Impressions from Ljubljana

  • 2001-06-21
  • Eric Jansson
The Ljubljana summit between George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin, like most of these peculiar occasions, produced positive and negative highlights topped off by a stylized handshake of mainly symbolic significance. But rarely has a two-hour meeting produced so much interest to the little countries along Russia's periphery.

Gone are the red-faced, shoulder-clasping, vodka-scented meetings between Clinton and Yeltsin, which, for all William Jefferson's love of minutia, produced a brand of cooperation as broad, bloated and erratic as Boris Nikolaevich himself.

Now we have the more traditional duo of George Walker and Vladimir Vladimirovich. Their concrete focus on national interests – which sensationalist Western journalists feared might result in a diplomatic snafu, a "new Cold War" – creates an atmosphere of seriousness and mutual respect not enjoyed since 1991.

This atmosphere is so serious, in fact, that the United States and Russia may soon go about dividing up spheres of influence, as is ever their want. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania - victims of Yalta, sacrificed to Stalin - need not necessarily fear this.

The sort of domination preferred by big countries nowadays is not top-down, totalitarian military occupation, mainly because the great powers learned during the last century that top-down totalitarianism makes fast enemies of occupied populations and gets expensive in the end.

Nowadays, the big thing is peacekeeping, democracy-building, occupation with a human face. Hard ideology, heavy industry and exile are out of fashion, while relativism, virtual value, off-shore finance, electronic surveillance and extradition are in. They need not overtly police you to rule you anymore, as long as they have a liberal trade regime and a stake in your ports. Nationalists can take solace in the fact that petty terror will retain its charming local characteristics.

But the Baltics ought to look long and hard at the lessons of the Ljubljana summit, because they are many. Let's start with the bad news.

The very worst, in fact. At the June 16 press conference Putin, standing a few paces from Bush, railed against the Baltics, especially Latvia. The U.S. president said nothing in the Baltics' defense. To get the full impact, you need the full quote:

"In some of the countries of the former Soviet Union, for instance, you probably know - we talk about this very often - in the Baltic states, for instance, we feel that human rights are damaged, especially those of the ethnic Russian populations. In Latvia, for instance, 40 percent of the population is Russian-speaking. A huge number of non-citizens, in other words, people who can't even get citizenship. We don't send weapons there. We don't support those people. We don't call it terrorism. We don't try to get people to rise up on the basis of national or ethnic origin or religious feelings.

"We don't encourage people to take up arms to fight against that," said Vladimir Vladimirovich, with a whiff of tolerance about him.

How kind he is. How open-minded. What shall we take from his words?

Of course, it is already blazingly obvious that a democracy that withholds the vote from such a massive percentage of its population is a sham democracy. (Sorry, Latvia, but this is increasingly absurd, a decade after independence was regained.) However, this is old information.

What is new is that Putin's comments reveal that he has apparently been weighing the options toward the Baltic states, and one that crosses his mind is the one he rules out: supporting armed resistance. It's pleasant news that he rules it out, but quite unpleasant that he still imagines it at all.

I have seen with my own eyes a document from the mid-1990s, from the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, reminding Latvia that MiGs can reach Riga in five minutes or so. If dark hints like these were outrageous then, they are twice as outrageous now.

Bush may not have wanted to spoil the jaunty camaraderie of the moment during the press conference, but from a man who just the day before proclaimed in Warsaw "no more Munichs, no more Yaltas," his was a queer silence.

Part of the problem may be Bush himself, an easy-going sort who apparently susses up foreign leaders too breezily. After two hours with Putin – as a former spy, a highly trained liar – the U.S. president claims to have "got a sense" of Putin's soul. Bush can "trust" the Russian president, he said.

I know too many calm, thoughtful, loyal Russians who doubt Putin's honesty to accept Bush's via-interpreter assessment. There are real suspicions that Russia's own security apparatus bombed civilian apartment blocks to scare voters and win a landslide for Yeltsin's chosen successor. There was plenty of vote-rigging in his election, and the incalculable human losses amongst Russia's own citizens continue in Chechnya.

Now for the good news. It's big, but takes up just a little space. Bush presents a robust vision of a united Europe. This "no more Yaltas" stuff is brilliant, and, accompanied by the long-overdue acknowledgment that "Russia is not an enemy," it is swallowed by Moscow.

Since the expansion of NATO in 1999 – marred by the immoral bombardment of Yugoslavia and subsequently ineffective occupation of Kosovo – nobody has managed to call Moscow's bluff regarding its opposition to NATO expansion. Bush's anti-Yalta rhetoric comes close, giving fair hope to small countries in the infant stages of self-determination.

If only the leaders of the European Union could occasionally seize the moment, rhetorically, as Bush did in Warsaw. But they are locked in a cycle of equivocation and qualified praise, leery as they are of the financial burden Eastern Europe represents.

The best news of all is this wacky missile defense plan Bush keeps touting. Impossible and reckless as it may seem, impossible as it may be, it is a new bargaining chip. This is what "Star Wars" was in the 1980s – an extra card to play, which nudged Soviet strategists off-balance.

"Son of Star Wars" might be enough to distract Russia slightly from the issue of NATO expansion, which it cannot deter anyway. That would bring Moscow a step closer to agreeing, in practice, that the map redrawn at Yalta was criminally conceived.