Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 30

Meeting in the snow-bound Tyrolean Austrian Alps near Innsbruck on February 10, Presidents Vaira Vike-Freiberga of Latvia and Vladimir Putin of Russia seem to have made a new phase in bilateral relations possible, essentially on the basis that Latvia had all along sought–namely, a nonpolemical dialogue and Russian acceptance of Latvia’s irreversible Western orientation. Vike-Freiberga reaffirmed Latvia’s longstanding offer to “draw a line under the past, seek agreements on current problems and look into the future”–understood not as a “common” future but one in which Latvia is clearly a part of the West.

In a move described as surprising and “smart,” Putin declined to raise more than in passing the issue of Latvia’s NATO aspirations. Remarking that the sides were familiar with each other’s positions on that issue, Putin chose to laid it aside and focused instead on the situation of Latvia’s Russians/”Russian-speakers” and noncitizens. He listed a number of complaints and concerns which Vike-Freiberga found to be based mostly on inaccurate or outdated information. For example, Putin asked that Latvia treat her “ethnic minorities” according to European Union norms, apparently ignoring the fact that the European Union has approved Latvia’s amended legislation in that sphere as democratic and consistent with EU standards. So has the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. While Latvia has not ratified the Council of Europe’s Framework Convention on National Minorities, neither have many European Union countries.

Putin mentioned the possibility of a program to help repatriate some Russians who have not taken Latvian citizenship or otherwise have not adapted to the independent Latvian state. This suggestion reflects recent consideration in Moscow of the possibility of replenishing Russia’s demographic reservoir by resettling limited numbers of Russians from the “near abroad” into depopulated areas of Russia.

According to both sides’ accounts, the discussion between Vike-Freiberga and Putin eventually focused on the possibility of easing language proficiency requirements in the naturalization test for the nonnative elderly. That in itself would mark a transition from political controversy to narrower, technical and manageable issues in that sphere. Putin criticized Latvia over the trials of three former NKVD/KGB officers on war crimes and/or genocide charges. Two trials have resulted in convictions and the third has moved to the appeal phase. Vike-Freiberga explained to Putin that, in Latvia, no one can exert political influence on the courts, and that those charges do not carry a statute of limitations.

Putin and his top foreign policy aide, Sergei Prikhodko, professed satisfaction with this meeting after it was over. They described the atmosphere of the talks, and Vike-Freiberga’s responses to the Russian position, as “on the whole positive.” Such a tone is being used for the first time since Putin came to power and indeed probably for the first time since at least the mid-1990s. Whether the new tone reflects an attitudinal change in the Kremlin or a change of tactics is far too early to tell. Vike-Freiberga for her part reaffirmed after the meeting that Latvia is committed to developing political dialogue with Moscow in order to improve bilateral relations and the social climate in Latvia itself. That, too, is the position of Latvia’s EU and NATO partners.

The meeting near Innsbruck was the first since 1994 between a Russian and a Latvian president–in that case, between Boris Yeltsin and Guntis Ulmanis in Moscow to sign final agreements on the withdrawal of occupation troops. Until completing his term in 1999, Ulmanis sought in vain an invitation to Russia, where he wanted to visit also the Siberian places where many Latvians including the Ulmanis family had been deported.

In the last few years, Moscow made Latvia into the main Baltic target of political pressure, much of it through use of the ethnic card. The campaign culminated during Yevgeny Primakov’s tenure in the Russian government and again with Putin’s rise in the Kremlin. If Moscow has decided to shift to a benign stance at this time, such a decision seems attributable to two factors. Tactically, Moscow seems to have belatedly recognized that it has overplayed its hand with the ethnic card. Strategically, it is now embarking on a policy of rapprochement with the EU, of which Latvia will most likely become a member sooner rather than later. The Latvian parliament’s foreign affairs committee chairman, Guntars Krasts, has suggested that the Bush administration’s early signals of a firm foreign policy helped persuade Moscow to enter into the dialogue Latvia had sought.

It was Foreign Affairs Minister Indulis Berzins who laid the ground for the presidential meeting when he visited Moscow last month, in his parallel capacity as current chairman of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. Prior to that visit, Russia had for years refused to hold foreign affairs ministers’ and other governmental meetings with Latvians. Moscow was seeking to foster the impression of inherently “bad relations” in the hope of marring Latvia’s relations with the West. Berzins remarked that the presidential meeting has now deflated the notion that those “bad relations” are somehow preordained, and that the Innsbruck meeting has in fact ended the period of “no relations.”

Riga now hopes that the presidential meeting shall be followed in short order by a meeting of the Russian-Latvian intergovernmental cooperation commission. That body never became operational because Moscow withheld its participation, lest it convey the impression of normal relations. A further impediment was the frequent replacement of the Russian co-chairman of the commission. The current Russian co-chairman is Aleksandr Blokhin, the minister for the affairs of nationalities and regions–an appointment made last year and which reflected Moscow’s distorting emphasis on ethnic issues in its policy toward Latvia. On the Latvian side, Transportation Minister Anatolijs Gorbunovs stayed as co-chairman of the joint commission through several government changes in Riga. Unresolved trade and transit issues top that commission’s agenda.

If Moscow is serious about turning a new page in relations, it should sign without further delay the Russian-Latvian bilateral border agreement, the text of which has only been initialed. Although Latvia accepted–as did Estonia–the text changes sought by Russia, the latter has thus far withheld its signature on both treaties, demanding concessions on extraneous ethnic issues in return for that signature. The decisive test will, however, be provided by the Russian reaction to Latvia’s and her two Baltic neighbors’ efforts to join NATO at its next enlargement round (BNS, LETA, Latvian Radio, Itar-Tass, ORT, February 10-12).