Latvians send mixed signals on border treaty

  • 2006-01-04
  • By TBT staff
RIGA - A series of opposing statements by Latvian leaders about whether the country could sign a border treaty with Russia this year has underscored key differences in the political stakes of an agreement with the Eastern neighbor.

The issue resurfaced after President Vaira Vike-Freiberga said in an interview in late December that Latvia did not hold any territorial claims on Russia 's particularly the Pytalovo district that was part of Latvia prior to World War II 's and that a treaty between the two states could be signed as early as this spring.

"If we could sign and ratify the current draft of the border treaty, it would remain so, as Latvia does not claim to regain the region," she told the Russian paper Izvestia in reference to Pytalovo, a region just across the Latvian border.

The signing "could take place in the spring during our prime minister's visit to Moscow," she added.

Both the Foreign Ministry and the prime minister were perplexed by Vike-Freiberga's statement. Foreign Minister Artis Pabriks told the Baltic News Service that he had no basis to believe that a document could be signed in a matter of months.

"The current information through diplomatic channels does not give proof for such conclusions," he said, adding that he himself had not received any signal from Russia that would show its readiness to sign a border treaty.

Prime Minister Aigars Kalvitis even seemed to reject any such possibility, saying that as long as Russia refused to admit the occupation of Latvia, there could be no treaty.

"As long as Russia does not change its political position, no progress toward signing the border treaty is possible," he said. It was up to the Russians, he added, "whether they recognize history and admit the fact of occupation."

A border treaty had been scheduled for signing on May 10 last year, in Moscow, but two weeks before the signing Latvia's government adopted a unilateral declaration containing a reference to the 1920 Tartu Peace Treaty, according to which Latvia was given the Abrene (Pytalovo) region. Russia took the declaration as a territorial claim and said it would not sign the border treaty. For its part, Latvia said the declaration was necessary to avoid contradictions with the constitution.

A similar development prevented Estonia and Russia from signing two border treaties (one sea, one land) last year as well.

Kalvitis was adamant. "As long as Russia does not change its position, the issue will remain unsolved both with Estonia and Latvia. Because we have defined our positions clearly 's Latvia has done it by adopting a unilateral declaration to the treaty, and Estonia by passing a ratification law underscoring the continuity of the statehood from the time of the first republic... This does not allow Russia to sidestep the fact of occupation."

The stark contrast in outlooks reflects the leaders' broader ambitions. Both Kalvitis and Pabriks, members of the right-wing People's Party, are reluctant to sign any binding agreement in the run-up to parliamentary elections next fall. Conservative Latvian voters are unlikely to forgive any party for what could be perceived as ceding territory to Russia.

Commenting on information about a possible visit to Moscow, Kalvitis said that no such visit was planned.

Vike-Freiberga, for her part, has been trying to patch up bilateral relations, which sank to a low a year-and-a-half ago. In fact, she has been criticized for kowtowing to the Kremlin as part of her campaign to become a finalist-candidate for the position of U.N. secretary general.

She is currently considered to be a leading candidate and is believed to have the support of the U.S. administration.

Indeed, even her criticism of the Russian-German gas pipeline has toned down. In the Izvestia interview, she said the project "did not contradict with the interests of the European Union" though she didn't rule out the possibility that it had political, not just economic, aspects.

Speaking on Latvia-Russia relations, the Latvian president said that she wanted to build relations on a pragmatic footing. She told the Russian language Vesti newspaper that Russia has sent positive signals suggesting that an intergovernmental work group might finally begin working this year.

"Of course, it is necessary to activate the dialogue on all levels including the highest level. It is not normal that two neighboring countries have so few contacts on the governmental level. Being neighbors we have to start negotiating bilateral issues," Vike-Freiberga said.

At the same time, she noted that Latvia and Russia still have a different understanding of history, and that cooperation between both countries is burdened by the statements of several Russian officials. Still, Vike-Freiberga hopes that the two sides "will be able to come to a common position on the complicated issue of history. The further away we go from this painful period of history the easier it is to overcome stereotypes."

Prime Minister Kalvitis said that the next high-profile meeting between the countries would be Foreign Ministry State Secretary Normans Penke's visit to Moscow in January. "Then Russia's real willingness for constructive cooperation will be seen," he said.

Penke will lead a delegation that will meet with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Vladimir Titov. They will discuss the possibilities of signing several bilateral agreements among other issues.