LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Volume 41, No.4 - Winter 1995
Editor of this issue: Robert A. Vitas, Lithuanian Research & Studies Center
Copyright © 1995 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
RUSSIA, THE WEST, AND THE BALTICS
The history of the Baltic peoples has been a brutal one with close to eight-hundred years of subjugation under one invader or another. The maintenance of their existence was marked by desperate resistance, including uprisings which led to ruthless punitive campaigns, executions, and deportations. Only Lithuania, by merging with Poland, managed to establish some historical record of eminence. However, Lithuania's eventual subjugation by the Czarist (and later Soviet) Empire caused the Lithuanians to suffer as greatly as the Estonians and Latvians.
The occupation of the Baltics by Russian armies in 1940, with the accompanying arrests and mass deportations, was followed, a year later, by the Nazi invasion which obliterated practically the entire Baltic Jewish population/as well as tens of thousands of non-Jewish Lithuanians, Latvians, and Estonians.
In the summer of 1944, as the French were dancing in the streets, celebrating the liberation of Paris from German troops, the Baits began to experience the renewed Soviet terror of midnight knocks on their doors. Hundreds of thousands fled westward either to collapsing Germany or across the Baltic Sea to Sweden. What followed wrought further changes in the ethnic composition of the three countries as well as their social structures. The deliberate Russian colonization of the Baltics, especially of Latvia and Estonia, created a critical demographic situation. Latvians, for example, became almost a minority in their own country — they make up barely 54 percent of the population and are a minority in the country's six largest cities. The situation is somewhat better in Estonia, where the population is 64 percent Estonian, and considerably better in Lithuania with only a little more than ten percent of the population being Russian.
In the winter of 1990-1991, the eyes of the world were briefly diverted from events in the Persian Gulf and turned towards the Baltic region. While the forces of Western democracies were preparing for Desert Storm, the forces of what was then the Soviet Union were attempting to restore the Kremlin's hegemony over its non-Russian republics, including the three Baltic republics seeking independence from Moscow's rule. Especially in Lithuania and Latvia, a terror campaign designed to frighten the local population back into sub-mission took place. It reached its bloody apex on January 13,1991, in Vilnius and a week later, on January 20, in Riga. Reviving the dark memories of Prague, Budapest, and Tbilisi, Russian tanks, backed by elite units of crack troops, proceeded to smash and shoot their way through the human chain of unarmed civilian demonstrators who had gathered around the Vilnius TV tower in order to protect it. When the shooting stopped, fourteen people were dead, including a soldier who had reportedly been shot in the back by other soldiers. A total of 604 were injured, and 74 were hospitalized, including 35 in serious condition. In Riga, Russian "Black Beret" OMON troops attacked the Latvian Interior Ministry Headquarters, killing five people, including two cameramen, and wounding a score of others.
In August 1991, while the Soviet Union was collapsing, Estonia, Latvia, declared full independence (Lithuania has done so in the Spring of 1991) and began attempting to rebuild their shattered countries. Most major non-Russian regions followed the Baltic example.
August 31,1994 has entered the annals of Baltic history as the date when a 54-year foreign occupation officially came to an end. The last Russian tanks, guns and military aircraft finally left Estonian and Latvian soil (in Lithuania this took place exactly a year earlier) thus putting an end, not only to the occupation but, at least in the Baltics, also to World War n itself.
Instead of rejoicing, the mood in the Baltic lands, however, remained subdued. The people did little more than breathe a collective sigh of relief and carry on with their daily lives. In Riga's thirteenth-century cathedral, there was a grim ecumenical service to commemorate those tens of thousands who had died at the hands of the Soviets.
The Baltic peoples realized that they were left with dreadful economic, social, and ecological damage that probably could never be completely rectified. Moreover, neither Russia's proud proclamations that its army had left the Baltic states, nor the emphatic cheering of the West (and very quick shifting of its attention elsewhere) meant very much. The Baltic people recognized that this was not the end of Russia's hegemonic efforts. With the use of economic and political pressure, Russia would continue working behind the scenes, quietly undermining the Baltic countries' attempts to consolidate their independence.
Moscow's Baltic Policy
The workings of Moscow's propaganda machine were well known to the inhabitants of the Baltic countries. For some fifty years, they had been bombarded with the daily falsehoods that emanated from government-controlled radio and TV broadcasts, and that were splashed across the front pages of the press. Falsehoods about the Baltic lands having "voluntarily" joined the "fraternal family of Soviet peoples" in 1940, and about having been "liberated by the glorious Soviet Army" in 1944-1945. Falsehoods about all facets of Soviet daily life and about life in the "rotten capitalist West." The flow of deceptions from Moscow did not stop after the three countries regained their independence in 1991. True, these were deceptions of a different nature, mainly concerning "human rights violations" and "massive discrimination" against ethnic Russians, particularly in Latvia and Estonia.
These deceptions, accompanied by increasingly threatening announcements by leading Russian politicians, have gained intensity since the second part of 1993. Throughout the following year, despite the Russian troop withdrawal the anti-Baltic rhetoric turned equally venomous not only from the ex-communist ultra nationalist forces, but also from most of Russia's "democratic reformers." Russia's President Boris Yeltsin personally began to devote more and more attention to the theme that Moscow's interests and "right of action" license extended far beyond Russia's borders and included all of the non-Russian republics of the former U.S.S.R. and even former Warsaw Pact nations.
