Maligned border treaty may reach highest court

  • 2005-05-25
  • By Aaron Eglitis
RIGA - The much-troubled border treaty with Russia may head to the state's highest court as the country's two executive branches battle over how to resolve a conflict of ceding territory to Russia while at the same time not violating the constitution.

Government ministers from right-wing parties realizing that, by signing the draft treaty with Russia, they will forever part with the Abrene region on the other side of the current border 's a piece of land the country lost after World War II but some dream of winning back. To circumvent this, they have proposed attaching a resolution to the treaty, effectively leaving the peace treaty of 1920 in a kind of limbo that could be resurrected in the future.

President Vaira Vike-Freiberga, in the meantime, has proposed sending the issue to the Constitutional Court to decide if a national referendum is necessary. If the court does examine the treaty and rules that it comprises a significant loss of territory, then a referendum will be held in order to legitimize the loss.

Experts say that if the treaty is put to a popular vote, it could face pressure from the nationalist section of the electorate, which refuses to acquiesce with the loss of the Abrene region on the other side of the current border.

The issue, steeped in history, politics and national pride, is complex and potentially explosive. Since Latvia is a legal continuation of the interwar republic, its law essentially views agreements made during the first republic as binding today. Unlike Lithuania and Estonia, Latvia chose to use the Constitution of 1922 as its basic legislature after regaining independence in 1991, instead of rewriting a new one. According to the document, there are two narratives of what the prewar constitution requires for establishing a border that does not correspond to the one prior to the Soviet period: If the Constitutional Court rules that the border agreement does not need to be put to a vote, the government may sign the treaty. If, however, the court rules that it requires a national referendum, it would then be up to politicians and their parties to bring the case to the public.

The Foreign Ministry felt that the best way around the problem was to attach a declaration to the draft border treaty with Russia. Moscow has balked at the idea and used it to show that Latvia is unpredictable. President Vladimir Putin reportedly called it "stupid" and considered it a territorial claim.

Even President Vaira Vike-Freiberga was nonplussed by the attachment, saying she had not been consulted.

The attached declaration has also put strain on the government, as the more centrist Greens and Farmers Union has called on Prime Minister Aigars Kalvitis to give up the declaration. Kalvitis, a member of the People's Party, refused to do so, thereby supporting fellow party member Alexandrs Kirsteins, one of the strongest proponents of someday getting back the Abrene region.

A national referendum would likely occur next year during the parliamentary election in October.

Legal experts said that theoretically a declaration, whether before or after signing the treaty but before ratification, was essential to maintain the legal continuity of the state. Latvia, along with many of its allies, views the Soviet period as an illegal occupation, and affirms that the state continued to legally exist through its representation in exile. Russia, however, does not recognize the occupation and has maintained that they entered the Baltic states by invitation.

"The whole theory of the state's continuity would be seriously threatened," said Kristine Kruma, a lecturer in international public law from the Riga Graduate School of Law.

"The Peace Treaty of 1920 became an internationally accepted legal document when Latvia entered into the League of Nations," said William Hough, a lawyer and author of a monograph on the Baltic states annexation. He added that Latvia still recognizes, and is governed by, the treaties it signed before the war.

"Latvia has adopted a very pragmatic approach and is not trying to reclaim the territory," he said, partly due to promising the EU that they had no claims against any other state.

Article Three of the state's Constitution reads, "The territory of the State of Latvia, within the borders established by international agreements, consists of Vidzeme, Latgale, Kurzeme and Zemgale." Article 77 then adds that a national referendum must take place to alter the third article. Legal experts have pointed to the territory Latvia held by the Russian-Latvian peace treaty as still governing relations between the two countries.

During the Soviet period, the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic gifted the region of Abrene to the Russian republic. The region was not at the time a very ethnically Latvian place, and today is even less so. Estonia and Finland also lost territory from the pre-war countries to Russia.

Estonia signed a border treaty with Russia on May 18, leaving Latvia the only Baltic state without an official border.