Publication: Russia and Eurasia Review Volume: 1 Issue: 12

By Marko Mihkelson

Later this week the NATO summit in Prague will see seven new countries invited to join the alliance, among them three Baltic states formerly part of the Soviet Union.

Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are opting, for the first time in their history as independent states, to join a military-political alliance. This development will mean much greater stability in the entire Baltic Sea area and signals the removal of one of the main obstacles to improved relations between Russia and the West. Securing such an invitation has been one of the main foreign policy priorities for each of the three nations since 1991. It is also significant that, at the same time, they are being invited to join the European Union, with a 2004 target entry date.

The main beneficiaries of this development are the countries themselves. The desire to join NATO and the EU pushed all three toward vigorous internal reforms, reforms without which the prospect of membership in either body would have been impossible. At the same time, it is important–from the perspective of European stability–that all three states join both bodies simultaneously. Not so long ago, in 1997, only Estonia was being considered for EU negotiations. And for a long time, only Lithuania was being considered eligible for NATO membership, a step Washington promoted, in part, as compensation for the miss on an EU bid.

Singling out any one country as a leader in either race tended to stimulate invidious competition among the three. And, if actually carried out, any such “favor” would have been a strategic mistake. Any partition of the region would undoubtedly have given Russia the opportunity for geopolitical manipulation. Former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott vividly describes in his memoirs “The Russia Hand,” how in the spring of 1997 in Helsinki, Russian President Boris Yeltsin offered his American colleague Bill Clinton a gentleman’s agreement deal, under which the United States would have given at least an oral promise that NATO would never expand to encompass former Soviet territory. Clinton politely declined.

This year, Russian politicians–and not only President Vladimir Putin–have been signaling a willingness to improve relations with their Baltic neighbors. Chairman of the Russian Federation Council’s Committee for International Affairs Mikhail Margelov said, in a speech at a workshop organized by the Baltic Center of Russian Studies in Tallinn in March, that the time of emotions in relations between two countries must be put in the past.

But it is not easy to dispel stereotypical thinking in public attitudes toward foreign relations. We should not forget that as recently as 1996, polls showed 93 percent of Russians in favor of responding with military-political measures if the Baltic States were accepted into NATO. And a year ago polls showed Russians listing the Baltic states, the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and the United States as the most significant sources of danger.

It is thus not surprising that during recent years Russian official rhetoric, when describing the aspirations of Baltic states toward NATO, has been pronouncedly negative. It is noteworthy, for example, that the Russian Duma has dragged its feet on ratifying border agreements with the three Baltic countries. But even here, especially during last year, remarkable changes have occurred.

The speech of Russian President Vladimir Putin on September 3, 2001, during his joint press conference with Finnish President Tarja Halonen, can be considered a turning point. “It is their own choice, though we see no objective reason for NATO expansion,” said Putin to the journalists when commenting on the Baltic states’ aspirations toward NATO. This was the first time that a Russian head of state actually assented to NATO enlargement concerning the Baltic States. Notable also is the fact that Putin made this statement a few days before the terrorist attacks on the United States.

In a June 24 press conference in Moscow, answering a question from an Estonian journalist Putin declared: “I think it would be a tactical and strategic mistake to obstruct Estonia’s entry into NATO. If Estonia wants to join, then let it, if it thinks that it is best for it. I don’t see it as any kind of tragedy.”

In recent times, the rhetoric of Russian official representatives has come into conformity with President Putin’s stated views. The head of the Kremlin’s information department, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, introduced a new aspect to Russian official policy during a meeting with Estonian journalists at the end of October, namely, that NATO enlargement will actually create a positive environment for the improvement of bilateral relations.

“Inclusion of the Baltic states into NATO will free Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania from the fears of the past and that will have a positive influence on their relations. As I understand, the NATO membership is for you a question of psychological security,” said Yastrzhembsky, adding that “this gives you an opportunity to deal with Estonian-Russian relations more calmly than so far.”

Estonia’s deputy undersecretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Harri Tiido, called Yastrzhembsky’s statements positive. “This shows that in Russia the psychological phobia concerning NATO enlargement to its western borders is decreasing,” said Tiido. “This certainly increases Estonia’s feeling of security and that always helps to organize better international relations,” he continued. “Estonia as a NATO member will communicate with Russia on a new level, but Estonia must place itself into the frame of relations between NATO and Russia that are already established.”

Evidence that serious psychological barriers are coming down is given, for example, by the workshop “Regional security and NATO expansion: outcome for Baltic States, Scandinavia and Russia’s western border areas” that took place October 17­18 in Pskov, 20 miles from the Estonian border. The workshop, organized jointly by the Russian Federation Council Committee for International Affairs (Mikhail Margelov represents Pskovskaya Oblast as a senator) and the NATO Information Office in Moscow, is the first of its kind in Russia.

It is impossible to imagine such a workshop happening last year, given that Russian media were still promoting Russia’s rigid opposition to NATO expansion, complaining about the NATO war machine menacing Russia’s borders. Its occurrence is a signal that NATO-Russia relations have entered a new phase.

One remaining concern of Russian officials, coming mainly from Defense Ministry representatives, is the complaint that the Baltic states have still not signed the Conventional Armed Forces Treaty, an agreement initiated in 1990 and amended in Istanbul in 1999, which limits the deployment of conventional weapons in thirty European countries. The Baltic states are among the small number of countries (along with Finland and Sweden) not signatories to the treaty.

But even here the rhetoric is rather artificial, and has in fact nothing to do with the NATO enlargement process. This could even be interpreted as Russian generals consenting to NATO expansion to the Baltic states without actually saying so.

It was interesting that during the Pskov workshop, when the representative of the Russian Defense Ministry was told that the Conventional Armed Forces Treaty is not open to new partners for purely legal reasons, he was not able to come up with an argument in response.

Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Valentina Matvienko, who visited Tallinn in early November, affirmed that Russia’s objective is to cooperate with the European Union and NATO. She said that Estonia’s membership in NATO and the European Union creates a new dimension in bilateral relations between Estonia and Russia.

Thus the enlargement of NATO and the European Union to the east coast of the Baltic Sea will give a strong impulse for development of stability in this region. The Baltic states have a chance to shed their traditional role as a buffer between Western countries and Russia, which has been their fate in the past due to their geopolitical location.

This downgrading of geopolitical considerations will increase the economic attraction of the region. Hopefully in the future this will be the determining factor in the relations between the Baltic states and Russia, which should help to reduce the prejudiced attitudes characteristic of relations between many countries since the collapse of the Soviet empire.

Marko Mihkelson is the director of the Baltic Center for Russian Studies in Tallinn, Estonia.