Almost immediately after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Russia's Foreign Minister, Andrei Kozyrev, announced in Izvestija (January 2, 1992) that around Russia "there is forming what we could call the near abroad," by which he meant Russia's direct sphere of influence. Furthermore, he emphasized that the top priority for Russian diplomacy was the formation of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), which was to involve all the former Soviet republics, including Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. This undertaking proved to be beyond Moscow's powers. The Baits bluntly refused to become CIS members.
Rapidly, an increasingly obvious consensus began emerging in Moscow on the necessity to take a more activist approach toward the 25 million Russians living in the "near abroad". It was embodied, first of all, in a draft document prepared by the Russian Foreign Ministry at the beginning of 1994 entitled "A Program for the Defense and Support of the Interests of Ethnic Russians Living Beyond the Borders of the Russian Federation." The program called for legalizing the institution of dual citizenship and signing relevant accords with all the former republics of the U.S.S.R. It also called for "encouraging the consolidation of the Russian communities in the countries of the near abroad" and promoting "the creation under various names of ostensibly non-political associations of Russian citizens or simply Russians."
Yeltsin previously, in his 1994 New Year's speech, had promised to "defend" Russian nationals living in the former Soviet republics. This was immediately followed by a harshly worded decree (January 11) and by an official statement the Russian president's press secretary Vjačeslav Kostikov. More pronouncements indicating a policy change for the worse continued emanating from the Kremlin throughout 1994 and into 1995. For example, on August 5, 1994, exactly at the time when the Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) and the Council of Europe experts were in Riga, Yeltsin deliberately distorted the situation in Latvia and Estonia by directing an especially vicious tirade against the Latvian citizenship law. Along with the usual blanket accusations of "ethnic discrimination" and "militant nationalism," he resorted to outright falsehoods, accusing Latvia of ignoring most of the recommendations made by the CSCE, Council of Europe, and European Union (EU), despite the fact that only a few days earlier their representatives had manifested approval of the Latvian citizenship law. The EU appraised it as "a good basis for progress in integrating ethnic minorities and developing intercommunity relations."
Russia's Foreign Minister Kozyrev persistently declared that "Russia's most important vital interests" are concentrated in the CIS and the Baltic countries, and that consequently "the main threats to these interests also emanate from there." While complaining about the "mistreatment" of Russians in the Baltics, he even suggested that the situation in Latvia is nearly as bad as in the former Yugoslavia: "In Latvia, they are trying to deport thousands of people to Russia. I call it ethnic cleansing. [Therefore] Russia must not withdraw completely. Instead, it should negotiate base-type agreements."
Russian politicians, when arguing that those ethnic Russians who were "stranded" outside the Russian Federation when the Soviet Union disintegrated, must be "protected", periodically alluded to Washington's use of military force in Grenada (1983) and Panama (1989) to protect the rights of a handful of U.S. citizens, failing to mention, however, that the United States has never requested either political rights for its citizens in Grenada, Panama or elsewhere, or that they be allowed to stay there indefinitely. Russian statements bring to mind Hitler's speeches in 1938 about protecting the rights of the Sudetenland Germans in Czechoslovakia prior to sending his army into that country. Some observers of Moscow's policy towards the Baltics have suggested the possibility of a "Grenada or Sudetenland scenario" in the Baltics.
In the Baltic states themselves, the activities of the various Russian hard-liner groups, which still see Moscow as their capital, become so intense that even Russian officials have been forced, on occasion, to urge moderation. For example, in 1994, at a mid-March gathering of the Council for the Protection of Veterans Rights in Latvia, the commander of the Russian Northwest Army, General Leonid Majorov, urged the veterans not to create the image of an extremist organization by waving red flags at demonstrations and appealing for the restoration of Soviet Latvia.
On September 8, 1994, only days after the Russians withdrew their occupation forces from Latvia and Estonia, the Russian Defense Minister Pavel Gračov warned that Moscow would react sharply if any of the Baltic countries attempted to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), at the same time reiterating Yeltsin's position that the entire territory of the former Soviet Union, including the Baltics, lies firmly within Russia's "sphere of influence" — somehow overlooking the fact that three years earlier, Moscow had renounced its claims over Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, as well as the fact that the three now independent Baltic states do not wish to be drawn back into Russia's orbit.
Three days later, Gračov announced that he would like to sign a series of bilateral "defense agreements" with each Baltic country in order to "ensure" Baltic "security." The Baits immediately recalled the year of 1939 when Stalin forced them to sign "defense agreements" with the Soviet Union, paving the way for the occupation and annexation less than a year later. The governments of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia rejected Gračov's offer.
Among the consequences of the postwar occupation one should mention the still unresolved border problem between Estonia and Latvia on the one side and the Russian Federation on the other.
