Baltics skirt EU-U.S. row

  • 2002-08-22
  • Steven C. Johnson

Baltic leaders denied Aug. 19 they were being pressured by the United States to sign agreements that would protect U.S. troops from prosecution by the new Interna-tional Criminal Court.

Fearing its troops could be targeted for peacekeeping or combat actions around the world, the Bush administration is attempting to sign agreements with individual countries which have joined the court that grant immunity to American nationals. Washington refused to sign the Rome Treaty that set up the court.

But the European Union has warned Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania along with seven other countries seeking membership to hold off on signing such accords until Brussels formulates a common EU policy on the issue.

Unlike the United States, EU member countries are strong supporters of the court.

The United States, in turn, has criticized the EU for interfering in the foreign policy decision of aspiring members.

Officials in all three Baltic countries acknowledged that they had been approached by U.S. embassies with proposals but would make no decisions until after consulting with the EU.

"It has been written that Estonia will be pressured to sign something and that Estonia will bow or something like that, but nobody has pressured us or forced us to do anything about this issue," said Estonian Prime Minister Siim Kallas, who will meet with U.S. President George W. Bush Sept. 4.

"I have no intention to sign anything during the visit, nothing has been planned, but obviously we cannot exclude that this issue will be discussed during the visit," Kallas said at a news conference in the Latvian capital at the close of a two-day meeting of Baltic and Nordic prime ministers.

On the same day Kallas goes to Washington, EU officials will meet in Brussels to discuss the union's foreign policy vis-a-vis the international court.

Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency until year's end, said he hoped the EU could reach a common position with the United States.

"I'm not going to interfere with U.S. policy at all. It's a U.S. decision," he told The Baltic Times. "What we're going to do is find a common EU position. We have informed the candidate countries, and I'm satisfied that most indicate they will follow this common position."

Rasmussen said the EU would likely issue a common response to the U.S. request during a Sept. 4 meeting. Rasmussen said the meeting would be in Brussels but could not say who would attend.EU foreign ministers are due to discuss the issue in late August.

So far, there has been no sign of common ground between the two sides, leaving Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania caught between allies whose feud over the court is, in the words of one foreign diplomat in Riga, "getting pretty ugly."

Brussels and Washington butted heads on the issue last week, with the European Commission, the union's executive arm, expressing "regret" over candidate Rumania's decision to sign a pact with Washington and

U.S. State Department officials calling the EU warning to other candidates "inappropriate."

The issue overshadowed discussions about a common Baltic region energy policy and EU agricultural reform at an Aug. 18-19 meeting of Baltic and Nordic leaders in Riga.

"It puts us in an awkward position," said Atis Lejins, director of the Riga-based Latvian Institute for International Affairs. "This mind-set is so arrogant, that America plays by different rules than everyone else. It's the kind of behavior we had in Europe in the 1930s."

Guntars Krasts, head of the Latvian Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee, said the U.S. position deserves consideration.

"As a country that still doesn't feel so safe in the world, we realize the importance of an American presence and maybe understand their concerns better than the EU does," he said.

A provision written into the American Service Members' Protection Act, passed by the U.S. Congress and signed by Bush last week, even empowers the president to withhold military aid from countries who fail to sign such accords, though it excludes NATO members and major non-NATO U.S. allies.

But Baltic leaders said they did not think the provision would derail their bids to join NATO.

"We have not seen or heard any signals that (enlargement and signing these agreements) are related," said Latvian Prime Minister Andris Berzins.

Added Edvins Inkens, chairman of the Latvian Parliament's European Affairs Commission, "Can you really imagine that a country about to join NATO - maybe the biggest military cooperation in the world - would suddenly be in danger of being cut off from military aid? It's not a serious fear."

The International Criminal Court's jurisdiction began on July 1. The court has been ratified by 77 countries, including Estonia and Latvia. Lithuania has signed the treaty and plans to ratify it in the first half of 2003, around the time when the court expects to hear its first case.

The United States is one of only a handful of nations to vote against the establishing the court. Others include China, Russia, Israel, Libya and Iraq.