TESTING RUSSIAN INTENTIONS IN THE BALTICS.

Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 66

The positive atmospherics generated by the Moscow meeting of Presidents Vladimir Putin and Valdas Adamkus transcend bilateral Russian-Lithuanian relations. The March 29-30 event in Moscow marked the second, and almost certainly not last round, of a Putin-style charm offensive, which he had launched in February by “accepting” to meet–if only on neutral ground–with Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga. Logically, Estonia may now expect a signal.

The three countries are irrevocably committed to joining both NATO and the European Union, the chronological order of accession depending on which of those organizations will be the first to invite the Balts.

In his meetings with the Latvian and Lithuanian presidents, Putin decided to lay aside for the moment the issue of NATO’s Baltic enlargement while holding out broad prospects of bilateral economic cooperation and political detente between Russia and the Baltic states. That was perhaps the most conspicuous feature in Putin’s handling of the two meetings. It appeared designed to suggest to the Baltic leaders and political and business circles that all could be well in Russian-Baltic relations, as long as the NATO issue is not there to intrude. Meanwhile, outside those bilateral meetings, Moscow persists in opposing NATO’s enlargement and even its continuation in the present form.

The Russian-Latvian and Russian-Lithuanian meetings also confirmed Russia’s goal to gain a voice in shaping some of the terms on which the Baltic states will join the European Union (EU). Asserting that the Baltic states’ accession to the EU would affect “Russian interests,” Moscow would like those issues to be negotiated with its participation. The Kaliningrad Region’s unique situation–as a Russian exclave, soon to become an enclave within the EU–necessitates negotiations with Moscow as a special case.

But Moscow would also like certain Russian economic and commercial “interests” in the Baltic states to become subjects of negotiations with the EU. This suggests that Moscow aims to perpetuate some special economic positions in the Baltic states and, most likely, to use such economic positions for political leverage. While the three Baltic states look firmly westward, Moscow would prefer three Janus-like creatures with one face turned to the West and another to the East.

Putin’s meetings with Adamkus and Vike-Freiberga yielded no tangible progress on the vexed issue of border treaties. In 1996-97, Russia initialed such treaties with Estonia and Latvia–both countries having accepted all the text changes Moscow sought–and signed one with Lithuania. But Russia, in all these years, has refused to sign any with Estonia and Latvia and has withheld the ratification of the one with Lithuania. Instead, Moscow has demanded concessions on ethnic issues as a price for signing any with Latvia and Estonia, and has hoped against hope to affect the course of Lithuania’s foreign policy by holding up the ratification of the border treaty with it.

Based on a crudely literal reading of the EU’s and NATO’s admission requirements, Moscow had reckoned that the seemingly “unresolved border problems with a neighbor country” would impede the Baltic states’ progress toward joining those organizations. That miscalculation has long become obvious. Western countries have made it clear that the Baltic states have done everything which depended on them to complete their respective border treaties, and that the onus is now on Moscow to sign and ratify the documents.

The Lithuanians more recently hoped that the Russian government would submit the treaty to the Duma for ratification before Adamkus’ visit to Moscow. This, however, did not come to pass. Moreover, key pro-Putin players in the Duma–such as the foreign affairs commission’s chairman, Dmitry Rogozin–publicly suggested that they might set new preconditions to ratifying the treaty. One set of these envisages privileged terms for Russia-Kaliningrad military and other transit across Lithuania.

It was also on the eve of Adamkus’ visit that Russia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry reaffirmed in stark terms the Soviet thesis that the three Baltic states had “joined” the Soviet Union willingly and in a “legal” manner. The move was wholly unnecessary inasmuch as the Lithuanians had made clear in advance that they were not about to raise the issue of compensation. The Russian government had revived that Soviet thesis long before the Lithuanian parliament’s vote last year to assess the occupation damages and to ask for compensation.

If Moscow is serious about turning a new page in relations with the Baltic states, it can take several simple steps at no cost to itself. Even short of making amends for the occupation, it can at least drop the thesis about the three states’ having joined the Soviet Union of their own free will. It can easily stop defending–as it now does on political grounds–the former KGB officers tried and sentenced for their crimes in the Baltic states. And it can without further delays sign the Russian-Latvian and Russian-Estonian border agreements and ratify the treaty with Lithuania.

Moscow can, moreover, easily turn off the propaganda that misrepresents interethnic relations in Latvia and Estonia. It knows that the OSCE, the Council of Europe, the European Union and other organizations as well as the Western democratic nations have helped shape and ultimately approved the Estonian and Latvian legislations on language and citizenship. The ultimate test will, however, be provided by Moscow’s reaction to the three Baltic neighbors’ decision to exercise their sovereign choice in seeking NATO membership at the next summit of the alliance. All this would show if Russia really intends to improve relations with the three Baltic neighbors or if it has merely launched a tactical, charm offensive as packaging to traditional goals. It is yet too early to tell (BNS, LETA, ELTA, Vilnius Radio, Itar-Tass, March 29-31, April 1-2; see the Monitor, October 4, 2000, January 8, February 6, 13, March 16, 22, 30, April 3; Fortnight in Review, October 6, 2000, January 19, February 16, March 30, April 3).

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