Publication: Fortnight in Review Volume: 8 Issue: 4

On February 11 in Riga, Germany’s Foreign Affairs Minister Joschka Fischer at last put his government unambiguously on record in favor of issuing NATO membership invitations to all three Baltic states this year. Fischer and his Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian counterparts, holding a landmark meeting in the 3+1 format, stated in a joint communique their common view that an “invitation to the Baltic states to join NATO, to be issued at the [November 2002] Prague summit, will erase the lines of historic injustice and division in Europe.” In the communique, Germany affirmed its “active support to the accession of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to the European Union and NATO,” while the three Baltic states reaffirmed their “commitment to continually upgrading their defense capabilities.”

At the concluding briefing, Fischer made the twin points that “all qualified” candidate countries should be invited this year to join NATO, and that the Baltic states are “well advanced” and continuing to advance in preparing for membership. The first of these points–like that about historic injustice–preempts Russian objections to the inclusion of the Baltic states in NATO. Fischer’s second point clearly reaffirms the validity of the existing set of admission criteria, laid out for the Balts at the outset of the three-year Membership Action Plan process, and which cannot suddenly be altered in the endgame phase without damaging the process itself.

“Germany had a special responsibility based on history when Poland wanted to join NATO, and we feel that we have a similar responsibility to our Baltic friends,” Fischer asserted, in a reference to the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact. Such a statement reflects a significant official shift in the terms of the German debate. The German government and political establishment had championed Poland’s admission to NATO, but dragged their feet on the issue of the alliance’s Baltic enlargement. It was not until October 2001 that Defense Minister Rudolf Scharping became the first senior German government official to come out in favor of inviting the Baltic states to join the alliance.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has, thus far, declined to lead in the matter. On his visit to the Baltic states last June, Schroeder endorsed their goal to join the EU, but remained silent on NATO in apparent deference to Moscow. Meanwhile, Germany’s political parties–key actors in shaping foreign policy–have been slowly moving toward a consensus in favor of the alliance’s Baltic enlargement. The German military has all along been actively involved alongside other NATO countries’ militaries in assisting the Baltic states to qualify for admission.

For their part, the Baltic foreign affairs ministers reported their countries’ recent progress on the respective Membership Action Plans. Latvia’s Indulis Berzins predicted that the three countries would turn “from good candidates into good members of the alliance.” Estonia’s Kristiina Ojuland termed the prospective accession to NATO “the beginning of a new life” for these countries. Lithuania’s Antanas Valionis noted that the three states have, since September 11, 2001 at the latest, been “acting as de facto members of NATO.” Valionis referred to Baltic units involved in NATO peace support operations and, most recently, the joint Baltic decision to deploy soldiers with the U.S. and other Western forces in Kyrgyzstan.

In the same meeting, Ojuland commented that Estonia–like the other Baltic states–is doing everything within its abilities to promote goodneighborly relations with Russia, but that the goal is elusive when pursued by one side only. This comment in its essence is consonant with that shared by top U.S. officials with Latvia’s President Vaira Vike-Freiberga in Washington last week. The officials, according to U.S. media reports, acknowledged that Latvia was for its part making every effort for constructive relations with Russia.

With Germany now committed to NATO’s Baltic enlargement as a goal for this year, Britain remains the last major straggler at the political level. This may be about to change, however. On February 7 in a protocol message to Estonia’s new Prime Minister, Siim Kallas, on the formation of his government, Britain’s Prime Minister Tony Blair stated that he “strongly supports Estonia’s wish to join NATO;” that Britain would continue assisting Estonia’s “remarkably successful effort” for military modernization; and that London would, at the Prague summit in November, support the issuance of invitations to qualified countries. While still well short of an official endorsement, Blair’s message seems to presage one for the Baltic states as a group.