Soviet Tanks in center of Riga, 1940

The Baltic Litmus Test: Revealing Russia's True Colors

Most of the attention given to European security issues today is focused on the Balkans. But the stability concerns that the West must address in the Baltic Sea area are no less important. For half a century, the Soviet empire stretched its geopolitical power deep into Central Europe and the Balkans, posing a potential threat to the West at many points. Russia now borders Western Europe only in the Nordic and Baltic regions. More than any other part of the former Soviet empire, Russia’s policies toward the Baltic countries will be the litmus test of its new direction. Central to these concerns is the future relationship between Russia and the three once-again independent countries of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.

The way these problems are handled will test the emerging frameworks of Western security cooperation and provide crucial test cases for three important and interrelated international issues. Foremost, Russian conduct toward these states will show the true nature of Russia’s commitment to international norms and principles. If Moscow fully accepts the independence of the Baltic states and fully respects their rights, one can be sure that Russia has entered the family of nations. But if Moscow questions their sovereignty or undermines their independence, that would signal that Russia might once again become a threat to the international system.

Second, the European Union’s attitude toward the Baltic states will be a gauge of its ability to pursue the integration process while also establishing a working relationship with Russia.

Third, the security concerns of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania will test the readiness and ability of the United States to influence Russian policy and contribute to the new security order in Central and Eastern Europe. The stakes are high, for the credibility of the West has been severely tested in the Balkans. It could face even more daunting challenges in the Baltic region if we do not secure stability in the relationship between Russia and the three Baltic states.

HARBINGERS OF CHANGE

Following the collapse of tsarist Russia in 1917, the Soviet state had to accept the emergence of independent nations in the Baltic region. Finland, Estonia, and Latvia won independence for the first time, while Lithuania and Poland reestablished theirs. But as Soviet power grew, so did the Soviet Union’s eagerness to increase its security and reintegrate former tsarist possessions.

In the spring and summer of 1939, Stalin was ready to join any camp that would let him occupy the Baltic countries, including Finland, and eastern Poland. The Western powers refused, but Hitler agreed; the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of August 23, 1939, sealed the fate of the Baltic countries. Hitler was given a free hand to deal with Poland as he wished, and the hounds of war were let loose over Europe.

That would not be the last time that events in the Baltic nations foreshadowed great upheaval in Europe and the Soviet Union. The peaceful "singing revolution" in the summer of 1988, well before the Berlin Wall came down, clearly signaled that the Soviet Union was eroding from within. The popular fronts set up in each Baltic country in the same year were the first political organizations in the U.S.S.R. to challenge the power monopoly of the communist party. In the winter of 1990 Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev had to accept the breakaway of the Lithuanian Communist Party, and in the spring all three countries reclaimed their independence and reestablished their pre-1940 constitutions. Given this history, it seemed only logical that it was in the Baltics that Russian reactionary forces tried to turn back the clock, implicitly marking the end of the Gorbachev era. The exact circumstances surrounding the Soviet-led massacres in Vilnius and Riga have yet to be revealed, but it is worth noting that many of the faces seen there in January 1991 resurfaced around former parliamentary speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov and former vice president Aleksandr Rutskoi in the Russian White House in October 1993. Michael Beschloss’s and Strobe Talbott’s account of those years makes it clear how close those events came to destroying the evolving relationship between Moscow and Washington.1

The lesson is clear: developments in the Baltics need to be closely watched. They illustrate the larger issues at stake in the post-communist world and are bound to have repercussions well beyond the region.

THE UNIQUE HISTORY OF THE BALTIC COUNTRIES

Political analysts and historians tend to lump the three Baltic countries together with all other former Soviet republics, independent or semi-independent, under the heading of the former Soviet Union. But this is a grave injustice to history as well as international law. These countries differ from the rest of the former Soviet Union in that before 1940 they were fully independent, as independent as every other European country of that time. The Baltic nations were no less members of the League of Nations than was Poland or Portugal. Estonia and Latvia as new states were not different from other states created in the first decades of the century.