Having reoccupied the Baltic countries at the end of World War II, Moscow in 1945 unilaterally transferred some 2300 square kilometers of Estonian territory (the Petseri district) and almost 1300 square kilometers of Latvian territory (the Abrene district) to the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic. This action had little meaning while both countries were Soviet dominions. But once they regained independence, both countries announced recognition of the frontiers established by the peace treaties which were signed with Soviet Russia in 1920. Estonia went further, demanding that Russia return the land illegally annexed by Stalin. Although Russia repeatedly had expressed the will to resolve this issue through negotiations, Yeltsin's decree of June 18,1994, to unilaterally demarcate the disputed border by setting up 682 border posts and 15 checkpoints showed otherwise. The stated purpose of Yeltsin's decree was to "safeguard the political and economic interests of the Russian Federation and establish legal conditions for defending the state border of the Russian Federation where it touches Estonia." While the Estonians insisted that the decree "clearly violates the Charter of the United Nations and CSCE principles to resolve matters of dispute through negotiations, without unilateral actions." Russia, for its part, accused Estonia of making "extraterritorial claims."
The Baltic fears of resurgent Russian expansionist policies were further aggravated by Yeltsin's confrontational decision to inspect the disputed Russian-Estonian border on November 23,1994.
As with the other "near abroad" countries, Russia was using its overbearing size to intimidate small Estonia into submission and, once again, Moscow, so it seems, will get away with it. The Estonian government can do little else but appeal to the international community for justice, unfortunately expecting only negligible support.
In spite of the fact that political realities have changed dramatically, Moscow's political rhetoric in regard to the border countries has been quite militant. Not infrequently, it seems that the Cold War is not ended everywhere, that the divide between East and West has simply been pushed further east, and is now entrenched on Russia's western borders.
The United Nations, the Council of Europe, the EU and the CSCE, as well as some other international commissions, have produced reports which find Baltic laws to meet international human rights standards and have failed to discover any evidence of ethnic discrimination in Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian legislation. Moreover, the situation for non-citizens in the Baltics is far better than in many other countries.
The majority of Russians in Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia live in secure housing, maintain jobs, and cannot complain about a lack of schools for their children.
Moscow, as well as the local Russian hardliners, however, continue to spread misleading information, according to which practically all Baltic laws are discriminatory and, especially, Latvia and Estonia are guilty of systematic human rights violations. Until now not a single fact has been produced to prove these and other accusations.
Although as stated in an International Court of Justice decision, nobody exercises an indisputable right to the citizenship of a certain country, and each country has the right to lay down the rules governing the granting of citizenship rights, a large segment of Russia's "democrats" find it hard to accept that Russians who reside in the former Soviet republics cannot get automatic citizenship of these now independent countries. It is difficult for them to understand that becoming a citizen is not a right, but a privilege and that with this privilege comes responsibility. This means taking an oath of loyalty, following the laws of the state, and passing language and history examinations before obtaining the right to vote. Too many Russians, residing in the Baltic countries, unable to reconcile themselves with the fact that Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are now independent countries, would prefer a return to Soviet rule when they lived a privileged lifestyle.
According to present Baltic citizenship laws, non-citizens have legal residence status and they may apply for citizenship after fulfilling several basic requirements. However, one of the crucial problems in the citizenship issue is that the Russian-speaking population is, on the whole, unwilling to accept the principle of allegiance to the adopted countries. As a matter of fact, Moscow is pushing for the acceptance of the dual citizenship approach, according to which a Russian residing in the Baltics should be automatically naturalized as a citizen of those countries and, at the same time, be a full-fledged citizen of the Russian Federation. This approach, of course, cannot be accepted by the Baits, largely because in case of possible Russian aggression such latently hostile dual citizens would, it can be safely assumed, side with the aggressors.
In the December 1993 Russian parliamentary elections it was clearly demonstrated that the lion's share of politically active Russian citizens in the Baltics sympathized with Moscow's imperialistic forces. Two thirds of them voted for either Russia's Communist Party or Ţirinovski's arch-nationalists. Support for Russian democrats was insignificant. Small countries whose citizens are disloyal cannot survive.
Russians, especially in Latvia and Estonia where they compose up to 46 percent of the population, if naturalized, could in no time turn both countries into de facto Russian dependencies with Russian as the second official language. Let us recall that the Russians in Ukraine's Crimea voted to remove Crimea from Ukraine and return it to Russia. Why does Moscow simultaneously try to increase its efforts to grant Russian citizenship to Russians in those countries? Most likely, so that they may use the slightest internal discord as a pretext for future military intervention and their reabsorption by Russia.
Although on August 31, 1994, when the last Russian troops formally left the Baltic countries, and a new page was opened in their history, everyone knew that this date did not really mark the very end of foreign occupation. A sizable number of Russian military personnel, many "legally" demobilized officers with their families are still today on Baltic soil. In Estonia, for example, 10,515 "retired" officers, some of them in their thirties, remained as civilians, thus creating a potentially explosive situation. Some political forces in the Baltics regard them as a potential fifth column, and in certain respects this judgment seems not to be exaggerated.
