Thursday, June 12, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Toward a Breakthrough on Katyn?

Paul Goble

Vienna, June 12 – After years of stonewalling, Moscow may at long last be willing to rehabilitate the Polish officers Stalin’s secret police executed at Katyn, a move that would represent a major step forward toward a more honest Russian treatment of the past and toward improvement in relations between Moscow and Warsaw.
This week, a Moscow appeals court overturned a decision of a district court which had ruled that those who sought the rehabilitation of the Polish officers killed more than half a century ago had no standing to bring suit because the former had not directly suffered from the executions (
The appeals court ordered a new hearing, and Anna Stavitskaya, one of the lawyers managing the case, said that as a result, “there is every legal basis” for the court of first instance to satisfy the request for the rehabilitation of the officers. But only time will tell whether her optimism is justified.
Russia’s military procuracy continues to oppose any judicial recognition that the polish officers shot in Katyn were in fact the victims of political repression as Russian law defines that. Officials say there is no evidence the Poles were condemned on the basis of the Soviet criminal code and “therefore it is impossible to recognize them as victims of political repressions.”
And in order to prevent any movement by Russian courts toward a decision the military opposes, these same officials as recently as May 22nd refused to provide the court with its files on the Katyn case, arguing that “the majority of these are classified either as “secret” or “top secret.” (For more background on this case, see
The outcome of the upcoming re-hearing is important, commentator Yury Gladysh says, because Katyn continues to be one of the most reliable indicators of the willingness and the ability of the post-Soviet Russian government to provide an honest assessment of the past and thus be in a position to “accept genuine democratic change.”
Indeed, he recalls, “at the dawn of perestroika at one of the scholarly conferences the notion was advanced that only when a Russian government will recognize its fault before innocent victims [like those at Katyn] will it be possible to assure oneself that there will not be any return to the past in the future.”
But it would be “premature,” Gladysh says, to assume that “this time has finally arrived, however welcome the decision of the Moscow city court may be. On the one hand, many people especially since Dmitry Medvedev succeeded Vladimir Putin as president are talking about the willingness of the Russian government to make a “leap” toward democracy.
Acknowledging the crime in Katyn, he continues, would attract much positive notice in the West and lead many there to speak about “a rebranding” of Russia as a democratic country, something that Medvedev almost certainly would like to see because of the benefits it would entail not only for his country but for himself.
On the other hand, however, there is little change in what is being done in Russia as compared to what is being said, Gladysh argues. “We are still marching in place,” [and] real changes, besides the magical incantations about the ‘triumph of law’ are not visible at the present time.”
This “dissonance” between what is being said by the Kremlin and what is being done by the people saying it, the commentator suggests, is “manifested by the fact that inside the country the courts continue to return illegal sentences and those convicted for political reasons continue to be put in prison.”
“Old warriors say,” Gladysh continues, “that a war is not finished until the last soldier who fell in it is buried. [And] veteran civil rights activists second that when they say that the law will have triumphed finally only when the last political prisoner has left the torture places” of the state.
And Gladysh concludes with the following words: “At one time, Polish rebels went into battle under the slogan ‘For your freedom and ours!’ Today, this slogan [at least with respect to the Katyn case now being heard in Russian courts] is more immediately important” than ever before

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