But they were unique in not having had the possibility of reestablishing their independence immediately after World War II, as did other countries occupied during those terrible years. Well into the 1950s, tens of thousands of Balts lost their lives in partisan wars, little known even now, against Soviet occupiers. The West had no effective means of helping them, other than occasionally making the legal point that they had never accepted the occupation, a gesture of greater moral import and political consequence, perhaps, than was realized at the time.

The Baltic countries were unique not only in the way they lost their independence, but also in the way they relentlessly pursued its reestablishment. In close contact with Russian democrats (including Boris Yeltsin) during the perestroika years, they fought a legal, moral, and political battle that was as effective as it was nonviolent. Their independence was finally recognized by the Soviet Union in September 1991. While the countries of Transcaucasia, Central Asia, and even Ukraine and Belarus got their independence as a consequence of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Baltic nations succeeded in breaking away before the U.S.S.R. finally collapsed.

POSTCOMMUNIST PROSPECTS

These three small countries had better prospects for managing their economic transitions than other former Soviet republics. The results have been impressive, and today it is more relevant to compare their performance with the reform countries in Central Europe than with Russia or Ukraine. The magnitude of the difficulties they have faced, however, should not be underestimated. The economic, social, and moral devastation caused by decades of occupation and communist rule defies description. A near-total absence of political and social experience outside the communist sphere and a near-total economic dependence on the markets of the Soviet Union left a difficult agenda for the inexperienced nationalists who gradually assumed power in the early 1990s.

Clearly they have performed differently, with Nordic-oriented Estonia taking the lead in reform policies, centrally located Latvia now gradually catching up, and fiercely independent Lithuania having decided to go somewhat more slowly on reforms. However, they have all managed to create credible independent currencies and achieve a degree of macroeconomic stability that Russian reformers have yet to even dream of. They have started to attract foreign investment, and in a surprisingly short period they have gone from virtual dependence on former Soviet markets to integration with the global economy. In this respect they belong in a category of their own.

TROOPS AND RUSSIANS

Two major problems have plagued relations between Russia and the Baltic states since their independence: the withdrawal of Russian forces and the status of Russian immigrants. Under Soviet occupation, the Baltic Military District was important to overall Soviet strategy for a number of reasons. Originally its paramount role was to serve as a naval base area. To the considerable number of naval facilities in all three Baltic republics were added the installations in the Kaliningrad enclave, which had been taken over from Germany at the end of the war. Later the district became perhaps even more important for the deployment of airborne forces and second-echelon ground forces, whose wartime task would be a rapid advance across northern Germany and into Denmark. But its greatest value was to permit the extension into the Baltic Sea area of a crucial part of the dense air defense network intended to protect the Soviet heartland from attacks from the West.

Once the Russian military began to dismantle this air defense network in the Baltic states, it was obvious that it did not plan to remain there. In November 1991, the Baltic Military District was renamed the "Northwestern Group of Forces," implying that these were forces temporarily stationed abroad. And in July 1992 Russia committed itself at the Helsinki meeting of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) to an "early, orderly, and complete" withdrawal from the Baltic states. But the road has been a bumpy one, with Russian policy under pressure from the West and the demands of international law as well as from vocal Russian nationalists who often use Baltic-bashing to achieve other aims. This discord only heightened the insecurity long present in the Baltic countries.

Since the summer of 1992, Russian troops have been vacating their bases and barracks in the Baltic states. Although there were more troops in Lithuania than in other states, the last Russian soldier left that country in August 1993. And in August of this year, Russian forces also completed their withdrawal from Latvia and Estonia, in accordance with agreements finally signed this year on April 30 and July 26.

All remaining Russian air force units left the Baltic states early this year, and during the summer the last naval units were relocated to the Kaliningrad area or to the inner part of the Gulf of Finland. Ground troops had been at skeleton strength since last year and hardly had any real combat potential.

Although Russia for a long time tried to secure continued access to a number of "strategic installations," like Liepaja harbor and the large Ventspils intelligence-gathering facility in Latvia, it finally accepted the fact that it must withdraw by August 31, 1994. A notable exception is the large ballistic missile early-warning facility in Latvia. Russia will be able to continue to operate the two older Hen House radars built during the 1960s for an additional four years, while the partially complete phased-array installation has been handed over to Latvia for immediate destruction.

