RIGA - A controversial border treaty with Russia passed a final reading in the Saeima (Latvia's parliament) last week after a bitter debate centering on a swathe of land seized by the Soviet Union after the conclusion of World War II. The bill passed the Feb. 8 reading with 69 votes in favor and 26 votes against, with no abstentions. Latvia has not had an official border with Russia since the breakup of the U.S.S.R. in 1991.
The bill's successful passing brings the possibility of an official border with Russia much closer to reality. Now the president will have to promulgate the law, and then a signature ceremony with Russian officials will have to be held.
"For Latvia it would be good, both as a member of the EU and of NATO, to be able to take care of this issue," said Atis Lejins, founder and director of the Latvian Institute of International Affairs.
Negotiations for a new border treaty were initiated in 1997 but stalled just before being signed in 2005 due to last minute changes to the treaty. Latvia attached an explanatory declaration referring to the 1920 Latvia-Russia peace treaty, according to which Abrene (now Pytalovo) belonged to Latvia. The territory of Abrene covered approximately 2 percent of Latvia's land.
The declaration was originally attached to counter concerns that the continuity of the state could be threatened by not referring to the previous treaty.
Parliament gave the government the right to sign the treaty without attaching the explanatory declaration, which Russia regarded as a territorial claim.
Those who voted against the bill for the most part came from the opposition center-right New Era party and the For Fatherland and Freedom/LNNK nationalist alliance. Two lawmakers, Visvaldis Lacis and Leopolds Ozolins, from the Greens and Farmers Union also voted against the bill.
Parties comprised of ethnic Russians were, of course, enthusiastic supporters of the measure.
While the loss of Abrene has drawn a number of impassioned speeches in Parliament, most Latvians do not consider it to be a crucial issue. According to a recent poll by Data Serviss pollster for Latvian commercial television TV3, 48.5 percent of the respondents reported that they do not find the fight to regain Abrene county a necessary one.
By contrast, only 29.5 percent of respondents believed that the government should fight for the territory, which currently belongs to Russia where it is known as Pytalovo.
The same study has found that 65.7 percent of the Latvian population believes that Latvia needs a border treaty with Russia even if it means the loss of Abrene county. Far fewer, only 16.8 percent, gave the opinion that a border treaty was not worth the loss of the territory.
Lejins also asserted the importance of a border treaty. "Of course we need to have a border treaty with Russia, and it is clear that we have already lost this territory."
The new wording states that considering the sovereign status of the Republic of Latvia passed on Aug. 21, 1991, and the internationally recognized continuity of the Latvian state, Parliament has authorized the Cabinet of Ministers to sign the draft border treaty with Russia initialed on Aug. 7, 1997.
Lejins pointed out that the clause referring to the continuity of the state is now "much softer." This has raised concerns among lawmakers that Latvia would be considered as having formed a new country in 1991, as opposed to regaining independence. "This could affect both national laws, such as the issue of citizenship, and international laws, resulting in court cases in Strasbourg," Lejins said.
"I do not think that this will be a big problem," Lejins said. "Some 30 countries have already acknowledged that [Latvia] is a continuous state."
Lejins also cited some of the other problems that lawmakers see in the current border treaty proposal. "There is fear that this could contravene the constitution of Latvia, as there is a clause [in the constitution] that says the border must be changed by referendum. Some also feel that this may tilt the argument in favor of Russia," he said.
Russia seems to be in a position of readiness to sign the treaty 's as long as explanatory declarations are left out.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said that if Latvia presses its territory demands, it will get "not the Pytalovo district but a dead donkey's ears." Without the claims on Abrene, Lejins thinks that Russia would be willing to sign the treaty.
"Everybody is saying now that Russia is ready to ratify, as they see Latvia as a pawn in a larger game that we don't really understand. They want to show that it is possible to do reasonable business with Russia," Lejins said, adding that they want to show Estonia and Lithuania that it is possible for Russia to have a good relationship with the Baltic states.
According to officials of both countries, the border treaty be signed as early as spring.