of the bill’s authors, namely to criminalize any opinion that questions the role of the USSR in the Second World War. According to Konstantin Zatulin, “There were no third forces in the Second World War. The logic of war compelled people either to side with Nazi Germany and then start shooting at Soviet soldiers or to choose the side of the anti-Hitler coalition.” Zatulin’s definition does not differ substantially from the old Soviet line that equated anti-Soviet resistance with Nazi collaborationism. That the struggle against alleged ‘rehabilitation of Nazism’ is being used to defend the Soviet past and its remaining symbols is revealed in Zatulin’s statement made in early April. In an interview with the Russian news agency RIA-Novosti, he called the dismantling of the statue of the Soviet Soldier in the city of Stryj in Lviv oblast an outrageous act and promised to accelerate work on the appropriate legislation.
While the draft bill purports to target equally Russian citizens and citizens of other post-Soviet states, it is unlikely that the legislation would be ever applied against the rise of pro-Nazi sentiment in Russia itself. In an ironic twist of events, a few days after the bill’s publication, fans of the Russian soccer club Spartak Moscow unveiled a banner commemorating the anniversary of Hitler’s birthday during a game in the Russian Premier League. Understandably, such an act caused outrage among the Russian public and was roundly condemned. However, a Duma representative, Gennady Gudkov, stated that the perpetrators could only be fined under the current legislation, being seemingly unaware of the proposed bill that seeks to criminalize precisely such actions. Indeed, should this bill be adopted, its main brunt will likely be directed not at individuals but at ‘hostile’ states. As such it will just serve as another weapon in the growing conflict between Russia and Ukraine, in which history is just another battlefield.