The rate of such "retiring" officers in Latvia and Estonia rose dramatically during the first half of 1994. The Russian army which, since the end of World War II had moved and operated on Baltic territories whenever and wherever it wanted, was especially busy settling down and preparing to remain after the breakup of the Soviet Union, acquiring property, infiltrating commercial structures, establishing all sorts of firms and otherwise creating an economic base for itself. In order to increase this base, real estate and other property was sold off to various shareholding companies set up by hastily retired Russian military personnel. Of course, these were prime spots, specially selected by the Soviet Army because of their economic and strategic importance. For example, in the Estonian capital Tallinn alone, 872 hectares of land (that is one tenth of the city's territory) and 418 objects were at the disposal of the Russian army. Elsewhere in Estonia, there were 200 such sites which covered some 20,000 hectares. It must have been very distasteful indeed for Baltic government officials to have signed Moscow treaties allowing the retired military of a despised occupying force to acquire legal status in their countries. According to these documents, the Russian military must not only be allowed to obtain employment, but also be permitted to own, use and freely dispose of any property they may have acquired. This property includes houses, apartments, and summer cottages that may have once belonged to Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians who were arrested and deported to labor camps in Siberia.
Furthermore, the Russian military have even managed to infiltrate Baltic government structures and paramilitary organizations, e.g., the fire department, private security services, the police, and the Home Guard.
To be sure, there is a large number of Russians who have grown roots in the Baltics and who either have already been or are willing to become "Balticized" in lifestyle (if not in language) and to whom it would be an insult to suggest that they might be a threat to the Baltic peoples. Many of them are well-educated and have valuable skills which are needed to help restore the Baltic countries — known before World War II for their ethnic and cultural diversity — to viability. During the last years of the Soviet empire which encompassed the early days of the Popular Front movements, the dramatic days of the January 1991 barricades and the final, return of freedom and independence, many Russians, especially intellectuals, raised their voices in support of the Lithuanian, Latvian, and Estonian bids for independence. These emphatic Russians (like the writer Marina Kostanecka and the surgeon Vladlen Dozorcev) were often called traitors by those of their compatriots who favored continuation of the Soviet Union, and who today demand instantaneous citizenship and equal political rights in the newly reinstated Baltic countries.
Curiously enough, these postwar Russian immigrants, who not only refuse to become "Balticized," but also try to destabilize the Baltic countries, refuse to entertain suggestions about returning to their own thinly populated and richly endowed Russian Federation in order to develop the land of their ancestors. The concept is similar to that of the Western countries which agonize over whether certain segments of Baltic Russian immigrants are not being granted Estonian or Latvian citizenship fast enough, while not deeming it necessary to offer them Western citizenship.
Baltic Policy of the West
The United States of America, under President George Bush and President Bill Clinton, seems to be pursuing a policy that results in the appeasement of Russia and the furtherance of Russian interests — at the expense of the interests of the newly independent states, including the Baltics. The most disappointing expression of U.S. policy toward the former non-Russian republics was made by Bush during his visit to Ukraine at the beginning of August 1991 — probably the single most important Russian border state which, at that time, was on the verge of independence. Bush in his remarks, now known as the "Chicken Kiev Speech," savaged Ukrainian nationalism and all but consigned Ukraine to Moscow's domination, simultaneously damaging the chances for survival of the other republics seeking self determination.
Today, the Baltic republics fare well, but only in comparison to the other former Soviet republics where the Western democracies, for the most part, have allowed Russia full disruptive sway, turning a blind eye to Russian military intervention in Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Moldova and Tajikistan. U.S. interest in the Central Asian republics (and fear of the prospect of greater Muslim cohesion there), as well as in the Caucasus, mirrors the interest (or lack thereof) it takes in the regions of the former Yugoslavia. Russian operations in the "near abroad," not to mention parts of the Russian Federation, e.g., Chechnya, to quote the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Madeline Albright, are "appropriate" as long as they are endorsed by the United Nations.
Russia did not object to the sending of U.S. troops to Haiti, which lies within the American "sphere of influence," just as it acquiesced to NATO air strikes in Bosnia and refrained from supporting North Korea, its traditional ally, in that country's disputes with the United-States over nuclear policy. And, as the Kremlin has been repeatedly hinting, it expected something in return, namely, the U.S. recognition of Moscow's predominance over the territories of the former U.S.S.R., including the Baltics.
As a matter of fact, some Western observers have claimed that the United States and Russia may be secretly carving up the world into" spheres of influence". In 1994 some press circles even hinted at some mysterious "Yalta 2" deal. "Yalta I," as is known, took place half-a-century ago when the victors of World War II gathered in this Crimean city in February 1945 and placed the East-West borderline where the Iron Curtain later fell, thus handing clear victory to Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.
At the same time, it is no secret that in Washington, both Republican and Democratic administrations for the past quarter century have acknowledged or even encouraged "spheres of influence" among great powers. Similar views have been propagated by the media and even some think-tanks which are bothered by the fact that the newly independent countries are in the process of rebuilding nation states in the classical sense of political entities with a single linguistic identity. Representatives of the New World Order, a term associated with former U.S. President George Bush, appear to feel more comfortable dealing with multiethnic empires such as the former Soviet Union or Yugoslavia, than with smaller nation states.
