• 2002-11-14
The past month has been particularly busy on the diplomatic front. A series of visits by mid-level Russian emissaries to Tallinn and Riga has broken years of icy mistrust that had arrested development between the Baltics and its neighbor to the east. And though this is welcome news for all, one can't help but wonder if, beneath the rhetoric, anything has really changed from those first bitter years after the Soviet empire collapsed, or if all the pleasantries amount to nothing more than an attitude change.

Over the past ten years Russia has accused the Baltic states - particularly Latvia and Estonia - of just about everything under the blackest of moons in regards to how these governments treat their Russian-speaking minorities. Discrimination, repression, and even genocide have been leveled against the independent Baltic nations.

Lately, however, there have been signs of rapprochement. At the end of October Russia's deputy central banker, Andrei Kozlov, completed a successful series of meetings with his Latvian counterparts, the result of which was to cancel a four-year-old decree preventing normal commercial relations between the two countries.

Last week Valentina Matviyenko, Russia's deputy prime minister in charge of the social sphere, signed three agreements with Estonia's Prime Minister Siim Kallas on avoiding double taxation, exchange of prisoners, and pension insurance. While far from vital, these pacts show that a working relationship between the countries has been achieved.

Finally, Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, who once referred to Latvia as the most murderous of totalitarian regimes, paid a two-day visit to Riga, a trip that only a year ago would have been described as utterly impossible. While in town he kept his tongue in check, and his only criticism was that the rate of naturalization among Russian-speaking residents in Latvia was far from satisfactory for a civilized country.

Which is fair. Luzhkov's opinion, in fact, echoes that of another distinguished guest in Riga, Mr. George Soros, who said last month that Latvia would do well to foster more loyalty among its Russian-speaking minority.

So why the change-of-heart in Moscow? What has changed over the past couple years?

On the face of it, absolutely nothing. All three Baltic nations are standing on NATO's doorstep - just days away from being invited inside - and as the case of Juri Karpov in Tallinn shows, state prosecutors are still content to put Russian-speaking individuals accused of crimes against humanity on trial ("political trials" in Moscow's words). And Russian language has yet to attain official status in the Baltics, which irritates Moscow.

So again, what has changed? It would appear that the only credible transformation that has taken place over the past months is one of attitude - among Russian politicians. The Kremlin first and foremost has realized that it has more to lose than to gain by holding grudges against Latvia and Estonia - countries recognized around the world as civilized - and that the Baltics should be a part of the country's strategic development.

In short, Russia seems to understand that it needs the Baltics. In the new era of mutual security and cooperation, Russia has realized that she and the three rapidly developing Baltic countries have much more in common than they do factors which divide them, and that the future looks a lot brighter for all when neighbors learn to live together.