MOSCOW - A series of statements from the Russian Foreign Ministry in the first week of the new year showed that the Baltics' eastern neighbor intended to keep up the pressure on a range of issues involving minority rights.
The statements came despite the fact many Baltic politicians had said that the rhetoric would subside once Russia's parliamentary elections were over.
The ministry said it would not drop demands that ethnic Russians living in the Baltics and the CIS countries must be granted the right to study in their native language and that it would link the problem of Estonia's and Latvia's minorities to the countries' future affiliation to the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement concluded between Russia and the European Union.
In addition, the ministry issued a statement on Jan. 5 expressing dissatisfaction with amendments to Estonia's law on aliens that Parliament approved late last year that ruled out the issuing of permanent residence permits to Russian retired military.
"I would not deny that we are considering the problem in light of the future affiliation of Latvia and Estonia to the Russia-EU Partnership and Cooperation Agreement, which pledges mutual respect for democratic principles and human rights," First Deputy Foreign Minister Eleonora Mitrofanova told the Interfax news agency on Jan. 5.
Moscow thinks it is "in the interests of European organizations, primarily the EU, as well as Latvia and Estonia, to settle problems in the legislation and legal practices which cause criticism inside and outside these countries," according to Mitrofanova.
"These countries should understand that such a large ethnic minority as Russians should have an official right to study, communicate with the authorities and obtain information in their mother tongue. It fully meets the international standards and Russia is not demanding anything special for its fellow countrymen," she explained.
Russia is providing its national minorities with access to education in their mother tongue, Mitrofanova added.
"We have education, including at university level, provided in a number of languages besides Russian. No one in our country opposes the opening of Latvian, Lithuanian or Estonian schools," she said.
She explained that there were schools where Estonian is the language of instruction in the Pskov region, Lithuanian schools located in the Kaliningrad region and in Moscow and Latvian schools in the Omsk region.
"Some 40,000 Latvians live in Russia, and they don't live in compact communities, and in Latvia, which has a population of 2.3 million, over 850,000 people consider Russian to be their mother tongue," Mitrofanova said.
When asked why Russia pays so much attention to the education of Russians specifically in the Baltic states and not, for example, in the United States, the minister said, "Obviously it is wrong to compare the situation with the education of ethnic minorities in Latvia and in the United States. In Latvia, we are talking about the native population - and in the United States immigrants."
Asked whether Russia may impose sanctions against countries that violate the rights of the Russian-speaking population, Mitrofanova said that speaking from a position of strength had never been the best way to foster mutual understanding. She voiced the conviction that the potential of political and diplomatic measures had not yet been exhausted in this question.
Regarding Estonia, the amendments approved by Parliament state that foreigners for whom the Estonian-Russian agreement on military retirees applies are issued fixed-term residence permits in accordance with the general procedure.
"We regard Estonia's management of a fundamental bilateral document, which was signed together with the treaty on the withdrawal of Russian troops and the terms of their temporary presence in Estonia, as a sign of Tallinn's lack of preparedness to meet its commitments in full," said Alexander Yakovenko, spokesman for the Russian Foreign Ministry.
This calls in question the reliability of Estonian partners, Yakovenko said, adding that Moscow would bear that in mind when drafting and signing other bilateral agreements with Estonia.
But diplomatic contact between the countries continues. On Jan. 6 Russian Ambassador to Latvia Igor Studennikov informed the Latvian Foreign Ministry that Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Vladimir Chizov would like to come to Riga for the regular consultations between foreign ministries of the two countries as planned for February. (BNS)