Moreover, in the world of Realpolitik, Russia's name simply carries more weight, and the Russian misinformation campaign against the "near abroad," especially against the Baltic states, has been so intense that even some respectable Western politicians and academics have accepted the myth of Baltic human rights violations as a self evident fact. For example, some U.S. government officials have not refrained from chiming into Russia's chorus about Baltic nationalism and anti-Russian discrimination as reflected in the "ethnic strife" statements of U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher and Assistant Secretary of State Strobe Talbot. This despite the fact that those international organizations which reviewed the human rights situation in the Baltics, have reported no systematic discrimination of any kind.
In January 1994, during the Moscow summit, even President Clinton did nothing to negate Yeltsin's assertions that the U.S. president "would take appropriate steps in making contact with the Baltic governments so that no more discrimination would be allowed against the Russian speaking population there." On the same occasion, during a press conference at the Moscow Ostankino TV station, Clinton said that "we are for the independence and the freedom of the Baltic nations, but we expect the Russian minorities to be protected," and that "if there is evidence that they are abusing the rights of the Russian minorities, then I will act accordingly." The ensuing surprise telephone call by the U.S. President to his Latvian counterpart, Guntis Ulmanis, on January 20, to be sure, a welcome gesture, nevertheless can be classified as a form of damage control — had Clinton made his position loud and clear a week earlier in Moscow, the call might not have been necessary.
Moreover, to call the non-Baltic immigrants "minorities" is erroneous. According to the accepted international norms, the term "minority" refers to those residents of a country who are citizens. The Latvian Register of Residents, for example, indicates that the minorities make up 25 percent of the body of citizens, as they did on the eve of World War II before the Soviet occupation. Neither Latvia, nor Estonia has a "minority problem." The problem lies in the large number of non-citizens. And, as is known, the rights of citizens and non-citizens differ the world over.
In the summer of 1994, a fine show of U.S. goodwill and solidarity with the people of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania was proffered during Clinton's seven-hour visit to Riga where he met with the three Baltic presidents and masterfully played up to the patriotic emotions of the Baltic peoples at Riga's Freedom Monument where his passionate "Vabadus! Laisvë! Briviba! Freedom!" mantra drew an enthusiastic roar of approval and a virtual avalanche of patriotic flag waving. His assertion that Americans "will rejoice with you when the last of the foreign troops vanishes from your homelands" was just what most people in the crowd wanted to hear. Clinton's playing up to Moscow's concerns by urging citizens of the three countries to take "a tolerant, inclusive approach" towards postwar immigrants residing in the Baltics was mild enough to avoid offending the Baits, but clear enough to satisfy the Russians. However, those who are acquainted with the U.S. past (as well as its present) were not persuaded when Clinton cited as an example the United States of America, where "many peoples who once were bitter enemies... now live together as friends." Also, it was somewhat disconcerting to hear the president hail independence of the Baltic countries when the U.S. was among the last to recognize it.
After Clinton's visit, the Baits became considerably alarmed at the revelation that he had consulted with his Russian counterpart immediately before and after visiting Riga on July 6. To many it was proof positive that the United States was coordinating its Baltic policy with Russia.
Days later, in what could be sensed as a compensatory gesture of support for the Baltics, the U.S. Senate voted to tie $839 million in aid to a complete Russian troop pullout from the Baltics by August 31 of that year. For the dismantling of several Russian military bases, Clinton offered the Baltic countries several million dollars.
Of some interest was the reaction of the U.S. press to the president's Baltic visit. "Clinton makes appeal to Latvia to accept its Russians," wrote The New York Times, while its editorial warned that "to deny Russian rights is to invite trouble." Another U.S. newspaper characterized the Clinton trip as "shadowed by the unseen presence of Yeltsin" and by the call that "America must do nothing that might aggravate an already volatile situation in Russia."
President Clinton's trip must be assessed for what it was: a photo opportunity resulting from compromises, pressures and counter-pressures in the U.S.-Baltic-Russian relationship triangle. Also, it was a trip to boost the declining popularity of Bill Clinton as well as that of the Baltic governments.
Even during the few joyful hours of Clinton's Riga visit, most Baits knew deep down that the United States would do little for the security of the Baltic states if Moscow tried to re-annex them. They could not expect much more than several "important speeches" and "expressions of concern." If the leaders of Russia do decide to invade the Baltics for the third time this century, the entire international community, including the only remaining superpower, it can safely be assumed, will watch idly from the sidelines. Although a great many state leaders have pledged their "unwavering support" for the efforts of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania to reestablish themselves as members of the international community, having heard it all before, the people have no illusions about Western support in the case of a crisis situation.
Even though straightforwardness nowadays is a rare quality among politicians, a few exceptions should be noted. Sweden's Prime Minister Ingvar Carlsson, while visiting the Estonian President Lennart Meri, was truthful enough to admit that if the independence of the Baltic countries is ever threatened by Russia, Sweden will remain neutral as it has in the past, adding that Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, most likely, will have to rely only upon their own resources and upon the will of God for protection. This, by the way, presents a policy change from that of Sweden's previous administration under Carl Bildt, who had actively sought a rapprochement with the Baltics.
