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'We should repay the Afghans'

  • 2005-04-27
  • Interview by Aaron Eglitis
Atis Lejins is one of the most prominent commentators on foreign policy in Latvia. Though now head of the Latvian Institute of International Affairs, Lejins has lived in and traveled to many parts of the world and is a prolific writer and public speaker. He is often a guest speaker on national talk shows. He recently met with The Baltic Times to talk about foreign policy, democracy in Belarus and his experience in Afghanistan.

There are a couple of foreign policy goals that are similar for the Baltic states, the EU and the United States, one of which is fostering democracy in Belarus. U.S. politicians have been far more critical than European ones in this regard.

It seems to me that the initiative comes from America. They give special money 's what in the old days would be called destabilization 's to Belarus. The U.S. Congress gives a few million dollars for the cause. They have taken a very determined stand on Alexander Lukashenko. The interesting question is why not Russia, why just Belarus? The answer is because Russia has not gone that far. But what about in the future? Lukashenko ran off to Moscow this week after the meeting in Vilnius. It seems that talks about Russia and Belarus merging are taking place again 's it now has a new impetus.

Russia has experienced a number of setbacks recently 's the loss of Ukraine and Georgia to peaceful revolutions, the redirection of Moldova and some instability and loss of control over the Caucasus.

The interesting thing is that Russia is working against them. Take Ukraine, for example, and how fraudulent their initial elections were. If America and Poland had not gotten involved, it would have been a real tragedy. This is the issue that people are trying to avoid. The fact is that the West, and in particular the United States, is carrying out a fight against Russia in these countries. When things happened in Ukraine, Lithuania, Poland and Javiar Solana were there, and that was good, but the problem was that Solana only arrived on the scene after the Poles prodded him to come.

The EU was taken off guard. Is the EU ready to accept a sort of Finlandization of these countries because of its strategic partnership with Russia? It seems to me some people are beginning to agree on that, although [Russia] failed in Ukraine. Look at Georgia and the abolition of the border operation. I know it because I have visited there. This was abolished because of Russian objections. Why can't the EU, which was excited about its Congo mission a few years ago, send soldiers there to monitor the border? Because the Russians don't want them there.

I think these countries can be found in the old part of Europe, including France, although not so much Germany. Some countries in old Europe are not really concerned with democracy-building. They are not active in Georgia and Moldova. There is a discrepancy between what the Americans are doing and what the Europeans are doing.

And Javiar Solana doesn't know what he is doing.

What do you think of recent moves by For Fatherland and Freedom [Latvian nationalist party], which has asked that Russia give back the region of Abrene before we sign the border agreement?

Whenever we need to do something with the Russians, someone pops up and wrecks it. It's always been like that. It's impossible. I remember we couldn't get any support from the West for [Abrene] at the time. The Estonians were the first to give up. They were told they'd never get into the EU fighting for 1,000 square kilometers. Finland, after all, lost Karelia and Vyborg. Later, the deal was that even though the Russians started playing games with the border, this was not going to be a hurdle [for the Baltics] in joining the EU and NATO. So we have to keep the deal, but it doesn't mean we can't say what happened.

The Baltic states are often mentioned in the context of development as a success, could they serve as models for other counties that were at one time part of the Soviet Union?

Well yes, but we have to get our act together too. Look what happened last year in Lithuania with Rolandas Paksas - the country was almost destabilized. In theory, though, we could serve as an example. We made it, and maybe Georgia can make it too. Although I am a bit ambivalent about it, we still have a ways to go ourselves. If we get too ambitious here we could forget what's important. Our court system, justice, people getting killed on the roads, it's a disgrace and a tragedy. And we are talking about bringing democracy to Belarus. So yes and no.

But does the pro-American foreign policy of the Balts and other Eastern Europeans in some ways attenuate any hope of a common foreign policy, since it divides European powers?

No, I don't think so. Because are strength lies in our common values. We are saying that you cannot make a dirty deal over the heads of Georgia and Moldova like you did to us after 1945 in Yalta. If you can build a common foreign policy on shared values, then we are all winners. You cannot build a policy on this basis. We are not so pro-American. We went against America in Kyoto and with the International Criminal Court. We supported these international institutions because we need them.

Could you tell a bit about your experiences in Afghanistan and the upcoming film project?

The film is called "Debt to Afghanistan," and the idea is based on my experience and the experience of Latvian veterans of the Red Army who came into this absolutely impossible situation. You are from an occupied country, and you help that country occupy another country 's bloody hell! You don't go fight for those guys, you fight with the other guys. And it doesn't even occur to you to fight with the Afghans against the Red Army. This is a tragedy, and was very painful. I was there trying to get these guys to come over to our side.

So the story goes into the psychological portrayal of these Afghan veterans. It didn't even occur to these guys to fight with the Afghans 's that's how far we were brainwashed. And in the end are we doing enough in Afghanistan now. The defeat of the Red Army was a big defeat. They left Afghanistan in 1989 and left Latvia five years later. We should repay the Afghans after we phase down our troop levels in Iraq as everyone is doing. We should move our soldiers there to Afghanistan. The people in Afghanistan went through some horrible years under the Soviet occupation. They lost 1 million people fighting them.

How did you get involved in Afghanistan?

In 1986 's 1987 I couldn't stand the idea that Latvia was going to help the Soviet Union occupy someone else. I thought I would go over there and help some Balts who were POWs and take them out of there. Everywhere I went there was fighting. There were two Lithuanians 's the Afghans made a deal with the Russians and they were sent to Switzerland. But in the end they decided to go back to Lithuania. There were Ukrainians that were fighting with the Mujahedian. We tried to get prisoners of war to Western countries, but the Americans and Canadians would not accept them. After years they took some, but not many.