Publication: Fortnight in Review Volume: 6 Issue: 18

Interviewed in the Tallinn daily Postimees on September 12, Foreign Affairs Minister Toomas Ilves observed that Estonia’s steps to improve relations with Russia have had practically no effect on Moscow’s policy. That observation rested on ample evidence.

It is four years since Estonia agreed to drop from the bilateral border treaty even the slightest hint to Estonian territories incorporated into the Russian Federation during Soviet rule. The Russian government deemed the document acceptable in that form and initialed it in November 1996; but it has ever since refused to sign it, in the hope of complicating Estonia’s relations with the European Union. President Vladimir Putin misleadingly told Western leaders, during two summits held this year, that Estonia has “territorial claims” on Russia. U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott had to term that allegation “unwarranted by the facts, to put it mildly”–a very strong statement in diplomatic terminology.

Estonia’s far-reaching liberalization of the citizenship legislation has likewise not led to any letup in Moscow’s accusations that Estonia violates the rights of Russians there. And Russia taxes the goods imported from Estonia at double the rate applicable to most other countries.

“Whatever we do or don’t do, Russia’s policy does not change; and will not change until Russia makes up he mind to seek improved relations with Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania,” Ilves concluded. He predicted that “if Russia keeps threatening others while her own infrastructure is collapsing,” then that country will no longer be reckoned with as a great power, but simply as a source of instability and of heightened concern to neighboring countries.

Moscow probably felt equally stung by Ilves’ review of Estonia’s active relations with countries that have opted out of Russia’s orbit. Estonia is currently sharing her highly successful “Tiger’s Leap” national computerization strategy with Ukraine and Georgia. Tallinn also helps train Georgian border guards and has provided a model of currency reform to the pro-Western government of Bulgaria. Fortuitously, the publication of the interview coincided with Estonia’s expulsion of two Russian diplomats caught spying, and the tit-for-tat expulsion of two Estonian diplomats from Russia.

On September 16, Russia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry issued a statement insisting that Estonia has “territorial claims” on Russia; misquoting an Estonian parliamentary deputy as having urged armed support for Chechen “terrorism;” and attacking the Pro Patria Union–the party of Prime Minister Mart Laar–for its stated intent to seek Russian recognition of the fact of the Soviet occupation of the Baltic States, “in spite of Russia’s well known position on this matter.” That position–recently reaffirmed by the Russian government–holds that Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania “joined” the USSR “at their request” and in a “legal” manner. Pro Patria’s proposal is in fact a symbolic one, supportive of a Lithuanian initiative, and confined to the Baltic Assembly–an interparliamentary body with moral authority but no real powers. Pro Patria’ proposal, while legally invulnerable, does not constitute government policy.

Moscow’s statement, furthermore, reproached Estonia for “imposing” visa regulations at the Estonian-Russian border in spite of Russia’s objections. The introduction of such regulations, however, is required by the European Union of countries seeking accession. Moscow’s objections to that requirement look like an attempt to interfere with Estonia’s accession process.

In a parallel statement, Russia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry accused Estonia and Latvia of violating the rights of Russians in the two countries. That demarche took advantage of the Moscow visit of Max van der Stoel, High Commissioner on National Minorities of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Van der Stoel’s visit this time focused on the situation of Ukrainians in Russia and Russians in Ukraine. The Russian government, however, pointed accusatory fingers at the Balts as well. Claiming that Latvia and Estonia were “ostentatiously ignoring” international recommendations on ethnic minority rights, Moscow’s officials called for international intercession. Yet none other than van der Stoel–as well as other OSCE bodies, the European Union, the Council of Europe, the United States government, and other international authorities–have in recent weeks reaffirmed their approval of recent Latvian and Estonian legislation on language and citizenship. The Russian government appears to feign ignorance of that fact.