Bush wins Brownie points in Baltics

  • 2001-06-21
  • Nick Coleman
RIGA - Baltic leaders last week praised U.S. President George W. Bush's speech at Warsaw University on June 15, in which he signaled a willingness to admit the Baltic states to NATO.

The speech, posted on the White House Web site, affirmed that Russian objections would not prevent expansion of the alliance.

"All of Europe's new democracies, from the Baltic to the Black Sea and all that lie between, should have the same chance for security and freedom. I believe in NATO membership for all of Europe's democracies that seek it and are ready to share the responsibilities. No nation should be used as a pawn in the agenda of others."

The speech followed a resolution by NATO leaders gathered at a summit meeting in Brussels to admit the alliance's first new members at a summit scheduled for November 2002 in Prague.

The Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian presidents all welcomed the speech. Toivo Klaar, foreign policy adviser to Estonian President Lennart Meri, described the speech as a "good, visionary statement bringing us forward to next year. We are moving toward the NATO summit with good hopes."

He said Estonia will be part of both NATO and the European Union's own, embryonic, defense structures.

"We support the EU's efforts and we will contribute. But NATO will continue to be a highly relevant institution. The trans-Atlantic link it embodies is of crucial importance to European security."

Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga said in a statement that Bush's speech showed "courageous insight into a free and united Europe based on common values." Latvia would "contribute to strengthening the alliance," she said.

But Latvia's Foreign Ministry objected to Russian President Vladimir Putin's comments at a press conference, following the two presidents' meeting in the Slovenian capital, Ljubljana. According to Time magazine, Putin answered a question on ethnic conflict in the Balkans by saying that Russia had set a good example in not encouraging Latvia's ethnic Russians to revolt, even though, he said, "a huge number of non-citizens … can't even get citizenship."

His claims were rejected by Liga Bergmane, spokeswoman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who said international human rights bodies had approved Latvia's reform of its citizenship laws.

"The Council of Europe, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the EU all have a different opinion (from Putin's). They have assessed what is done regarding human rights legislation and practice in Latvia very positively. All residents with Soviet citizenship have the opportunity to become Latvian citizens."

Praise for Bush was loudest in Lithuania, widely considered to be the front-runner for NATO membership among the Baltic states. As well as praise from President Valdas Adamkus, the leader of the opposition Christian Democratic Party, Kazys Bobelis, was impressed by the religious tone of Bush's speech, which included a quotation from Pope John Paul II, a Pole, and invoked "an author of our dignity who calls us to act worthy of our dignity."

"Bush is a very, very religious, Christian man," said Bobelis. "He emphasizes morality and honesty in politics and human rights. Western European leaders do not have such high moral standards."

Vytautas Landsbergis, former independence leader and leader of Lithuania's opposition Conservative Party, had previously condemned Russia's human rights record, particularly with regard to the breakaway Republic of Chechnya, but on this occasion he did not take up Western criticisms of Bush's description of Putin as "straightforward and trustworthy, deeply committed to his country and the best interests of his country."

"Bush's meeting with Putin opened many new opportunities for us regarding NATO membership," said Landsbergis. "He said Russia has no reason to worry, in a very simple and straight way, unlike many European politicians who say we have to be very concerned about Russia's fears."

In the excitement surrounding the Bush visit, a declaration by EU leaders at their summit in Gothenburg on June 15, which for the first time sets a timetable for EU enlargement, has received less attention. In a closing statement the leaders said it should be possible for countries that are ready for accession to complete negotiations by the end of 2002 and thus participate in elections to the European Parliament in 2004.

Estonian Prime Minister Mart Laar and Latvian Prime Minister Andris Berzins both welcomed the declaration. Estonia has long been considered a front-runner for EU accession, but, said Berzins, speaking to the Baltic News Service, there is a "very large hope" that Latvia will also be among the first countries to join.