Russia will not get in the way of EU membership

  • 2000-04-06
  • By Brooke Donald
TALLINN – Russia should not get in the way of Estonia's accession into the European Union, enlargement commissioner Gunter Verheugen said during a visit here on March 31.

Departing from a prepared speech at Tallinn's Town Hall, Verheugen assured an audience of Estonian lawmakers and other guests that Europe will not "accept policy [by Russia] that would try to interfere with the accession process."

Russia has made it clear that it is not enthusiastic about Estonia's drive to attain membership in Western alliances, especially NATO, but also the EU.

"Accession is between the member states of the EU and applicant countries only," Verheugen said.

Some Russian newspapers and extreme nationalists have suggested to Estonian lawmakers that in order to win Russian approval and get on their largest neighbor's good side, Estonia must stop its membership negotiations with the EU and NATO.

More recently, after a Chechen appeal to Estonia for support, the Russian Embassy here issued a statement that if Estonia takes up the Chechen cause, the country supports terrorism.

Since Vladimir Putin assumed Russia's highest post two weeks ago, politicians and pundits around the world have been cautious about predicting the future of the president-elect's Russia.

In Estonia, officials said Russian-Estonian policy will not likely change.

Verheugen said it is too early to judge which way Putin will steer Russia, but Europe "will do all [it] can to develop working relations with Russia" and to support its growth as a democracy.

A highly contested issue between the European Commission, the executive arm of the EU, and the Estonian authorities, and one very sensitive to debate in this former Soviet republic, is the mandatory use of the Estonian language in the public and private sector.

According to amendments to the Language Law passed 14 months ago, all business negotiations must be made in Estonian. Implementation of the law has been closely watched by the EC and other international organizations such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

The OSCE and the EC have criticized the law as discriminatory.

Russian propagandists also berate Estonia on her treatment of the Russian-speaking minority here and the Language Law. Ironically, however, the Russian minority in Estonia are more supportive of the Baltic nation's accession to the EU than ethnic-Estonians because the Russians believe that their situation will improve upon Estonia's membership into the economic bloc.

Verheugen said he was confident that the Estonian government would monitor implementation to guarantee the law's compliance with EU norms.

"I am very confident that the government and Parliament will do what is necessary to improve the present law to meet normal EU standards," he said. "I firmly believe in a couple months the problem will be solved."

Verheugen reaffirmed the EC's position that getting ready to expand the Union was a top priority. He foresees that the EU will be ready to accept new members by 2002, and Estonia should be a part of the first wave of applicant countries to accede. He stopped short of naming an exact date of entry, a common policy of all senior EU officials.

Verheugen also reemphasized the EU's principle of merits, to discourage applicants from thinking they are in a race to see who achieves membership first. The commissioner said it was desirable if all the Baltic countries were ready at the same time, but admitted that Latvia and Lithuania had some catching up to do to Estonia.

"If one is ahead of the others the principle of merits is the matter most important," he said.

Verheugen met with Foreign Minister Toomas Ilves, President Lennart Meri, Prime Minister Mart Laar, vice-chairman of the Parliament Tunne Kelam and Mayor of Tallinn Juri Mois during his two-day trip. This was his first visit to Estonia.