Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 2

On December 24, Russian President Vladimir Putin launched a policy initiative designed to create a controllable level of ethno-linguistic tension in the Baltic states. In a live phone-in show, broadcast on all of Russia’s state television and radio channels, Putin urged Russians and “Russian-speakers” in the Baltic states to demand official status for the Russian language and numerical quotas of representation in government bodies.

In parallel with Putin’s move, Russian diplomacy delivered a series of snubs to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), thus signaling a predisposition toward unilateral actions on this front. The policy shift may have been precipitated by the OSCE’s recent decision to close its monitoring missions in Estonia and Latvia over the objections of Moscow, which thus lost for good a “multilateral” policy tool. The key to Putin’s timing, however, is not the OSCE’s December 2001 decision, but the 2002 NATO summit, in the run up to which Moscow will wish to derail the Baltic states’ candidacies for membership in the alliance.

The staging of Putin’s televised remarks was elaborate enough to suggest advance planning. A phoned-in question from a viewer semi-identified as “Timofeyev, an official in Riga,” was introduced by the Russian state TV presenter aggressively: “Is Russia ready, not in words but in deeds, to defend the rights and interests of Russians in the Baltic republics [sic], Central Asia and other regions of the former Soviet Union?” Putin replied at some length, first announcing “a much more vigorous stance on protecting the interests of the Russian-speaking population, and still more those of citizens of the Russian Federation who live abroad, primarily in the CIS countries of course.” He spoke of waging a “fight for [official] status for the Russian language… I would like to assure you that we will step up our efforts in this area. There is no doubt about that.”

Following the overall policy statement, Putin announced a new one toward the Baltic states. As it turns out, this rests on an analogy drawn from the Balkans and portrayed by Putin as a European precedent. He told the Riga caller: “As is known, in Macedonia a decision has been taken–to be blunt, under pressure from the European Union and the OSCE–according to which the Albanian population has the right, in percentage terms, to be represented in the bodies of state power and management, including the security structures. We have every reason to extend this principle to Russians as well, including the Russians in the Baltic states. They have the right to demand that this principle should apply to them too.”

Putin may well be the first head of state in post-1945 Europe to publicly urge a “compatriot” minority across the border to raise demands based on ethnicity and language as a tool of foreign policy. He had already done so in barely more veiled terms during his visit to Moldova last year, prompting analogies to Nazi Germany’s misuse of ethnic minority issues in Central Europe (see Stephen J. Blank, “Putin’s Twelve-Step Program,” The Washington Quarterly, Winter 2002). Putin’s December 24 statement is more explicit, however, as is its geopolitical motivation in the context of NATO’s Baltic enlargement.

The Russian president has now fully developed his Macedonia pseudo-analogy. He had first brought it up during his August 2001 visit to Finland, on which occasion he implicitly tied it to the issue of NATO’s enlargement in the Baltic region. At that stage, Russia–presumably out of “Slavic” solidarity–was opposed to any special rights for Macedonia’s Albanians. But, apparently expecting those rights to be granted to Albanians there, Putin clearly hinted in his Helsinki speech that Russia may well advance similar demands for Russians/”Russian-speakers” in the Baltic states. In that same Helsinki speech, Putin had struck for the first time an almost relaxed pose regarding the prospect of the Baltic states’ admission to NATO (see the Monitor, August 27, 31, 2001). These twin attitudes could be read as implying, in a worst-case scenario, that Moscow would tone down its official rhetoric against NATO’s enlargement while at the same time stirring the pot in the Baltic states in hopes of dissuading NATO from taking them in.

At present, Moscow can ill afford to come out openly against NATO’s emerging consensus to issue membership invitations to the Baltic states at the Prague summit later this year. Open, obdurate resistance could ruin Russia’s quest for the higher stake of a decisionmaking role within the alliance. Putin’s televised address suggests that Russian policy between now and the Prague summit may follow two parallel tracks. On one, it will tell NATO that Moscow could under certain conditions live with the admission of the Baltic states in NATO. On the other, it may try to create artificially, through overt and covert moves, a degree of interethnic tension in Latvia and Estonia. Such tactics, inducing tensions where there are none, would attempt to vindicate the otherwise rapidly receding view in NATO that the alliance would import trouble with Russians and Russia if the Baltic states are admitted as members.

In recent days, Moscow has also administered several snubs to the OSCE in retaliation for the latter’s decision to issue a clean bill of health to Latvia and Estonia on ethnic and language issues. Russia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry has placed a one-year term limit on the mandate of the OSCE missions in Chechnya, declared that Russia’s membership dues to the OSCE are too high and must be reduced, and announced that it would switch the focus of its anti-Baltic complaints from the OSCE to other international organizations (Russian Public Television, ORT TV, Radios Russia and Mayak, December 24; Interfax, December 25, 29; see the Monitor, September 6, 17, 28, October 10, November 9, December 21, 2001).