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A nation must think before it acts.
“I was a KGB agent,” admitted one of Latvia’s most celebrated poets, Jānis Rokpelnis, in a December 2016 interview. “I confess because it is eating away at my conscience. . . . I have a feeling that I am a murderer and that I carry the corpse inside me. I have killed my life, myself, and my honesty.”
Jānis Rokpelnis was just one of the Latvian KGB’s several thousand contacts in the 1980s. Some of these contacts were more active than others—those like Rokpelnis reported on the mood in civil society groups, while others described experiences abroad, and some denounced their fellow citizens.
Latvian state authorities have the names of around 4,500 people who served as KGB contacts in the ‘80s. The question of whether these names should be revealed to the public has been a central issue in Latvian politics since the early 1990s. It is a part of a large discussion on how Lustration—a policy that aims to cleanse a new democratic regime from the remnants of authoritarian past—should be conducted in Latvia. As Latvia celebrates its centenary in 2018, this debate has reappeared with new force—and it risks the polarization of Latvian society just before October 2018 legislative elections.
Between 1990 and 1991, the Soviet state security agencies began gradually evacuating and destroying their archives in the Baltic states. The swift international recognition of Baltic independence after the failed Soviet coup in August 1991, however, caught the KGB by surprise. While KGB officers rushed to burn remaining documents in Vilnius and Tallinn, Latvian authorities managed to seize around 4,500 cards used to register KGB agents in Riga. They also found two other critical sources: 53 journals that documented the creation of each card and the KGB’s partly destroyed electronic database, “Delta.” These sources put Latvia in a unique position. As scholars Eva-Clarita and Vello Pettai have noted, of all “three Baltic states only Latvia would have an actual set of KGB materials on which to draw as part of a lustration process.”
The 4,500 retrieved cards represent only a small portion of former KGB contacts in Latvia, mostly those who were active in the 1980s. They also feature only names; they do not have any explanation of what these people did for the KGB. As Indulis Zālīte, the Director of Latvia’s Center for the Documentation of the Consequences of Totalitarianism (CDCT), explains, only about 30% of all KGB agents were active informers. Even fewer were valuable assets. Thus, Zālīte concludes, “The remaining cards will not give a clear picture of the events of the 1980s.”
These cards, however, are not the only source available. Latvian researchers and technicians have partly recovered data from Delta. This database primarily contains information about KGB victims, and the names of agents are encoded. However, by interviewing those targeted by the KGB, researchers have been able to decode additional names. The 53 journals further confirm that the cards have not been manipulated. All of the cards match the ledgers in proper consecutive order.
Confirming the authenticity of the data was only the first challenge. Politicians have since struggled to determine how these sources should factor into Latvia’s hotly debated lustration policies.
The core of Latvia’s lustration policies has been the vetting of electoral candidates, high-ranking civil servants, and military personnel for former KGB ties. In the mid-1990s, Latvia adopted a series of laws that forbid former KGB agents and individuals associated with pro-Soviet organizations from running in national elections and accessing state secrets. To implement this policy, the Latvian Constitution Protection Bureau (SAB) created the CDCT in 1992. This center analyzes key sections of KGB archives, vets electoral candidates, and prepares documentation for criminal charges and victim rehabilitation.
The Latvian approach to ban former KGB agents’ access to power positions represents a middle path between Estonia’s mild policies and Lithuania’s hardline stance. Despite initial plans of extensive de-communization, Estonia settled on a simple requirement: all elected or appointed officials must take an oath affirming that they have not collaborated with either Nazi or Soviet security organs. However, unlike in Latvia, in Estonia, automatic background checks were not established, although an oath suspected to be false could be contested in courts. Meanwhile, Lithuania adopted a similar approach to Latvia, only harsher. They extended the KGB affiliate ban to include schools, banks, and private security services.
Both Latvian and Lithuanian lustration policies have been contested at the European Court of Human Rights, with different outcomes. The Court ruled against Lithuania in three separate cases, rejecting the idea of lustration in the private sector. Latvia initially lost two cases: one against Jānis Ādamsons, who served in the Soviet coast guard (and, thus, by definition, a KGB subordinate) who later served as a Latvian border guard and Minister of the Interior. It also lost a second case against Tatjana Ždanoka, a pro-Soviet activist during the USSR’s dissolution. However, Latvia won the appeal in the second case, and Ždanoka was banned from running in elections.
Unlike Estonia and Lithuania, Latvia has not published the names of the former KGB officers and contacts. In the early 1990s and 2000s, Estonia and Lithuania, respectively, adopted laws that allowed former KGB employees to report themselves to state authorities. In Estonia, self-reporters were guaranteed strict anonymity, while in Lithuania, candidates for high-ranking offices could be disclosed after self-reporting. In both cases, people who failed to self-report would have their identities published. Lithuania, maintaining its hardline stance, took retribution a step further announcing that non-reporters would also be fired from their current workplaces.
In Estonia, 1,153 people self-reported to the authorities, and between 1997 and 2010, the Estonian Internal Security Service published the names, dates of service, former KGB positions, and current employment of 647 individuals who had not reported themselves to the Estonian authorities. In Lithuania, 1,589 persons registered by the deadline of August 2000. In the years that followed, a specially appointed commission examined the information provided by self-reporters and reviewed cases of possible unreported collaboration with the KGB. The commission’s rulings on individual cases, however, were often overruled in court due to the high burden of proof. In 2011, the commission published 56 names of ex-KGB in the official state magazine, and in 2013, it began publishing an additional 1,700. Yet, most of these names dated from the 1950s and did not include cases self-reported in the early 2000s.
