Relations between Russia and the Baltics - primarily Estonia and Latvia - are worsening by the week. Just by perusing the daily wires and papers, one can readily detect that animosity is growing, and that the countries find it increasingly difficult to see eye-to-eye on anything. The rhetoric, at least on the Russian side, has been stepped up, and it appears that no reconciliation is in sight.
In fact, there is every reason to believe that the situation is only going to get worse. As Sept. 1 approaches, tension surrounding the Lithuanian school reform program will peak and, depending on how the radical elements behave during the numerous demonstrations they have planned for the fall, could result in violence. If that's what Moscow wants - to show the world "how awful" ethnic Russians have it here - its lackeys at Shtab will provide it.
In the meantime, the war of words will exacerbate. As opposed to previous years, however, we are seeing how the forum for the exchange is shifting to international institutions. Last week Russia's Foreign Ministry said it would use each and every organization somehow associated with human rights to exert pressure on Estonia and Latvia to change the situation with minorities. Lo and behold, on July 6 the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, meeting in Edinburgh, voted 24 - 11 to include the issue of national minorities in Latvia and Estonia on its agenda. The motion was, of course, initiated by Russia, but it was supported by the United States, Germany, France and Britain - i.e., some of the world's largest democracies. The heat is on.
This need not, of course, be a bad thing. If the national minorities question becomes the focus of an OSCE debate, then Latvia and Estonia will essentially be given another opportunity to argue their historical case and prove that noncitizens can easily obtain citizenship and are not being assimilated - not under any stretch of imagination. Should an inconsistency or shortcoming be uncovered in Latvia's or Estonia's legislation regulating these issues, that also needn't be the end of the world. That's what democracies (mature ones, anyway) do: they listen to criticism and make amendments where necessary.
Having said that, it is crucial the Baltics stick together now that Russia intends to bully them in the international arena. A new offensive requires a new defense. In this sense it was encouraging to hear this week that Ene Ergma, speaker of the Estonian Parliament, publicly expressed her support for Latvia's program to integrate its ethnic Russian minority. This kind of neighborly support goes far in alleviating the tribulations of any country suffering from a barrage of criticism, and both Estonia and Latvia will need plenty of it if they are to survive the ferocious bear hug about to ensnare them. Only through indefatigable PR work, carried out side-by-side, will the Baltics defeat the newest Russian challenge.