In Estonia, the Paldiski nuclear submarine training center will be demolished by September 30, 1995. The decommissioning will take place under Estonian sovereignty and administrative control.

The prolonged presence of Russian troops on their soil has clearly made it more difficult for Estonia and Latvia to shape their new relations with Russia. And Russian statements and actions certainly have not helped. On a number of occasions senior Russian politicians, including President Boris Yeltsin, have indicated that they would use the continued presence of troops to extract political concessions on rights for Russian speakers or military pensioners. And the risk of provocation was always there. During one particularly dangerous incident near Riga in January of this year, a Russian airborne division was put on alert, and senior Russian officials made thinly veiled threats of armed intervention.

Clearly, such statements were utterly incompatible with respect for the national independence of the Baltic countries and for fundamental principles of international law. One of those principles is of course that foreign troops must never be present on the territory of an independent country without the explicit consent of the country in question. For three long years, Baltic leaders tacitly abided this unacceptable state of affairs, thus showing a degree of tolerance not always fully appreciated in Moscow. Now, with the troops finally gone after Yeltsin decided to brave his chauvinistic opponents, and after his Latvian and Estonian colleagues, Presidents Guntis Ulmanis and Lennart Meri, courageously met him halfway, there should be prospects for a new and more constructive phase in relations between Russia and the Baltic countries.

MINORITY RIGHTS

With the troop issue resolved, even more attention will be focused on the complex problem of the rights of Russian-speaking inhabitants of these countries. Here again one finds important differences among them. The number of Russian postwar immigrants in Lithuania is so small that the state was able to grant them automatic citizenship. Estonia and Latvia, on the other hand, have been subjected to demographic occupation for a long time.

There were always Russians living in the cosmopolitan trading cities of the Baltic region. During the final decades of tsarist rule, Riga was Russia’s third leading industrial center, and one of the more important sideshows of the 1905 revolution was played out there. But before World War II, Russian minorities constituted no more than ten percent of the population of Estonia and Latvia. Soviet policies of heavy industrialization and deliberate demographic change gradually brought wave upon wave of Russian immigrants. The city of Narva in northeastern Estonia, once 95 percent Estonian, is now more than 95 percent Russian. The war played its part in driving the original inhabitants away, but they were barred from returning to their homes afterwards. Meanwhile, immigrants from far away in Russia were brought in to replace them. If ever there was an example of "ethnic cleansing" in the Baltics, this is it. By the mid-1980s, Estonians and Latvians could no longer be sure that they would remain a secure majority, or even a majority at all, in their countries. After the reestablishment of independence, this trauma was bound to constitute the most powerful political challenge confronting their governments.

By restoring their pre-1940 constitutions and citizenship laws, Estonia and Latvia have automatically given citizenship to all descendants of citizens of the interwar period, no matter what their nationality. But when it comes to immigrants of the Soviet decades, Tallinn and Riga have set criteria for citizenship, including a certain number of years of residence, a declaration of loyalty to the new state, and a rudimentary knowledge of the local language. None of these criteria is unusual in international practice, nor is the combination of them. Moreover, setting standards for citizenship through language requirements is a way to break the isolation of ethnic Russians and improve the prospect for at least partial integration in Estonian and Latvian society for those who want to become citizens.

Russian immigrants, not surprisingly, have a different perspective. They never felt that they were moving abroad when they settled in Estonia or Latvia. They do not consider themselves immigrants at all, and in some respects they are right. Most of them have no personal responsibility for past Soviet actions that made their settlement in Estonia or Latvia possible. In many ways they too are casualties of the Soviet system, now that they have lost the equal status with Estonians and Latvians that they used to enjoy by virtue of common Soviet citizenship. They are disappointed and feel insecure.

All this is part of the tragic legacy that empires leave behind when they finally crumble. It will take time for the Russian and Baltic perspectives on these emotional issues to converge. However, given the brutal history of occupation and deportation, the smoothness of relations between native Estonians or Latvians and Russian immigrants is surprising. The bitterness of Estonians and Latvians about the past has little to do with their relationship with their Russian neighbors or coworkers. Still, both sides will need much tact and common sense to handle concrete problems while the process of psychological adaptation continues.

