VILNIUS - Lithuania's Foreign Ministry took a historic yet risky step in late February as it deported three Russian diplomats accused of espionage.
While the deportations occurred on Feb. 20, an entire week passed before news of the event reached the public, underscoring the tight secrecy both governments exercised in the diplomatic maneuver.
Following an initial period of silence from all sides, Foreign Minister Antanas Valionis told reporters on Feb. 27 that the diplomats had been expelled on grounds of attempting to interfere in last summer's messy privatizations of the country's alcohol producers.
Valionis further accused the embassy workers of spying on sensitive impeachment proceedings against President Rolandas Paksas in the Seimas (Lithuania's parliament).
Details of the deportation were sketchy, but a State Security Department statement alleged that the diplomats had been involved in military as well as economic espionage, and that their presence in the country posed a national security threat to Lithuania.
The same day, the Russian Embassy in Vilnius released a statement calling the event "an unfriendly step from the Lithuanian side" and evidence that "in Lithuania there are active powers that are dissatisfied with recent positive developments in Lithua-nian-Russian relations."
While the diplomats remain unidentified, the Russian Embassy reported that two had been embassy workers and one a trade representative.
This was the first time since the collapse of the U.S.S.R. that a former Soviet republic or Warsaw Pact nation has expelled Russian diplomats on charges of espionage.
Amid the trickle of information related to the deportations that has reached the public, onlookers have been forced to fill in the gaps with speculation as to the timing, motives and implications of the bold move by Lithuania's security services.
While officials have not openly admitted it, many experts speculate that the expulsions were timed to coincide before NATO accession, planned for April 2.
The Baltic Times has learned that the Vilnius embassies of certain NATO countries, some of which fear that new members such as Lithuania might become a weak link in the pact's military intelligence circle, were aware of the deportations before they were publicized in the media.
"There's no doubt this was related to NATO," said Lauras Bielinis, an expert in post-Soviet relations at Vilnius University's Institute of International Relations and Political Science.
Indeed, NATO membership, even despite its inevitability, has been at the center of events in recent days. (See story on Page 2.) On March 1, the Russian special envoy to NATO was quoted as saying that the alliance should be aware that Russia would view "any footprint, regardless of size" in the Baltic states "very negatively." Russia also protested the operation of a NATO AWACS surveillance aircraft in Latvian and Lithuanian airspace last week.
"Russia has never hidden the fact that it opposes the Baltic states joining NATO or that it has 'special interests' here. In order to show NATO that it will be a safe member, Lithuania must prove that it will not be an easy outlet for Russia to gain secure intelligence from NATO," said Bielinis.
As for the immediate and future consequences of the deportations, the Russian Embassy announced that it "reserves the right" to take countermeasures, the most likely of which would be the expulsion of three Lithuanian diplomats from Moscow.
Yet the full implication of the affair may not be limited to the closed world of diplomatic protocol.
"One can't ignore the role of public opinion in international affairs," said Natalija Kasatkina, a specialist in post-soviet relations at Vytautas Magnus University.
Pointing to the role of negative public sentiment among ethnic Russians against Latvia over that country's education reforms, Kasatkina believes the deportations could be used as a tool by the almost uniformly state-controlled Russian media against Lithuania in the future.
"Look at the use of the term 'unfriendly'-politics in Russia are extremely nationalistic, and this incident could be used to convince nationalistic people that Lithuania is being aggressive. It can be used as another bargaining chip against Lithuanian interests related to Russia," she said.
Bielinis said she believes that the initial lack of information from officials regarding the deportations is further evidence of Lithuania's desire to limit potential fallout.
"The fact is that this was completely unexpected. The silence is a sign that the security apparatus is working effectively and keeping the event under a low profile," he said.
As The Baltic Times went to press, Russian officials had not announced any retaliatory measures against Lithuania or its diplomats.