RIGA - On Feb. 1, after 10 hours of intense debate involving some three dozen lawmakers, Saeima (Latvia's parliament) passed in its first reading a bill authorizing the government to sign a long-awaited border treaty with Russia.
The bill's passing through parliament would be a very large step in paving the way for a legal border agreement between the two countries that has been absent since the breakup of the U.S.S.R. in 1991. Russia and Latvia were close to signing a border deal in 2005 on the eve of the 60th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany, but at the last minute the government added a clause referring to the 1920 Latvia-Russia peace treaty, which could be interpreted as veiled irredentism.
During the interwar period a region known as Abrene 's now Pytalovo to the Russians 's belonged to Latvia. It was taken by Russia after World War II.
Many parliamentarians oppose a new border treaty due to the loss of the Abrene region, as it raises important issues of national pride.
The debate saw a wide range of viewpoints, but both President Vaira Vike-Freiberga and Prime Minister Aigars Kalvitis have come out firmly in favor of the treaty.
Vike-Freiberga argued that Russia's current willingness makes this the best time to act on the treaty. "It is in the interests of Latvia to use this opportunity," she said. "We do not know who the next Russian president will be, nor do we know how prepared will he be to sign the border treaty with Latvia."
Vike-Freiberga said she sees substantial long-term benefits in signing the treaty, noting that not only could it serve to improve stagnant relations between Russia and Latvia, but it could also have security and economic benefits.
However, the president also made it clear that more work would be needed to improve relations with Russia.
Kalvitis, while supporting the border treaty, also stressed that it would only be a stepping stone in improving relations with Russia, "The border treaty is a pre-condition for many goals. It is not a magic pill to improve the relationship."
Juris Dobelis, an MP from the nationalist For Fatherland and Freedom/LNNK party, expressed a very different view of the proposed treaty. "Latvia has been robbed of a territory and the robber must be constantly reminded that he is a robber," Dobelis said in reference to the territory of Abrene.
In 2005 Russia refused to sign the border treaty 's initially proposed in 1997 's after Latvia attached an explanatory declaration referring to the 1920 peace treaty in which Abrene county (now Pytalovo) fell within Latvian borders. Russia interpreted this move as a territorial claim.
Visvaldis Lacis, a member of Greens and Farmers Union in opposition to the treaty, argued that by signing away Abrene "we are signing away our spiritual borders."
Foreign Minister Pabriks felt that Abrene County was a lost cause. "Keeping up the claim for Abrene would make the signing of the border treaty impossible. The chances of reclaiming Abrene are no higher than the chances to get back the territories of Gambia or Tobago," Pabriks said.
Gambia and Tobago were once colonies of the Duchy of Courland, which occupied a large portion of the area west of the Daugava River between the 16th and 18th centuries.
Other MPs were opposed on the grounds that by signing a new border treaty without mentioning the initial 1920 peace treaty, which plays a role in the constitution, the continuity of the state is threatened.
The border treaty is scheduled for another Parliamentary reading on Feb. 8, where it will have to pass another round of debates before it can be sent to the government to be officially signed.
During a recent visit to Latvia, Swedish Foreign Affairs Minister Carl Bildt has spoken in favor of the treaty, saying in a letter to the foreign minister that a well-defined border with Russia is important for all of Northern Europe.