Chirac boosts Baltic hopes

  • 2001-08-02
  • Nick Coleman
RIGA - Government officials in the Baltic states hailed a three-day tour of their capital cities by French President Jacques Chirac, July 26-28, as a milestone toward achieving the countries' long-held foreign policy aims of EU and NATO membership.

Followed by a retinue of several hundred MPs, business people, security personnel and journalists, Chirac surprised many with his combination of personal charm and warm words on NATO expansion.

"France can only express support for Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania's desire to join NATO and support their aspirations at the NATO summit in Prague," he told journalists in Riga.

He dismissed a question about Russian objections as "meaningless."

"I don't think (the Russians) have the ability, competence, or wish to stop NATO enlargement. If NATO passes a decision on enlargement and the Baltic states prove strong candidates, then implementation should be done in a way that poses no threat to others."

When it comes to choosing new NATO members at the November 2002 summit in Prague, France would look to the United States to take the lead, he added. "It is most likely the choice of the United States will be decisive."

Chirac also expressed support for EU enlargement, particularly praising Estonia's accession preparations. "Estonia has had no need for French support," he told the Baltic News Service. "Its reform policy has been excellent."

Latvia's "important progress" means it too should be able to complete negotiations by the end of 2002 and participate in elections to the European Parliament in 2004, he said.

And Lithuania is also "expected in the European Union," he told dignitaries gathered at Vilnius University.

"Lithuania has caught up with the most progressive candidates. I want to congratulate the Lithuanian people."

The Baltic states' foreign ministries each announced that France had agreed to compensate them for the loss of embassy buildings in Paris, which were taken over by the Soviet Union after World War II and have not been returned by Russia - a long-standing bone of contention.

As members of the French business community met their Baltic counterparts, Chirac said France should play a more decisive economic role in the region.

"Political relations are wonderful, but this cannot be said about economic relations, where much more could be done. France has traditionally focused on the south rather than the north, but the Baltic states have enormous economic potential. France cannot but participate in and support these countries."

Petras Zapolskas, press secretary at Lithuania's Foreign Ministry, said the visit had been a great success. "We heard a new rhetoric - Lithuania's path to NATO received support from one of the alliance's most important members. Paris' position has been a little reserved in the past, but we can see that it is changing."

Lithuanian political commentator Arturas Racas agreed. "Chirac said more and better things about NATO than German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder, the last leader of such caliber to come here. If Schroder had said the same things we could now be sure of NATO entry in 2002."

Schroder visited the Baltic states in June 2000.

Diina Maiberg, press secretary at Estonia's Foreign Ministry, said strengthening economic ties with France was very important. "We are holding a seminar in Paris for business people this month. Economic relations have been quite low and we are hoping for growth."

Sales of wood and textiles account for the bulk of Estonian exports to France, which in total are worth between 7 million kroons ($391,149) and 8 million kroons annually. Imports, mostly French cars and cosmetics, are worth 1.53 billion kroons, while France accounts for 0.4 percent of foreign direct investment in Estonia. According to their respective finance ministries, Latvia and Lithuania's economic ties with France follow a similar pattern.

Aside from political and economic discussions, Chirac's charm offensive included effusive praise for the French language skills of Estonian President Lennart Meri and, more particularly, Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga. His stay in Riga, which he described as a "Paris of the North," seems to have captured the imaginations not only of local people, but some of the French press corps. The Baltic Times was, however, unable to answer their persistent inquiries about the color of Vike-Freiberga's eyes.