Everybody Needs Good Neighbours

Article published on March 15, 2004
community published
Article published on March 15, 2004

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

Moscow has always enjoyed somewhat strained relations with the Baltic States. But EU enlargement means that Russia’s near neighbours are about to move that little bit further away.

The outcome of the election may now be known but one thing has been clear for a while: Mother Russia will shortly be entering a new phase in its relations with its closest neighbours to the West. Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia all join the European Union on May 1st this year. The three little Baltic States have always attracted the attention of their immense neighbour, be it military, economic or ethnic. However, with the arrival of Putin in power in Moscow, Russia’s relations with the three States, and notably Latvia and Estonia, have gone up a gear thanks to the Kremlin’s foreign policy goals.

The fight for a great cause

Russia has never been afraid to play the ethnic card. While people in the Baltics accuse Russia of neo-imperialism, Russia replies with accusations of overt violations of minority rights. In 2001 during a live programme broadcast on all Russia's State-run 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. ‘I want to assure you that we will intensify our efforts in this area,’ he said. He has not hesitated to compare the situation in the Baltics to that of the Balkans and many more ‘suggestions’ of this type have come out of the mouths of Russian officials. Analysts say that Putin is actually the first Head of State in post-war Europe to publicly urge, as part of foreign policy, a "compatriot" minority across the border to make demands based on ethnicity and language.

However, all the international or regional human rights monitoring organizations which have visited the Baltic States in recent years have admitted that, contrary to Russian allegations, there are no violations of minority rights. It is questionable whether Russia is genuinely concerned about the fate of fellow Russians. However it cannot be denied that its relationship with Lithuania, a country which has been lax with regard to citiznship law and whose Russian speaking community only makes up 8.6% of the population, is calmer than relations with Latvia and Estonia. But Lithuania has its own stumbling block - the status of Kaliningrad in an enlarged Europe and Russia’s push for visa-free access for Russian citizens travelling through Lithuania.

EU enlargement

In the last decade the Baltic States have made incredible advances in terms of democracy and economic development. For a considerable period of time the Baltic region was seen as Russia’s window into Europe and the right EU strategy towards Russia might actually put it on the same track as the Baltic States. The EU’s Chris Patten said on 26th February that ‘a stable and constructive relationship with Russia is essential to the EU as Russia has an important role to play in European security and no-one wants a dividing line in Europe that EU and NATO enlargement could create’.

But Moscow has been dragging its feet, refusing to add the new EU States to the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) with the EU until it receives compensation for the trade losses it says it will incur as a result of expansion. Russia is the EU’s most important partner economically and politically speaking. However, ‘a strong, clear and public message was passed to Russia’ that the EU expects the PCA to be extended to the ten acceding Member States without precondition or distinction by 1st May 2004. Brussels’ new policy states that EU is willing to listen to Russian trade concerns in parallel with political talks but compensation must not be a precondition for agreement on the protocol.

Hostile signs of weakness

The ethnicity question has also played a role in regional security issues. The Kremlin imagined that creating a bit of ethnic tension could dissuade NATO leaders from admitting the Baltic States, who regard NATO as their only security guarantee, as Members. Even if the former Russian defence Minister, Sergei Ivanov, said in an interview with Le Figaro on 6th March that ‘Russia is not a threat to anyone’, the psychological fear factor remains. Luckily, Putin’s opposition to NATO expansion has not influenced NATO’s decision. In fact, recent talk of US war bases in the Baltic States have aroused new tensions in Russian-US relations and Russia has been threatening to ‘take adequate action’ in response to possible US actions. Thus far, tensions between the Baltic States and Russia have managed to avoid resulting in actual violence but a weak and unstable Russia may resort to desperate measures if it witnesses US troops debarking just beyond its borders.

Putin has installed a new Government and we still have to see if his predicted re-election will bring any changes. Since one of Russia’s foreign policy goals is strengthening ties with EU, the relationship between the Baltic States and Russia will probably be seen from this perspective. Dmitri Trenin, Deputy Director of the Moscow Carnegie Centre, has stressed that Putin is seeking a policy of non-confrontation with the West and that these three States are just ‘returning to Europe’.

Hopefully this attitude will be born out in future policy and Putin will come to appreciate the advantages of being neighbourly.