In Latvia, parliament has voted three times, once in 2004 and twice 2006, to publish the entire catalogue of KGB agents. Each time, Latvian President Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga vetoed the decision, arguing that the state does not have complete information about the activities of individuals listed in the catalogue. In 2014, parliament adopted a new law that established a vague procedure for publishing KGB documents. First, an interdisciplinary commission was established to conduct scholarly research in the KGB archives. Then, documents were to be published according to instructions provided by the government.
The commission, under the leadership of Latvian historian Kārlis Kangeris, has researched various aspects of KGB history in Latvia. However, it has problematic relations with several key institutions, including the University of Latvia, Latvian Centre for Data Protection, and the SAB, which manages the bulk of the KGB archive. SAB Director Jānis Maizītis has publicly stated that he does not support publishing the KGB catalogue. According to Maizītis, a card in the catalogue with an individual’s name on it does not prove that the person collaborated with the KGB.
As the May 31, 2018 deadline for the commission’s final report approaches, it has become clear that no meaningful scholarly research of the catalogue has occurred. The commission and the SAB each accuse the other of causing the delay. Nevertheless, the commission appears ready to recommend full publication of the KGB catalogue in its final report.
As Latvia’s parliamentary elections approach this October, politicians are tempted to follow the commission’s advice and publish the catalogue without its originally intended comments. By granting access to the KGB catalogue as the nation celebrates its centenary, politicians hope for a boost in the polls. However, publishing the names alone is unlikely to provide the desired closure in the long term. Once the names are publicized, the question remains what these people did.
A dangerous by-product of this debate is the emergence of allegations that the state is covering for the former KGB agents. Frustrated by the conflict with the SAB, the head of the commission, Kārlis Kangers, has claimed that not only is the state sheltering KGB agents, but also that “former KGB operatives have worked for the Latvian security institutions.” These accusations, which the SAB and Latvian Security Service both deny, decrease public trust in Latvia’s state institutions.
The delay in the long-awaited publication of KGB materials further nourishes anti-elite sentiment within Latvian society. Despite the systematic vetting of electoral candidates and civil servants, the general perception that former KGB agents might still be hiding among state officials persists. This narrative contributes to the popularity of populist parties such as the Regional Party or “To Latvia from the Heart,” whose leader, Ingūna Sudraba has been suspected of close ties with Russia. The right-wing National Alliance, which brands itself as a political outsider despite years in the governing coalition, also benefits from this scandal. The leaders of its main rival, the New Conservative Party, are former officers of the National Corruption Combating and Prevention Bureau (KNAB). While KNAB is not involved in the KGB catalogue debate, it has suffered its own controversies in the past. As the conflict between the SAB and the commission fosters a general mistrust in state institutions, public unease about KNAB’s past scandals will likely affect the party’s chances in the election.
More importantly, the idea that the state is shielding KGB informants and officers can become a dangerous tool in Russia’s propaganda machine. All parties involved in the lustration process—the SAB, commission, and parliament—should not only work to facilitate mutual cooperation, but must also inform the public about lustration in Latvia since the 1990s.
The publication of Latvia’s KGB catalogue will inevitably become a political tool during the electoral campaign. The right-wing National Alliance has already proposed a law to transfer the card catalogue from SAB headquarters to the national archive. This proposal mirrors Lithuania’s response to the tensions that occurred also between the Lithuanian Genocide and Resistance Research Centre (LGRRC), an organization partly responsible for the Lithuanian lustration process, and their state security services. In 2010, the Lithuanian KGB archive was moved from the premises of the security services to the LGRRC.
The process of lustration always has more than one aim: preventing the infiltration of newly established democratic institutions by former KGB networks, make reparation to victims, punish oppressors, and most importantly, disclose the information about the crimes committed by the Soviet regime. Latvia has successfully used the KGB catalogue to vet those seeking high office. To a certain extent, publishing the catalogue would punish those who cooperated with the KGB. While some, like Latvian dissident Lidija Doroņina Lasmane, have called for reconciliation, it is hard to predict whether Latvian society will forgive those named in the catalogue. Jānis Rokpelnis’s confession, for instance, was met with contradictory reactions: some praised his honesty, while others called him a coward and traitor. Without an understanding of what each listed individual contributed to the KGB, Latvia risks doling the same punishment for vastly different discretions.
Had the commission conducted meaningful research, it would have learned whether the catalogue could be used with other KGB sources to ascertain the specific tasks of listed agents. If this information is attainable, it must be pursued. The SAB’s Centre for the Documentation of the Consequences of Totalitarianism, which has worked extensively with the KGB archives, should have at least a partial answer.
In both Estonia and Lithuania, the publication process consisted of two steps: authorities first offered former KGB agents and officers the option to report themselves, and then they examined each individual case before publishing names. Authorities must examine individual cases before publication and consider the possibility of self-reporting. If a lack of sources does not allow the investigation of each case, researchers should at least release an extended report on the reliability of the catalogue supplemented by historical and institutional context. Immediate publication during Latvia’s symbolic year of 2018 is tempting for politicians. But for Latvian society, it would be better to treat the KGB papers as a subject for serious research rather than as a political tool.