Latvia hits Russia with massive eco bill

The Baltic state of Latvia is demanding $712 million (356 million lat) from Russia for environmental damage allegedly caused during the Soviet era.

Edmunds Stankevich, who heads the official Latvian commission looking into the issue, said: "these are the preliminary figures. The total damage has yet to be calculated."

The environmental report is one of many being produced by the government commission.

In an earlier report it claimed the Soviet occupation deprived Latvia of national income equal to what an individual may produce for 10 billion years.

Having assessed the environmental damage, the commission is busy with the economic, social and demographic harm allegedly inflicted by the USSR.

Latvia is expected to finish counting its might-have-beens and present Russia with a final bill as soon as in 2010. Experts assume the total sum of damages claimed could eventually top $20 billion.

”The commission’s activity is a real wrecking. They are making the claims amid the warming in the Russian-Latvian relations,” Andrey Klementiev, a member of the Latvian parliament, says.

”I’m wondering why the government keeps on funding the work of this commission, given the current economic crisis. Many hospitals have been recently closed, thousands of doctors, policemen, professors fired while the commission continues assessing the Soviet era occupation damages.”

Russia has many times rejected Latvia's claims.

Expert in the issue, Vladimir Simindey, sees a number of reasons behind the Latvian government’s move.

”That’s the initiative of a group of Latvian politicians, who eye to initiate a kind of Nuremberg trials on the former Soviet Union. Then, of course, it’s a tool of mobilizing some part of the Latvian electorate as well as gearing the Anti-Russian stance within the European Union,” Simindey said.

He added that in Latvia “it’s a sort of business for some politicians, who regularly get public money for assessing Soviet-era damages.”

In this situation Russia needs to take a hard line and stop “playing footsie with Latvian government officials”, Simindey says.

This is not the first time a Baltic state has tried to get compensation from Russia for alleged outrages committed by the USSR. In 2008, the Lithuanian leadership made similar claims for $28 billion, while the Estonian Prime Minister Andrus Ansip said he was waiting for Russia’s apologies.

All three states were part of the Soviet Union from 1940 to 1991. Some commentators have noted that denying a common history with big neighbor Russia is a policy cornerstone of the political elite of the Baltic states.