In a telephone conversation yesterday the prime ministers of Latvia and Lithuania, Maris Gailis and Adolfas Slezevicius, resolved to "prevent further deterioration of bilateral relations" caused by Latvia’s agreement of intent with two Western companies to explore and develop oil deposits in an offshore zone partially claimed by Lithuania. They agreed that a Lithuanian delegation of Foreign Ministry officials and parliamentary representatives would travel to Latvia next week to review the documents signed by Latvia with the US Amoco and Swedish OPAB companies. Gailis promised that drilling would only commence after the demarcation of the mutual maritime border, and accepted Lithuania’s proposal to resort to international arbitration. But Latvia continued to speak with two voices as its Foreign Ministry came out also yesterday for a bilateral, not arbitrated, solution to the dispute. Slezevicius, in his turn, publicly commented that the contract would have best been reviewed before, rather than after the signing. And Lithuanian president Algirdas Brazauskas called for an amicable settlement that would take into account "the interests of both sides." (6)
The dispute is the most serious misunderstanding yet among Baltic countries since they regained their independence. Some may view it as a sign of "normalcy," comparable for example to disputes over maritime economic rights among European Union countries; but this judgment would ignore the Baltic countries’ special security situation, which dictates that they can ill afford squabbles. Lithuania and Latvia will undoubtedly try to prevent a spillover of this dispute into other areas of bilateral and regional cooperation. The oil agreement lacks binding force until ratified by Latvia’s parliament. But the latter may come under growing pressure to ratify as the 1996 target date for the start of drilling operations approaches.
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