Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 65

Positive atmospherics were the main goal and may be considered the main achievement of the Moscow meeting between Presidents Valdas Adamkus of Lithuania and Vladimir Putin of Russia. Putin’s go-ahead for the March 29-31 visit–coming only six weeks after his ice-thawing talks on neutral territory with Latvia’s President Vaira Vike-Freiberga–suggests that Moscow’s policy toward the Baltic states has entered a period of flux and adjustment. The Kremlin may have begun to understand that its bluster and polemics cannot derail the three Baltic states’ Euroatlantic integration, and that Russia might gain more by accepting a measure of Baltic-Western integration while attempting to affect its scope and pace and its ultimate terms.

In both of these meetings, Putin decided to temporarily lay aside the issue Moscow itself had until very recently construed as precluding normal relations with the Baltic states–namely, the national goal of each of them to join NATO. Rather than raising that issue, Putin chose to focus on those which may yield some consensus with the Baltic states themselves and with their Western partners.

In his meeting with Adamkus, Putin went so far as to publicly recognize in almost unqualified fashion the right of all countries to choose their allies. The written joint communique did not go quite that far; there, the Russian side agreed to recognize that right with the qualification that it must not be exercised to the detriment of other countries. That formula adheres to the letter of documents adopted by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Russia had signed those documents, but seemed to ignore them in its propaganda against NATO’s Baltic enlargement. The Russian-Lithuanian joint statement and Putin’s remarks on that subject now seem to take those documents seriously. By the same token, this adjustment goes further than that signaled by Putin’s meeting with Vike-Freiberga. On that occasion, the Russian president simply shelved the issue without adjusting the Russian position.

On the eve of the Moscow meeting, the Russian government’s official news agency misleadingly paraphrased an interview remark by Adamkus, making it look as a hard and fast commitment that once in NATO, Lithuania would not host allied troops or bases. Other Russian media outlets, however, carried the same remarks: Adamkus in fact said that there is no intention or foreseeable need to station such forces in Lithuania, on the Russian border, and that it would be naive on anyone’s part to presume the existence of such need or intent.

Putin did not miss the opportunity to publicly draw an invidious comparison between Lithuania’s “good” and Latvia’s and Estonia’s “bad” treatment of their respective “Russian-speaking populations.” On this matter, the Russian president feigned–as Russian officials often do–ignorance of the fact that the OSCE, the Council of Europe, the European Union (EU) and other organizations as well as the Western democratic nations have helped shape and ultimately approved the Estonian and Latvian legislations on language and citizenship. But Putin’s polemical sally this time came as an aside and seemed almost perfunctory, rather than an element of strategy. It was, this time, only a pale echo of the wedge-drawing policy, instituted in 1997 by Yevgeny Primakov and followed to date, of cultivating Lithuania while pressuring Latvia and Estonia alternately.

The future of the Kaliningrad Region, that Russian-held, heavily militarized exclave sandwiched between Lithuania and Poland, figured prominently on the agenda of the Moscow talks. Anticipating that both of those countries will join the EU within the next few years, Russia seeks to retain and if possible even expand the existing arrangements for military transit across Lithuania. It also hopes to preserve visa-free travel privileges for the Kaliningrad Region’s residents to Lithuania after that country becomes EU territory. At the Moscow meeting, the Lithuanians successfully resisted Russian attempts to initiate bilateral negotiations on joint measures to consolidate Russian military transit rights. Russian-drafted language to that effect did not find its way into the joint statement. On the visa issue, the two sides agreed in principle that it should be discussed in trilateral negotiations among the EU, Russia and Lithuania. The EU, in consultation with Lithuania, is known to be considering some form of simplified travel arrangements for Kaliningrad Russians which would, however, fall short of visa-free travel.

Lithuania, like Latvia and Estonia, is interested in maintaining and increasing the flow of the Russia-West transit trade through their territories. The two delegations decided to accelerate discussions on routing a larger share of the Russian trade through Lithuania’s port of Klaipeda in conjunction with Kaliningrad–the “2 K” project. An unprecedently large delegation of Lithuanian economic officials and private businessmen held talks with Russian counterparts on transit issues, Lithuanian agricultural exports and Russian energy supplies. Talks with Lukoil on crude oil supplies to the Mazeikiai refinery, however, led nowhere.

The Lithuanians did not press the issue of the return of their pre-war embassy buildings, seized by the Soviet Union and now held by Russia in Paris and Rome. The Russians would discuss that issue with Lithuania–as they would also bilaterally with Estonia and with Latvia–provided that the Russian missions in the three Baltic capitals are allocated substantially larger premises or building grounds on concessionary terms. Such linkage ignores the Balts’ internationally recognized legal titles to their embassy buildings.

In Moscow, the Lithuanian delegation refrained from raising the far larger issue of compensation for Soviet occupation damages. Adamkus, however, did not abjure the issue when a Russian television interviewer put it to him. The president suggested that a mutually acceptable solution be sought over time through bilateral negotiations. The wording implied a deferral and reflected the Lithuanian side’s overriding priority to improve relations with Russia. In all, the Lithuanians achieved the goal of demonstrating that their decision to be part of the West is both irrevocable and fully compatible with normal relations with Russia (BNS, ELTA, Itar-Tass, March 29-31, April 1-2; NTV, March 30; see the Monitor, October 4, 2000, January 8, February 6, March 16, 22, 30; Fortnight in Review, October 6, 2000, January 19, March 30.)