Publication: Fortnight in Review Volume: 6 Issue: 10

During her visit to Estonia in early May, Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga commented on Russia’s official attitude toward the three Baltic states as an aspect of Russia-West relations. That linkage, demonstrating as it does the Baltic wish to be part of the Western world, apparently infuriated the Russian government.

In her public statements during her visit, Vike-Freiberga did not mince words in making these salient points:

–Russia’s present condition means that there is no threat of military aggression against the Baltic states. However, Moscow uses political and rhetorical pressures on the Baltic states and on the West, hoping to gain acceptance of a Russian sphere of influence in the Baltic region. That goal in turn forms a part of Russia’s quest for world power status.

–Unity of the Baltic states is a guarantee of their successful movement toward the West and away from the ex-Soviet or Russian sphere of influence, in which the three Baltic nations had forcibly been incorporated. That unity also protects the region against attempts at destabilizing it.

–Progress toward membership in EuroAtlantic institutions demonstrates that the Baltic states’ Western choice is irreversible. The European Union and NATO would not tolerate aggression against countries that are candidates for membership and are successfully doing their homework to attain that membership.

–Russian diplomacy applies pressure alternately on individual Baltic states to undermine their cooperation and solidarity. At one stage, Estonia was being singled out; currently, Latvia is the main target. As a result, each Baltic state has gained a better understanding of the need to stand up for the other two.

–Latvia’s central location in the region and her ethnic composition are the factors behind Moscow’s decision to shift the brunt of pressure onto Latvia at this stage. The goal is to disrupt the country’s relations with the West, drive a wedge in the center of the Baltic front and recoup political and economic influence on Latvia. The method consists of attacking Latvia’s citizenship and language laws and the investigation of Soviet-era crimes, under the pretense of protecting ethnic minority rights. However, Moscow has overplayed its hand since the European Union, the Council of Europe, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, as well as the governments in Western Europe and the United States, have assessed Latvia’s legislation as democratic. Latvia is coping with “the great challenge of [ethnic] integration” by offering a homeland to those who see their future in an independent Latvia as part of the West, while those opposed to Latvia’s independence have the option of returning to their Russian homeland.

–Cultivating good-neighborly relations with Russia is one of the central goals of Latvia’s policy. Riga hopes that Vladimir Putin’s presidency will discard cold-war rhetoric and treat the Baltic states as fully sovereign partners. Moscow’s policy toward the Baltic states will serve as an indicator of its willingness to build relations with the West according to generally accepted rules of an international system which no longer accepts spheres of influence.

Russia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry reacted with a note which described Vike-Freiberga’s remarks as “anti-Russian,” arising from “nervousness over Latvia’s growing ethnic problems” and aiming to suggest that Latvia has no alternative to joining NATO. The Russian note renewed attacks on Latvia’s citizenship and language laws, inaccurately claiming that they had not passed international muster; and it concluded by advising Latvia to observe the “norms of the civilized world.” It was left to the Russian Duma’s chairman, Gennady Seleznev, to wonder aloud how and from where Vike-Freiberga had “landed” in Latvia. Seleznev is an advocate of unconditional enfranchisement of the Soviet-era settlers and a defender–like the Kremlin and the Foreign Affairs Ministry–of former members of the repressive apparatus under investigation for crimes in the Baltic states. The allusion to Vike-Freiberga’s return from the West seemed designed to portray the president as a stranger to the country of her birth.