Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 89

On a three-day state visit to Estonia this week, Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga analyzed Russia’s official attitude toward the three Baltic states in the context of Russia-West relations. That linkage, demonstrating as it does the Baltic wish to belong in the Western world, seems to have infuriated the Russian government. In interviews to Western and Estonian media and in public statements during her visit, Vike-Freiberga did not mince words in making these salient points:

–Russia in its present condition does not pose a threat of military aggression against the Baltic states. However, Moscow uses political and rhetorical pressures on the Baltic states and on the West in the hope of restoring a Russian sphere of influence in the Baltic region. That goal in turn forms a part of Russia’s quest to regain world power status.

–Unity of the Baltic states is a guarantee of their successful movement toward the West and away from the ex-Soviet or Russian sphere of influence, in which the three Baltic nations had forcibly been incorporated. That unity also protects the region against attempts at destabilizing it.

–Progress toward membership in Euroatlantic institutions demonstrates that the Baltic states’ Western choice is irreversible. The European Union and NATO would not tolerate aggression against countries which are candidates for membership and are successfully doing their homework to attain that membership.

–Russian diplomacy applies pressure alternately on individual Baltic states to undermine their cooperation and solidarity. At one stage, Estonia was being singled out; currently, Latvia is the main target. As a result, each Baltic state has gained a better understanding of the need to stand up for the other two.

–Latvia’s central location in the region and her ethnic composition are the factors behind Moscow’s decision to shift the brunt of the pressure onto Latvia at this stage. The goal is to disrupt the country’s relations with the West, draw a wedge through the center of the Baltic front and recoup political and economic influence on Latvia. The method entails attacking Latvia’s citizenship and language laws and the investigation of Soviet-era crimes, under the pretext of protecting ethnic minority rights. Moscow, however, has overplayed its hand since the European Union, the Council of Europe, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, as well as the governments in Western Europe and the United States, have assessed Latvia’s legislation as democratic. Latvia is coping with “the great challenge of [ethnic] integration” by offering a homeland to those who see their future in an independent Latvia as part of the West; those opposed to Latvia’s independence have the option of returning to their Russian homeland.

–Cultivating good-neighborly relations with Russia is one of the central goals of Latvia’s policy. Riga hopes that Vladimir Putin’s presidency will discard cold-war rhetoric and treat Latvia and the Baltic states as partners. Moscow’s policy toward the Baltic states will be regarded as an indicator of its willingness to build relations with the West according to generally accepted rules of an international system which no longer accepts spheres of influence.

Russia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry reacted with a note which described Vike-Freiberga’s remarks as “anti-Russian,” arising from “nervousness over Latvia’s growing ethnic problems” and aiming above all to suggest that Latvia has no alternative to joining NATO. The Russian note renewed attacks on Latvia’s citizenship and language law, inaccurately claiming that they did not pass international muster, and concluded by advising Latvia to observe the “norms of the civilized world.” The contents and tenor of the Foreign Affairs Ministry note proved more belligerent than that of the reputed “arch hardliner,” Colonel-General Leonid Ivashov. In his statement, the head of the Russian General Staff’s international cooperation department rehashed Moscow’s familiar opposition to the enlargement of NATO in the Baltic region, along with assurances of peaceful intent to the Baltic states. It was left to the Russian Duma’ communist chairman, Gennady Seleznev, to wonder aloud how and from where Vike-Freiberga had “landed” in Latvia, in an attempt to suggest that the president is a stranger to the country (BBC, May 1; Postimees, May 2; BNS, ETA, May 1-4; Itar-Tass, RIA, Nezavisimaya gazeta, May 1-4; see the Monitor, March 3, 8, 23, April 11).

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