MOSCOW/VILNIUS (Reuters) - Russia sought on Wednesday to ease concern in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia over plans to review the legality of a 1991 decision formally granting them independence from the Soviet Union.
The Baltic states declared independence in 1990 and 1991, and activists in Lithuania and Latvia were killed in attempts by Soviet forces to quell rebellion. The events have been a matter of particular sensitivity in the three countries since Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine, another former Soviet republic.
The Russian prosecutor-general’s office said on Tuesday it would review the decision by the Soviet Union’s State Council, the highest organ of state power, in the last months of the Soviet empire, to recognize the break.
But the Kremlin distanced itself from the move and the prosecutor-general’s office presented it as just a formality after a review was requested by two members of the United Russia party which is loyal to President Vladimir Putin.
“We are required by law to consider all requests we receive, regardless of their content. Some of them lack common sense,” Marina Gridneva, a spokeswoman for the prosecutor-general’s office, told Russian news agencies.
Making clear the review would have no legal implications, she said: “In this case, it is clear the matter has no legal prospects.”
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said: “In the Kremlin we were not familiar with this initiative. And I struggle to understand the essence of this initiative.”
The Baltic States, now members of the European Union and the NATO defense alliance, had said they were outraged.
“The entire issue is legally absurd,” Estonian Foreign Minister Keit Pentus-Rosimannus told Reuters. “It serves as yet another example of the resurgent imperialistic mood that unfortunately exists in Russia.”
Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite said: “Our independence was gained through the blood and sacrifice of the Lithuanian people. No one has the right to threaten it.”
Thirteen civilians were killed in January 1991, 11 months before the Soviet Union collapsed, when the Soviet army stormed a Vilnius television tower and the headquarters of the TV station.
Relations between Moscow and the Baltic states, annexed by the Soviet Union during World War Two under a 1939 Nazi-Soviet pact, have long been strained; but tensions have increased since the start of a rebellion in largely Russian-speaking parts of eastern Ukraine.
Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia have Russian-speaking minorities and were unnerved by a statement by Putin last year declaring Moscow had the right to intervene with military force if necessary to protect Russian speakers abroad.
Additional reporting by David Mardiste in Tallinn and Gederts Gelzis in Riga; Writing by Timothy Heritage, Editing by Ralph Boulton