Cold reality characterizes also the words expressed in 1994 by Finland's candidate for prime minister Paavo Lipponen: "If Russia engages in military operations against the Baltic countries, there will be no military response."
Not only the non-Russian republics of the former U.S.S.R., but also Moscow's former satellite countries are right-fully concerned that Russia might attempt to swallow them up again and, therefore, are hoping to maintain their independence by forming alliances with international organizations which would provide them with some sort of security guarantee in the case of renewed Russian aggression. One such organization is NATO, although at least the "near abroad" countries know that it would be unrealistic for them to expect that NATO will ever risk a war with Russia if the latter invaded them. Until now, NATO countries have been reticent to admit new members because of their fear of angering Russia which has repeatedly stressed its opposition to any NATO expansion eastward, or to the formation of any other East European military alliance.
At the beginning of February 1995, the Republican dominated U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Relations Committee approved legislation in which references to the Baltic countries as possible candidates for NATO membership were deleted on the grounds that they are not yet prepared to join the alliance. Reference was made only to the Viđegrad states (Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia). This was viewed with alarm in the three Baltic capitals. In a terse letter sent to the U.S. State Department, Emmanuelis Zingeris, a member of the Lithuanian parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee, asked if the failure to include the Baltics meant that they were considered to be part of "Russia's sphere of influence." As a result, on February 16, the House of Representatives passed a revised version of the National Security Revitalization Act as proposed by Richard Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois. The Durbin amendment added that "any other European country emerging from communist domination" could be invited to join the alliance.
If NATO enlargement does not go up to the borders of Russia proper, the door to a reprojection of Russian power over any country east of the line will be left wide open. Therefore, it is better not to expand the NATO alliance at all than not to include all the countries that might otherwise be subject to Moscow's pressures.
True, the Baits have accepted NATO's Partnership for Peace plan which promotes a military rapprochement between them and Western Europe, but will offer no guarantees in solving the security problems of the Baltics. Estonian President Meri has aptly compared Partnership for Peace to an empty bottle of Channel No. 5 perfume — nice to look at, but empty. Perhaps an empty bottle is still better than none at all.
The Latvian and Estonian government, to be sure unwillingly, complied with the "recommendations" of the United States and other Western governments to "compromise" on Russian demands to loosen citizenship laws, and to extend political and social guarantees for Russian military "pensioners" and other colonists, in spite of the fact that they were sent to overrun the Baltic lands and destroy their nationhood under Moscow's despotic leadership.
The Baits keep asking themselves why their countries, with economies distorted and weakened by fifty years of Soviet rule, should be forced to undertake extra costs associated with feeding, housing, and providing social services to the colonial population deposited on its doorstep by Russia. Of course, they know that this is the price they had to pay for the formal withdrawal of Russia's troops from their countries. It has to be noted, however, that Western governments are applying a double standard to the Baltics and to their own countries, where citizenship laws, as a rule, are rather strict, even when dealing with foreigners invited to live and work there with the purpose of advancing the nation's economic interests. No one, for instance, is rushing to naturalize the large Turkish population in Germany, many of whom were born there and, at least in the second generation, speak flawless German. More importantly, no one is constantly inspecting and haranguing the Germans for not making a few million Turks German citizens as soon as possible.
Denmark's Foreign Minister Niels Helveg Peterson openly acknowledged having pressured the Baltic governments regarding their countries' Russian non-citizens, while apparently forgetting his own country's treatment of the German settlers who came to Denmark on the heels of Hitler's occupation forces during World War II. After Denmark's liberation in May 1945, these non-Danes were placed in guarded camps and later sent back to Germany. Yet Peterson expects the Baits to treat their illegal Russian immigrants — who arrived in much the same manner, on the heels of the Soviet Army — with compassion.
And let us imagine that the United States had been occupied by the Nazis or the Japanese for over fifty years, that the occupiers had killed and deported 25 percent of the population, that millions of colonists were brought in and made the privileged class, while Americans, as second-class citizens in their own country, had to carry on all dealings in the language of the occupiers. It is very difficult to believe that the American people would gladly accept these colonists and the military retirees of the occupying army and grant them U.S. citizenship and social benefits after the government of the occupying power collapsed fifty years later.
Recently in the Baltics, one could hear the following joke, tasteless but, nevertheless, relevant: "Have you heard the latest rumors regarding the surprising demands being prepared by the German government?" — "Germany will ask France to assume retirement payments and grant French citizenship to all former German occupation troops and their families. Former German officers are also to be given title to properties made vacant as a result of sending French citizens to concentration camps."
If the Western world were farsighted enough, it would realize that the former Soviet republics, now independent states, just like the former Warsaw Pact countries, could become its first line of defense against the unpredictable chaos in Russia, rather than a site for dubious social and political experimentation driven by evasiveness and hypocrisy. Politically stable and economically developed countries along Russia's borders could effectively counterbalance unforeseen convulsions in that country.
The long Soviet occupation has seriously poisoned the physical, cultural, and spiritual environment of the Baltic countries. Although the healing process has started, some damage may never be repaired.
