During his visit to Helsinki Putin drew parallels between the situation of Russian-speakers in Latvia and that of the Albanian minority in Macedonia. The Latvian Foreign Ministry said his statement would not promote integration of Latvian society.
The Russian president argued that the Baltic countries should follow the example of Finland, where Swedish is the second official language due to the country's Swedish minority. The Finnish approach had been "brilliant,"he said.
At a joint press conference with Finnish President Tarja Halonen, Putin pointed to the way both Russia and the Baltic states often tried to emulate Finland. "Finland's example should be followed in the area of human rights, as well,"the Russian news agency Interfax quoted Putin as saying.
"In Macedonia, Albanians, who constitute 20 percent of the population, are demanding special representation in Parliament and a solution to language-related and other vitally important problems.
"Why then should the Russian community in the Baltic countries be denied the right to raise this question, especially as it is much more numerous than the Albanian community in Macedonia?"
He added however that the problem should be tackled "without any aggression and through cooperation."
According to a census conducted by the Central Statistical Bureau, in 2000, 29.6 percent of Latvia's population was from the Russian minority and 57.6 percent from the Latvian majority.
Latvian Foreign Ministry spokesman Vilmars Henins told the Baltic News Service that the Latvian government's position on the matter was clear-cut.
Integration of society, he said, must be in accordance with democratic principles and human rights.
The country's foreign partners and experts from international organizations were in agreement with this approach, he said.
Henins also reiterated that Latvia's NATO drive was not directed against any third country, Russia included. "The movement to join NATO is an integral part of Latvia's wish to be together with and work with countries which share common values with Latvia."
Putin said that in his view there were no objective conditions for enlargement of NATO. The inclusion of one or more Baltic countries in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization "only pushes NATO's borders closer to Russia,"he said.
"We are not glad, this is a mistake. No global problems or problems of European security will be solved by admitting the Baltic states into NATO. Nobody is threatening anybody. Only some sick minds might imagine that there exist forces of attack or aggression by anybody in this region or from Russia."
As on previous occasions Putin said Moscow respected the independence of the Baltic states and their desire to become part of the NATO bloc as an exercise of their sovereign freedom of choice.
He added that Finland's traditional nonaligned status had made a "very important contribution"to stability in the Baltic Sea region. He hoped Finland could serve as a "positive influence"on the Baltic states, he said.
Halonen by contrast strongly endorsed the Baltic states' desire to join NATO.
"My view is that the Baltic states will become full members of NATO,"she said. "The question is not whether but when."
The Russian president began his visit to Finland on Sept. 2 and discussed bilateral economic relations and security issues with Finnish officials and business people.