Publication: Fortnight in Review Volume: 8 Issue: 1

On December 13 and 18, the Permanent Council of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) resolved to discontinue the mandates of the OSCE missions in Estonia and Latvia, and to close the missions as of December 31. The two missions’ chiefs, Doris Hertrampf and Peter Semneby, reported that Estonia and Latvia were in full compliance with OSCE standards.

Only Russia and Belarus opposed the closure, and lashed out at Estonia and Latvia, hoping against hope to use the missions’ presence as a tool of pressure on these Baltic states. The missions’ activity focused on the situation of ethnic minorities, an issue that Moscow has been exploiting in hopes of blocking the Baltic states’ entry into NATO and the European Union. Russia and even some European officials had construed the missions’ presence in Tallinn and Riga as an indication that the situation there required continuing monitoring and corrective steps.

The OSCE’s Romanian chairmanship, in its valedictory act, helped to overcome Moscow’s resistance and lift its pressure on the Baltic states. The Romanian foreign affairs minister and OSCE chairman-in-office, Mircea Geoana, used procedural rules to have the status of the two missions discussed not at the year-end ministerial meeting in Bucharest, but at two follow-up sessions of the Permanent Council in Vienna. There, Russia’s veto could not stop the decision to discontinue the missions. In the event, Russia and Belarus did cast vetoes; their joint move must have sprung from deep joint convictions, because it made no difference in practice, merely highlighting their status as a cohesive minority of two.

The missions’ closure had been on the cards for some time, as Estonia and Latvia were being given good marks on human rights, including ethnic minority rights, by all international organizations, including the OSCE itself. The OSCE’s consensus rules, however, allowed Moscow considerable scope to play politics within the organization, pressing to prolong the missions from year to year and to overload their mandates with demands that far exceeded any European standards on ethnic issues.

Within the organization itself, a certain bureaucratic momentum had built up, whereby the OSCE would recurrently recommend to Estonia and Latvia specific legislative changes on language, citizenship and related issues. These recommendations were a far cry from Moscow’s sweeping demands; were almost invariably carried out by Estonia and Latvia, with beneficial effects for their international standing; and kept the two OSCE missions in business from year to year. This year, the OSCE practically ran out of recommendations, after the latest one was enacted by Estonia and accepted by Latvia for enactment.

At issue was a preexisting legal requirement in the two countries that candidates for parliament and for the elective bodies of local government should be fluent in the official language–Estonian or Latvian, respectively. This requirement had meant that Russians who were unwilling or unable to learn the language of the native population were not eligible to run for elective office. In the OSCE, a certain amount of pressure built up on Estonia and Latvia to drop that requirement as inconsistent with equality principles and not conforming to European standards. Tallinn and Riga were informally told that fulfillment of this recommendation would mean that the OSCE has completed its agenda in the two countries and would close the missions at the year’s end. Even more significant, they were made to feel that enactment of these recommendations would satisfy Western countries that the margin of concessions to Russia on ethnic and language issues has been exhausted; and that NATO and the EU would henceforth take the view that Tallinn and Riga have done everything that could reasonably be asked of them on that front. And this meant that the two countries had fully met one of the political requirements for joining NATO and the EU–namely, the requirement to make every effort for constructive relations with neighboring countries.

Estonia and Latvia complied after brief but intense internal debates. In Estonia, Prime Minister Mart Laar wrote an open letter to his party, Pro Patria Union, arguing that this concession at the expense of the national language was necessary to ensure that Estonia’s independence as a state becomes irreversible through accession to NATO and the EU. The three parties of the coalition government submitted the necessary legislation to parliament, which enacted it in an overwhelming vote. President Arnold Ruutel lost no time promulgating it. Concurrently, the parliament tightened up the legislation and procedural rules on the operation of parliament and elective bodies of local government. The changes guarantee the use of the Estonian language at all levels in these bodies.

In Latvia, President Vaira Vike-Freiberga issued a public appeal to the parliament to enact the OSCE’s recommendation. Officially, the OSCE had not demanded this step of Latvia; but its political and opinion leaders concluded that it would be to the country’s advantage to legislate the change. Within the tripartite governing coalition, the Fatherland and Freedom party was expected to put up the strongest resistance; yet, after objecting initially, the party has basically accepted the changes, on the condition that Latvia follows Estonia’s example in securing full use of the Latvian language in elective bodies.