Treaty-fever sweeps over Latvia

  • 2005-01-26
  • By Aaron Eglitis
RIGA - The Baltics have been submerged in a rush of activity over the past week surrounding the possible signing of several documents that many hope could lay the foundation for improved relations with Russia.

Prime Minister Aigars Kalvitis said on Jan. 21 that the state could sign a border agreement with Russia on May 10, one day after ceremonies mark the 60th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany. "We need the border treaty and must get it signed," he told Latvian Radio. "This would be a huge step forward, and with time we could expect also ratification of the treaty by the Russian State Duma."

The announcement came just days after President Vaira Vike-Freiberga stated unequivocally that she would do no such thing in Moscow while attending the commemorative events.

Aiva Rozenberga, the president's press secretary, said that there was no conflict in either statement, since nobody knows who would sign the agreement, or when, should one emerge.

Latvian leaders said earlier that they were prepared to ratify the Framework Convention on National Minorities, another roadblock in relations with their eastern neighbor. Kalvitis said this could be done in the first half of the year.

Meanwhile, on Jan. 20 Russian President Vladimir Putin reportedly told Estonian President Arnold Ruutel that he was ready to annul the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, the non-agression agreement between the Soviet Union and Germany whose secret protocols effectively handed the Baltic states over to the Soviets.

Two days later, however, a spokesman for Putin said that the pact may only be recognized historically and not actually annulled (see story on Page 1).

These statements, coming at a time of difficult relations between Russia and the Baltic states, could signify a turning point. Russia is striving for a visa-free regime with the EU, and its failure to reach border agreements with Latvia and Estonia are seen as a stumbling block.

Kalvitis openly contemplated the possibility of signing the border agreement on May 10, shortly after Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov iterated in a press conference that the Kremlin would be interested in clearing up ambiguities while Vike-Freiberga was in Moscow.

Still, many are skeptical of Moscow's declarations.

"I think that new approaches by the Putin administration toward the Baltic states are preconditioned by worsening relations between Russia and the EU in general," said Boris Kagarlitsky, director of the Institute of Globalization Studies, a Moscow-based think tank.

"Also, Putin's administration doesn't enjoy any support in Western public opinion any more than it did a few years ago. In this situation they need to do something to improve their reputation in Europe without changing anything in their domestic policies. Playing nice with the Baltics is the cheapest way of doing it, since all these issues are of minimal practical significance, but great symbolic value for the Baltic countries, or at least for their elites," said Kagarlitsky.

In the meantime, Vike-Freiberga is using the May 9 ceremony to attract attention to the Baltics and recognition of the occupation. Her speech in Kiev drew praise from NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffler. Her declaration on the consequences of WWII has drawn significant response, according to Rozenberga, particularly in Holland, where the president was on an official state visit last week. "Since the president sent this declaration to foreign leaders, an enormous, passionate interest has been sparked on the issue," the spokeswoman was quoted as saying.

On Jan. 25 she presented a new book, "Latvian History: The 20th Century," that she hopes will help the world better understand the occupation and the victimization of communism. The book will be published in English, Russian and Latvian.

"The commission of historians organized under the auspices of the Latvian presidency has demonstrated that Latvia is ready to study its history with cold reason," said Vike-Freiberga.

An upcoming interview with the BBC during the World Economic Forum in Davos is also likely to focus on the Soviet occupation.

The president has publicly defended her stance on going to Moscow for the Victory Day ceremonies. In a tough rejoinder in Eesti Paevaleht, an Estonian daily, she said that not going would have left Latvia vulnerable to charges of siding with the Nazis.

"I could not treat positively the declaration developed by Russia that Latvia should be grateful for being liberated by the Red Army, I simply cannot agree with that," Vike-Freiberga said.

To be sure, a mini-war of words has erupted between the Latvian president and Russian officials over her statements that Russia is partly responsible for World War II.

On top of this, ongoing negotiations over a joint release between Latvia and Russia to coincide with the historic anniversary have been mired in conflicting interpretations. Although the abovementioned document has yet to be made public, there has been speculation over what it might contain. A word like occupation would ensure its demise, Russian Ambassador to Latvia Viktor Kaluzhny said in a recent interview with Diena.

At the same time it is unlikely that Latvians would accept a more euphemistic term for the 50 years of Soviet rule.