Thursday, June 28, 2007

The Balts as west berlin


Facing a cold wind

Jun 28th 2007

Russia looms large in the Baltic states

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WEST BERLIN, where your columnist lived during the cold war, was small, indefensible, symbolically vital and rather badly run. As Europe slides again into chilly division, West Berlin’s current equivalent may be the Baltic states. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are small: even their combined population of 8m would make them one of NATO’s bantamweight members. Though they shelter in theory under the alliance’s nuclear umbrella, in practice NATO offers little more than moral support.

The mood is anxious. Officials say that the Kremlin has quietly beefed up the Russian troops in Pskov, just across the border. Recent war games there apparently included practising the reconquest of the Baltic states. Lately, frequent and peremptory requests for airspace clearances for official Kremlin flights have underlined the three small countries’ vulnerability. “If we say yes every time it is a precedent; if we say no it is an incident”, says a Latvian official, worriedly. A small force of airplanes lent by NATO allies tries to patrol the skies, and there is an excellent radar system. But no air defences exist to deter intruders.

Any Russian knout-rattling, real or imagined, is more a psychological threat than a physical one. The aim is to sap the Balts’ self-confidence, perhaps weakening them on other fronts.

The hottest of these is energy. The Balts, dependent on Russia for their gas and subject to lengthy and frequent blockades of oil deliveries, want to build a new nuclear power station jointly with Poland. So far, a year’s haggling has produced little result. The argument is mainly a cultural one based perhaps on different religious traditions. Catholic Poland and Lithuania think texts are secondary to belief: they want firm emotional commitment to the project before focusing on the details. Protestant Estonia and Latvia want the details written down clearly before they can believe.

Russia would like to be involved too. “I hope there will be a public tender. Russian companies would put in a very competitive bid”, Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, told a Latvian delegation during a recent visit. Such overtures highlight the Balts’ greatest weakness: their open, liberal economies. If even Britain, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands (to name but a few countries in “old Europe”) are unable to keep Russian capital out of their economic citadels, how can the much poorer and weaker Balts be expected to withstand the colossal temptations of doing business with the enemy?

That’s a particular worry in Latvia, where business tycoons loom large in politics. Their greatest weakness—money—is also Russia’s greatest weapon. That worries the other Balts, who suspect Latvia is going squishy.


Power in numbers

Latvian leaders see it differently: their Baltic neighbours are too prickly and don’t understand Russians properly. Mutual benefit is entirely possible. “Our line is ‘don’t tease, don’t appease’”, says a wily senior official. A much delayed border treaty is due to be ratified in the Russian parliament. Latvian diplomats hope breathlessly that a high-level Russian delegation may visit Riga for the formal exchange of documents.

Baltic disunity helps the Kremlin. Since 1990 its policy—consciously or unconsciously—has been to play one Balt against another. One country is flattered, a second is frozen and the third is ignored. At the moment, Estonia is in the deep freeze, while Latvia is basking in Kremlin approval. When Estonia was facing a blast of Russian disapproval in May, some top Latvians seemed hesitant in making statements to support their northern neighbour (though practical help and public sympathy were both strong and welcomed gratefully).

West Berlin survived thanks to its own and its allies’ willpower and unity—pretty much what the Baltic states need now.


Baltic said...

Well elaborated Edward, chapeau! In the meantime your piece somehow reminds me that it is too easy to present the Cold War mindframe for the situation of today and derive the conclusions out of them. Aye, I agree that concluding remark of your article is simalar to most of Baltix States observers for may years in a row already, yet, somehow I have a feeling that somehow must be added here, and I found what it is!!

THE FACT IS that regardless of the ideological animosity of the Cold War years proxy parties were rewerded regardless of their willingness to reform their capacity of of internal governance. TODAYS capitalist global economy does not pardon the state, if its internal crony capitalist friends do not allow you to transform internal leverages of the are simply left in the international dustbin, also euphemistically called - the state of development:) Thus, the key for Balts is internal unity as you Edward said and ability of the civil society in all three states to present themselves as viable powers:)

Colleen Winthrop said...

I agree that Latvia appears to be the one Baltic country that is breaking, although I say this from the opposite perspective (pro-Russian and anti-American).

In fact, I am surprised that Russia is not reacting to Latvia's cooperative comments and actions. Right prior to the G8, Putin and Lavrov both used the Latvian example a lot in answers to reporter questions about human rights in Russia (e.g. a reporter asks about human rights in Russia - they answer back "how about the rights of the Russian minority in Latvia).

Russia should reach-out to Latvia's extended hand IMO.

Aleksejs Nipers said...

>> ...colossal temptations of doing business with the enemy?

Yes, there are some problems with Russia and some big problems. But for the first time I hear that Russia is an enemy for Balts now :)

Nothing is Free said...

My enemy is Lex Luthor, what's yours?

Aleksejs Nipers said...

Don't worry "nothing is free" - Mr.Bush will save as all ;)

Giustino said...

I agree that Latvia appears to be the one Baltic country that is breaking, although I say this from the opposite perspective (pro-Russian and anti-American).