Extremely severe is the environmental damage left by the departing Russian army. There are many sites in the Baltics where the land has been devastated and polluted with toxic chemicals, for example, Zvarde, in the western part of Latvia, is still riddled with craters, shrapnel, and unexploded shells. Dangerous pieces of phosphorus still turn up on the Baltic shoreline, which in places was also ravaged by tank caterpillar treads. The military buildings left by the Russians were, more often than not, stripped of anything of value and vandalized by the departing soldiers.
Because of the headlong rush to capitalism, to market economies, improvements in the ecological destruction scarring the Baltic region are very slow. As a matter of fact, Baltic officials have been tempted to turn a blind eye to various ecologically damaging activities and violations of environmental regulations if they are in conflict with profit motivated economic imperatives. A good example is the widespread practice of clear-cutting in forestry in all three Baltic lands.
As recently as October 1994, toxic pollution was discovered in several Lithuanian tributaries of the Musa River, which also flows through Latvia. Environmental officials have not ruled out the possibility that the toxic substances were deliberately dumped — a standard Soviet practice which, unfortunately, has outlived the Soviet Union.
Latvian authorities should be praised for issuing an order on October 24 forbidding area residents to use water from the Musa and the Lielupe, another river where unacceptable levels of dangerous substances were recently discovered, also, for banning fishing and immediately closing the affected watersheds and basins. During the Soviet era, it would have ended with the usual response to ecological dangers and catastrophes — denials, lies, and cover-ups.
Apologists argue that these and other environmental problems, though a legacy of Soviet rule, might be an inevitable feature of societies in transition. But also in other walks of life the attitude of the Baltic inhabitants often appears to be a curious mixture of complacency accompanied by a certain kind of despair about the human ability to bring about improvements even in the small world immediately around them.
Unbalanced mindsets appear to be among the most serious consequences of the Baits' long captivity under the Soviets. People often hold onto old ideas or lack patience. As throughout the former Soviet empire, they remain very disillusioned with their economic situation. They are left to cope with low wages and even lower pensions, with poor health care and a high crime rate. In Latvia, for example, the government cannot afford to pay decent wages to teachers and medical personnel, including doctors.
As long as the critical mass is not satisfied with its standard of living, it will be hard for the democratic structures not to remain rather fragile.
The Baltic economies need money. They need a market in order to interest considerably more outside investors and producers. Unfortunately, at the present time, the "capitalist entrepreneurs" in the urban landscape, especially in Riga and Tallinn, are the super nouveaux riches (for the most part, Russians) who have accumulated wealth and continue doing so by deceit, intimidation, bribery, and a complete disregard for both the law and the rules of contractual relations that make a true market economy different from an avid wheeler-dealer businessmen culture, represented by men with luxury cars, young girls at their side, and mobile telephones in their pockets.
To make things worse, too many members of Baltic parliaments and governments, either elected or appointed, find the present situation profitable, think of themselves as exempt from the rule of law, and frequently are more concerned with influence peddling than setting the country's future. While most elderly citizens are saving for a loaf of bread, some government officials dine on caviar and smoked salmon, and are being chauffered in shiny black limousines. Mercedes, BMWs and Volvos have replaced the black Volgas.
Despite the wrongdoing and miscarriages of justice that occur in the Baltic countries, they are, by comparison, an idyllic oasis of peace, their problems seemingly trite in comparison to the carnage in Bosnia-Herzegovina or Chechnya. Although the losers in the race to capitalism, e.g., pensioners, farmers and the newly unemployed, outnumber the winners, the Baltic countries have more or less successfully put the brakes on inflation, stabilized their currencies, slowed the downturn in their economies, privatized quite a few state enterprises, and even attracted some foreign investors. The shops in Riga and Tallinn are almost as well-stocked as in Warsaw and Budapest, lauded as economic miracles for their overnight transition from command to market economies. Above all, the Baltics have reestablished pluralistic and democratic societies. Because they are relatively small individually, and because their goals and problems are almost identical, they could be solved more effectively through joint action. Although it was their individual sense of national identity that preserved them during the dark years of Soviet tyranny, there is definitely the need for the Baltic governments to coordinate considerably more in areas of common interest, e.g., defense policies, equipment, and training. The Baltics' strength would be greater if they were harnessed together in the areas of foreign and economic policy, and also they would be able to solve more successfully the environmental legacy of Soviet economics through joint action. Most large Western corporations already prefer to coordinate their market policies in the three countries together. As a matter of fact, the Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians would be maximizing the power of their sovereignty by working more closely together.
Also, there have been times when the hard-line stance that some of the Baltic politicians have displayed against Russia was not necessarily the most appropriate point of departure for resolving international disputes and conflicts. Sometimes they seem to have forgotten that the overall political situation in Russia is in a state of flux, that Russia's leadership is far from united, and that much of Russia's politics is chaotic.
It is of interest to note that, in the context of events in the former Soviet empire, Russia complains loudest about "virulent nationalism" exactly in those regions where national pride is appearing in its most benign and constructive form, e.g., the Baltic countries. Places suffering from ethnic-based bloodshed, e.g., the Caucasus and Central Asia, earn Russia's involvement in dubious "peacekeeping" operations that have less to do with keeping peace than with renewing Russian domination over these lost regions of the empire. Russia is wasting its diminishing capital on its army and draining away the country's resources while trying to force the former republics back into an imagined empire. Russia's vital energy and resources are expended on empty prestige-seeking activities with little left for creative work or the welfare of the people.
