• 2001-02-15
Latvian President Vaira Vike-FreibergaÕs unexpected meeting with her Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin last weekend provokes wishful thinking about a new thaw in Russian-Baltic relations.

In fact, the minus 70 degree temperatures in Siberia this winter have been felt in Russian-Latvian relations for 10 years, since the restoration of independence. Until now the solemn silence between the two neighbors has been broken only by avalanches of words from the Russian Foreign Ministry on the ÒviolationsÓ of the rights of Russian speakers in Latvia.

The meeting between Putin and Vaira Vike-Freiberga at least had a different tone, calling for understanding toward those who have found themselves stranded in a totally new reality since the collapse of the Soviet empire.

Yet Russian experts have noted that Russian politics today is a confused successor to the images or symbols that existed before. Searching for any sense or practicality there is in vain. The state has only to give the order that someone is an enemy and public opinion will sheepishly follow.

Latvia has been such an enemy for some time, as Russian pensioners are ÒabusedÓ by being forced to learn Latvian, Russian war veterans are ÒpersecutedÓ and 80-something ÒNaziÓ troops are marching in the streets of Riga.

Now, perhaps, Russia is ready to issue the order that Latvia is a friend again. Maybe it has realized that its alternative pipelines for exporting oil will never be built and Latvian ports will therefore be required. Maybe it has become clear even to Russia that the EUÕs border will run through Zilupe, on LatviaÕs eastern border, and so relations need to be strengthened.

Maybe itÕs vice versa, that it has become clear that NATO expansion Baltwards has stopped, as some local analysts have wondered, so there is a circle of interest to be expanded.

If we take for granted the theory that Russia has never given up its imperial ambitions toward the Baltic states, another possibility is that this meeting just means a change of tactics. Why shout, if no one is taking you seriously?

Following the Russian crisis, the Baltic economies have re-oriented themselves towards the West. Why not tame the naughty little neighbors by opening up the huge Russian market to them? The recent journey made by Russian businessmen to Vilnius could be interpreted as another signal in favor of that option.

Who knows. As the Russian poet Fyodor Tutschev said, ÒYou canÕt understand Russia, you can only believe in it.Ó

One thing is clear. In order to dispel that enemy image Latvia has to show now that it is a friend. ItÕs not important what exactly has to be done. Either Latvia has to ease the language requirements on Russian pensioners, or let them undergo the naturalization exams for free.

Some cynics even say that Ventspils Nafta, the largest transporter of Russian crude to the West, could foot the bill as their turnovers skyrocket.

To do this would not cost Latvia much, either morally, politically or financially. The only ones who might lose votes as a result of LatviaÕs facelift are local, Russia-oriented, left-wing politicians such as those in the party For Human Rights in a United Latvia.