I think we have to stop thinking about the "three" and think about one on one.

What is Estonia's situation? It is part of the Nordic economic market. It is a northern European nation state with a large, but geographically consolidated Russian-speaking minority. It has expertise in biotech, IT, and traditional economies - agriculture, timber etc.

What is Lithuania's situation? It is the kernel of the once great Lithuanian commonwealth. It is a land that has had its own nobility. It is set beside Poland and Belarus AND Russia. It has reason to continue to implement domestic reforms, be transparent, perhaps even work as an EU lever in obstinate Poland, as well as an example to Belarus.

Latvia is the most "globalized' in terms of concept of the three. Demographically it is split about 60/35+. It's capital city, Riga, has more Russian-speakers than Latvian ones, its architecture is German, its businesses are global.

Why must we think that Latvia is the 'weakest link in the Baltic chain'? Why not think of them separately in each of their circumstances? Each one of their policies makes more sense in the national context than the regional context.

As for your pro-Russian attitude, I am glad that the CIA came clean about the plots to kill Castro. If only the Russians would come clean about the genocidal deportations in the Baltic countries, or its Moscow organized coups in 1940. And don't tell me that was the Soviets. When the president shows up to toast the Cheka on important FSB anniversaries, trust me, there is no difference there.

dmitriy said...

to giustino:
Don't mix Soviet with Russian. Of all the people of USSR Russians were least Soviet. Estonians are much more Soviet than Russians.

As for the Cheka: In 1934 in the NKVD leadership
38% were Jewish
31% - Russians
7%(!) - Latvians
5% - Ukrainians
4% - Poles
3% - Georgians

dmitriy said...

To Edward: Yes, from British point of view Latvia is a weak link. It has largest Russian population (30%). Russian minority is not separeted from other population by Roman Catholic religion, which is strong in Lithuania, or a language from diffirent language family as in Estonia.

Not surprisingly British sent their brigadier general Janis Kazocins to head Latvian secret police SAB, who was not even a Latvian citizen at that time. Not to name former president of Latvia, who was also loyal Canadian subject of Elizabeth II.

Colleen Winthrop said...

Giustino, I haven't been to any of the 3 so I can't comment on your insight.

But, just an elaboration to my question on why Russia isn't "reaching out to Latvia's extended hand" - and another example is Moldova (Moldova has been super-friendly to Russia lately, but Russia still has the wine embargo).

So, what's up with this?

There could be several explanations. I think the NEGP, Blue Stream, and South Stream (alt. gas pipelines to Europe) allow Russia to supply gas to end-customers without appeasing pesky transit countries.

Russia is preparing for the worst, meaning it does not rule out a collapse of relations with the Baltics, Ukraine, and Poland in the future. And, so, if it's convinced of this, it's fast-forwarding to the end of the game. Henceforth, Russia doesn't care for friendly comments by Latvia. That's why it hasn't reciprocated in kind.

Another explanation, and quickly, maybe Russia is sensing weakness in "New Europe," considering the condemnation Poland is receiving throughout Europe for its irresponsible comments during the E.U. summit. Russia could be thinking that "Poland's stature will collapse and the Baltics will follow." So there's no point in supporting them when they're about to fall (in terms of political weight in Europe vis-a-vis Russia)

Please visit my Russia blog at !

Giustino said...

Don't mix Soviet with Russian. Of all the people of USSR Russians were least Soviet. Estonians are much more Soviet than Russians.

I am refering to the authorities, many whom are 'legacy poliicians' from the Soviet era. I am not insulting your grandma, don't worry ;)

Russia is preparing for the worst, meaning it does not rule out a collapse of relations with the Baltics, Ukraine, and Poland in the future.

If they continue to have real democracies than there will always be this up and down.

Russia creates a lot of these situations. It makes it very easy for rightwing parties, who use the fear of Russia as a domestic political tool, to win elections.

Take our recent monument controversy. Russia's overemotional actions basically secured Ansip's electoral victory. He won a month before, but I don't think people really liked him. He was just better than the other candidates.

Because of Russian bullying (which, let's be frank, was hypocritical considering how many monuments they've removed in their country) Ansip came off looking like a strong man.

Russia's policies towards Estonia backfire on Russia. Estonia has no longterm goal to undermine Russia. They just want to be left in peace to surf the web and cross country ski. If Russia ever understands this, it will be able to let go of its adolescent delusions of imperial grandeur and realize that *it still has the biggest country in the world* and that *it doesn't need to meddle in Estonia, they can handle things on their own, thank you.*

dmitriy said...

I am refering to the authorities, many whom are 'legacy poliicians' from the Soviet era.
Current Prime Minister of Estonia
in 1986-1989 worked as an Instructor and later as the Chairman of a committee of Tartu Regional Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Estonia has enough 'legacy politicians' too.

Giustino said...

Indeed, that whole generation suffers from that. Except Mart Laar, I gather. AND Ivari Padar.

Those are the heads of the other two parties in the coalition government.