In 1994, although bankrupt and seeking aid from the West, Russia established an enormous fund to help the 25 million ethnic Russians who are living outside Russia's borders, mainly in Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Estonia, and Latvia — to be sure, not to help them return to Russia, but to take over local businesses and to form Russian organizations.
Another organization, the Assembly of Russian Compatriots, was founded in Novgorod in February 1995 in order "to defend the rights" of ethnic Russians living beyond the Russian Federation's borders. The Assembly's ideological father, Vladimir Podoprigora, the Chairman of the International Affairs Committee of the Council of the Russian Federation, acknowledged that President Yeltsin himself will see to it that the Assembly is properly funded.
The spirit of Ivan the Terrible and Josie Stalin seems to be still alive in the Kremlin, and has turned the head of President Yeltsin, who was the hope of democratic Russia not many years ago. In its ruthlessness, the brutality used by the Russian army in suppressing the Chechen secession far surpasses anything seen during the Soviet interventions in Budapest in 1956 and Prague in 1968. Such military violence should be unacceptable for the democratic world at the end of the twentieth century. Yeltsin's actions have been compared to President Lincoln's war on the secession of the Southern states, but such an analogy is ridiculous. The Russian presence in Chechnya, and in other areas of the Caucasus, is a result of empire and conquest.
The tortured Russian nation which has only a vague idea about the nature of democracy is disappointed in the reforms which have taken place since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The chances of establishing democracy and a liberal, Western-oriented market society in Russia appear to be growing dimmer. The standard of living has been steadily falling, and it is not hard to manipulate a hungry, disappointed and spiteful populace.
The Kremlin is not really concerned about Russians living outside Russia's borders, but, by seemingly defending its ethnic kin abroad, Moscow is trying to compensate for the increasing inferiority and dissatisfaction that Russians feel with the miserable state of affairs within the Russian Federation. A nation in such a state seeks answers and is eager to believe even the most absurd explanations: we live miserably because our compatriots are facing discrimination in the Baltic countries and we must spend most of our energy on solving this problem. Or: we live miserably because most of our energy is being spent on solving the problem of Chechnya — only one of the forty oil processing plants (which produce 1.2 million tons a year) of this rebellious region is working, but as soon as the situation is normal again, we will be able to produce ten times as much. According to Russia's Foreign Minister Kozyrev, the Baltic countries must share the blame for the rise of aggressive nationalism in Russia, for "feeding the real monster...the Nazis and fascists in Russia, who are already barking." And so on and so forth.
Russian politicians in general seem to be implying that if Russian hegemony over the CIS states and the Baltics is restored, if the former size, power and grandeur of Russia as a great power are brought back into existence, the unresolved political, economic, ethnic and ethical problems, which led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union, will find a solution. The world will respect Russia once again, and the Russian people will be happy and wealthy. That is why Moscow is doing all it can to destabilize political and economic situations in its "near abroad" and the Baltics.
Every nation is entitled to self-determination. The highest stage of self-determination is an independent state. Not only peoples in the former Soviet republics, but also those of the non-Russian regions within the Russian Federation, e.g., the Tatars, Chechens, Chuvashes and others, as well as the Kurds, Uigurs, Palestinians, Angolans, Basques, Catalonians, Puerto Ricans, Navajos and the French-speaking Quebecois, etc., have an equal right to decide their own fate.
Russia today might appear weak. Nevertheless, it still has enough power to make the countries along its borders feel acutely vulnerable in terms of national security. Russia should accept that democracy entails decolonization, difficult as it may be. It would be wiser, it seems, for the United States and the Western European countries, instead of trying to create false stability by dividing the world into stable spheres of influence, to endeavor persuading Russia to shake off its neo-imperialistic sentimentality which justifies the feeling in the Baltics that the Russian occupation is not really over yet.
There is an interesting parallel between the collapse of the Turkish Ottoman Empire and the collapse of the Soviet Union. The last Turkish sultan, Abdul Hamid, tried to liberalize his empire, just as Nikita Khrushchev tried to liberalize the Soviet Union. Both leaders failed. After a period of stagnation, Enver Pasha tried restructuring from the top in Turkey, just as Mikhail Gorbachev did with perestroika and glasnost in the Soviet Union. These efforts resulted in the rapid disintegration of both empires. In Russia's case, however, this has been, and still is, accompanied by desperate attempts to hang on to the lost non-Russian territories. In Turkey, on the other hand, Kemal Atatürk had the foresight to modernize his country and commit it to a long, arduous task of rebuilding from within. This included renouncing Turkish claims to most of the non-Turkish territories of the former Ottoman Empire. The Russian Empire has to go the way of all other empires. Like the Ottoman, Habsburg, British, and French empires, it belongs to the dustbin of history. No democracy can be built in Russia until its leaders realize this.
Dr. Rolfs Ekmanis is a Professor of Languages and Literature at Arizona State University, and former Director of Radio Free Europe's Latvian broadcasting department, in Munich, Germany.