It's started - again. Baltic-Russian relations have deteriorated once more, only this time, compared with all the others in the past, the sources of tensions are multiple - intertwined and overlapping and on the surface quite confusing.
Three Russian diplomats were kicked out of Lithuania for activities incompatible with their status; a Russian MP was refused a visa to enter Latvia; Russia expressed surprise and irritation at the recent flight of a U.S. spy plane and quickly responded by organizing similar flights over the Baltic Sea; Russia threatened to impose sanctions against Latvia if the latter continues with its education reform. Meanwhile, Russia has taken its "Baltic beef" to Brussels, claiming it will refuse to endorse the EU-Russian Partnership and Cooperation Agree-ment when the EU expands in May to include 10 new members. The EU, in turn, has lashed out and warned the Kremlin of "serious impact" if it continued its foot-dragging on signing the PCA.
Alas, Baltic-Russian relations have come to a head. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania will join NATO in four weeks and the EU in nine, and Russia, judging by the recent spat of events, is aghast. Russia has had months, if not years, to adjust to the fact that the Baltics states are now forever part of the West. Not surprisingly, however, the reality of the situation has proven difficult to swallow, and Moscow is raising a fuss about education reform (which is essentially about integration), trade regimes, travel rights, military bases and a host of other topics.
Some have said that all this Russian breast-beating is a) for internal consumption on the eve of presidential elections, and b) designed to win it more concessions from Brussels - favorable travel regimen for Kaliningraders, then for all Russians. But we would defer. Having lost control of the Baltics, Moscow has come to realize how easily it could lose control of the Caucuses, Ukraine, Central Asia and so on. Reality of the new, integration-with-Europe situation has sunk in, and the Kremlin is in a panic. Only a fool would argue that Moscow has shed its hegemonic ambitions around its massive periphery, especially in the Baltics - where some 1.7 million ethnic Russians live, many without citizenship. The question is what Moscow intends to do about it.
Some, such as Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga, fear the worst. In an interview with a Russian paper this week, she said, "I think some of [Latvia's MPs] using help with 'friends from Moscow' - and no one hides this fact - are trying to cause a confrontation. Before May 1..." As the president goes on to explain, any such confrontation will have nothing to do with educational reform and everything to do with "Latvia's desire to become a member" of Europe. Indeed, as the scandals involving Almax, the Russian PR agency that helped Rolandas Paksas take the presidency, and Shtab, the shadowy organization resisting integration in Latvia with alleged financial support from Russia (see story on Page 1), show, Russia's arms reach deep inside the Baltics.
It is one thing if neighbors are spying at each other at 10,000 meters, and another if they are inciting riots in one another's homes. Let's hope that Baltic-Russian tensions remain confined to the former.