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OSCE closures boost EU and NATO hopes

  • 2001-12-20
  • Nick Coleman, RIGA and Aleksei Gunter, TALLINN
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe decided this week to close its offices in Estonia and Latvia, a move both countries see as boosting the credibility of their European Union and NATO membership bids.

The decision by the OSCE to close offices it set up following the collapse of Soviet rule to advise on relations with Russian-speaking minorities was welcomed by Latvian Foreign Minister Indulis Berzins.

"Closure of the Latvia mission is not something that will automatically bring us into the EU and NATO, but it will help," he told The Baltic Times.

"The mission's work since 1993 has been a success story and its guidelines have been fulfilled. It is an additional signal that Latvia is a responsible democratic country."

Estonian Foreign Minister Toomas Hendrik Ilves said the mission's presence had often been used by Estonia's critics as a basis for their accusations. "Now there's nothing we can be blamed for formally," he told the Baltic News Service.

Both missions will cease operations when their mandates expire on Dec. 31. Lithuania is the only Baltic state not to have been assigned an OSCE mission because of the far smaller proportion of Russian speakers who settled there under Soviet rule.

Peter Semneby, head of the Latvia mission, told The Baltic Times that members of the OSCE's permanent council in Vienna had been impressed by President Vaira Vike-Freiberga's recent commitment to table legislative amendments that would scrap Latvian language requirements for people standing for public office.

The EU will "pay attention to the mission's closure given the advanced state of Latvia's accession process," Semneby said by telephone from Vienna.

He cautioned however that Latvia's treatment of its Russian-speaking minorities - who number some 37.5 percent of the population - "cannot be removed from the agenda."

"These are processes that require constant efforts - there will always be more to do."

In Estonia the decision to scrap language requirements for election candidates has already been made and was a key element in mission head Doris Hertrampf's argument that her office's work is complete.That decision met with strong criticism from Russia's Foreign Ministry, which it may be expected to repeat in respect of Latvia.

Boris Tsilevichs, an MP from the For Human Rights coalition, which campaigns on behalf of Latvia's Russian speakers, acknowledged that ethnic tensions were causing greater instability in other parts of Europe, but said the decision to close the Latvia mission was flawed.

"There is a real danger that progress in relation to minorities will now slow down," said Tsilevichs.

"President Vaira Vike-Freiberga's recent intervention concerning language requirements for election candidates is just a proposal submitted to the Parliament, providing no guarantee. The mission's closure will be presented as evidence that there are no problems with minorities, which is definitely not true."

Latvia recently established a Social Integration Foundation to boost efforts to integrate minorities. Also underway is a publicity campaign to persuade non-citizens, who number some 23 percent of the population, of the benefits of naturalizing. The campaign is paid for by Western donors.

Last year the OSCE's High Commissioner on National Minorities, Max van der Stoel, judged that Latvia's laws regarding the language ability of holders of public and some private sector jobs were "essentially in conformity" with international human rights standards.

The three Baltic states hope to complete negotiations on accession to the EU next year and to formally accede by 2004.

NATO, which the three countries hope to be invited to join next November, has also emphasized that applicants will be judged according to their development as democracies as well as by military criteria.