Yesterday (November 10) Moscow denied an entry visa to Estonia’s foreign minister. Although the move was allegedly prompted by the Estonian side failing to comply with certain diplomatic formalities, it appears to be a clear sign of continuing tension between the Kremlin and the Balts. Both Russia, the principal successor state of the Soviet Empire, and the Baltic countries, the former “captive nations,” are still the unhappy victims of their shared past, mired in an intractable dispute over history that inevitably shapes their present-day attitudes.
Estonia’s top diplomat, Urmas Paet, was due to travel to St. Petersburg to participate in a two-day roundtable discussion on how to improve cross-border cooperation between Russia and the European Union. Paet submitted his diplomatic passport to the Russian Embassy in Tallinn after receiving an invitation to the conference, which was organized by the St. Petersburg Center for International Cooperation. However, the Russian Foreign Ministry rejected Paet’s application, saying that only his Russian counterpart was authorized to issue an invitation for him to visit the country, so that he could be “provided with transport, means of communication, and security.” Since such an invitation was missing, the Russian side could not organize the visit “at the appropriate level.” Estonians “know these rules very well,” a Russian Foreign Ministry official told journalists in Moscow, adding that the fact that Paet was denied a visa did not mean “somebody was seeking to offend the Estonian side.”
But Paet seemed to take offence nevertheless, suggesting that with this demarche Russia had demonstrated its reluctance to develop good-neighborly relations with Estonia. “It is a very unfortunate situation,” an Estonian Foreign Ministry’s spokesperson quoted him as saying. “This shows that Russia is not interested in contacts with Estonia.”
The general context of relations between Russia and the Baltic states, in particular Estonia and Latvia, would suggest that the Russian Foreign Ministry’s decision is based on more than protocol technicalities. Moscow and the Balts are deeply divided by the divergent views on their recent common history as well as by the unresolved issue of the border treaties. As neither side demonstrates any readiness for compromise, a snub given to the Estonian foreign minister may well be interpreted as a sign of the Kremlin’s displeasure and an attempt to exert pressure on a pesky neighbor.
The true motives of the Russian move become clearer if they are seen in light of the recent suggestions by the Estonian leadership that Russia must apologize for the Soviet-era occupation of the Baltic states. Speaking in the Estonian parliament on November 7, the country’s Prime Minister Andrus Ansip said, “Estonia is waiting for Russia’s apology.” Remarkably, Ansip noted that there could be no guarantees that Estonia would not ask for compensation for the damage done during the decades of “Soviet occupation” even if Russia did apologize. But he also made clear that Tallinn views the issue of compensations as a kind of political leverage. “Whether we raise the issue of compensations or not will depend, above all, on what kind of relations with Russia we have,” Ansip said. “It is absolutely clear that when relations are good, no one will try to spoil them by demands stemming from the past.” (The prime minister did add, however, that the art objects taken from Estonia to Russia should be returned unconditionally.)
Estonians and other Balts are not going to make any concessions on the issue of the “Soviet occupation,” as they regard Russia’s readiness to revise the unsavory past as one of the symptoms of its ridding itself of what they call an “imperial syndrome.” Moreover, they seem to be building a kind of a “united front” within the EU composed of other victims of Soviet “imperial aggression” from among the East European countries. In the opinion of Vahur Made, deputy director of the Estonian School of Diplomacy, “Estonia has to work within the EU for the sake of the Union reaching a solution on the topic of all of Eastern Europe falling into the sphere of influence of the Soviet Union.” He suggested, in the new foreign policy yearbook, that the EU should pass a resolution that would condemn the Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.
Clearly, this stance tremendously annoys the Kremlin. But Russia appears to be as firm as the Baltic nations in defending its position. There will be no repeated expressions of “repentance” by Russia for Latvia’s “occupation,” Modest Kolerov, the head of the Putin administration’s department for interregional and cultural ties with foreign countries, said in Riga on November 8. He added that the very talk of “occupation” is pointless.
Kolerov’s pronouncements echo statements made earlier by Konstantin Kosachev, chairman of the Russian State Duma’s International Affairs Committee. In his November 1 interview with Estonian newspaper Postimees, Kosachev said he is “categorically against” legally describing the Soviet era in Estonia as an occupation. He also offered a reason why the Kremlin is so reluctant to revisit the issue of the incorporation of the Baltic countries into the Soviet Union in 1940. He suggested that by not giving Estonian citizenship to one category of residents, namely ethnic Russians, Tallinn made them hostages of the situation. “If we imagine even hypothetically that Russia would acknowledge the occupation, all of those people would become occupiers,” Kosachev said. “It would be absolutely morally unacceptable to Russia.”
As the two sides remain intransigent, the tension between Moscow and the Baltic nations will likely persist, negatively affecting the EU-Russia relationship as well.
(Polit.ru, APN.ru, November 10; Itar-Tass, November 8; NEWSru.com, November 7; Postimees, November 1)