In both Estonia and Latvia, issues of citizenship and rights of non-citizens have been complicated and controversial. Nationalist forces, in particular, have aggressively tried to influence decision-making. But with the presidents and prime ministers of both countries favoring solutions based on principles accepted by the Council of Europe and the CSCE, it was possible for Estonia in July 1993 and Latvia in July of this year to get parliamentary approval for laws that will provide a framework for the gradual resolution of these issues.

THE NEAR ABROAD

The issue of Russians in the "near abroad" has lately moved to center stage in Russia’s internal debate about the future of its foreign policy. This is a problem that has already dragged Russia into situations approaching war in two former Soviet republics, Transnistria (the area east of the Dnestr River) in Moldova and Tajikistan in Central Asia. It is important that the West make a clear distinction between a legitimate Russian concern for fellow countrymen abroad and designs that could lead to neo-imperialist and revanchist adventures of the worst sort. In an oft-quoted remark, Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev has recalled how Hitler exploited concern for the fate of the Volksdeutsche in the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia as a pretext for destabilizing and eventually conquering the country. And there are most certainly those in the wide spectrum of Russian politics who would be prepared to use the same tactics to achieve similar aims.

A disquieting sign is the increasing tendency among Russian nationalists to promote the idea of dual citizenship for Russians living in neighboring countries. This would obviously be politically ill-advised and not in accordance with the Council of Europe’s 1963 convention on reduction of multiple nationality.

The Baltic countries, for their part, must recognize the obvious relationship between their internal harmony and their external, long-term national security. They are wise to be substantially more inclusive and generous to their Russian inhabitants than a strict interpretation of international law dictates. The aim must be to encourage the Russian speakers of the Baltic countries to feel loyal to the states where they are now living rather than to Russia, which they for one reason or another left during the Soviet period. But Russia must also accept that when human rights are involved there are neither any Russian "near abroads" nor any European or American "far abroads," but only a common concern expressed through common rules safeguarded by common institutions.

With Estonia and Lithuania already members of the Council of Europe, and with Latvia due to follow soon, the rights of everyone in those countries will be protected by the most comprehensive international safeguards available. Moreover, the CSCE high commissioner for minorities has followed developments in the Baltic states very closely. Special CSCE missions in Estonia and Latvia have been important not only in allowing the governments of Europe to follow events there, but also in advising the Estonian and Latvian governments on these difficult issues. The presence of CSCE officials makes it clear to the governments in Tallinn and Riga that these are issues that are taken seriously by the international community and reassures those in Russia who have a legitimate concern for the rights of their fellow countrymen abroad.

One of the most important functions of this elaborate monitoring network is to make it difficult for Russia to use trumped-up charges of human rights violations in these countries to exert pressure. Thus, when President Yeltsin at the G-7 meeting in Naples in early July of this year claimed that there were "gross violations of human rights" in Estonia, it was easy to dismiss this accusation as false by referring to evaluations by a number of international bodies. When I recently discussed the term "near abroad" with a leading Lithuanian representative, he remarked that to his ears it sounded as if the actual meaning of the word was "temporary abroad." Given the histories of Lithuania and Russia, this reaction is not surprising. Baltic politicians are keenly aware that they were helped in their struggle for independence by Russian democrats, and that Boris Yeltsin was among the most helpful. Yet they cannot escape the bitter lessons of the history of their nations and in many cases their own families. Two of the three current presidents of the Baltic countries are children of deportees and spent their childhood years in Siberia.

Occasional Russian assertions that the Baltic countries joined the Soviet Union voluntarily in 1940 and that there never was any occupation certainly do not promote reconciliation. For the Baltic countries it is crucial that Russia fully recognize what happened. This does not imply any personal responsibility on the part of the Russians of today. It simply means that today’s Russia, like President Yeltsin, who in a courageous and historic address to the Hungarian Parliament in 1992 spoke the truth about the horrors of 1956, must be ready to face the historical truth in the Baltics.

A related issue is Latvian and Estonian claims on areas in Russia that belonged to the interwar Latvian and Estonian states. They were recognized as such by Moscow in the peace treaties of Tartu and Riga in 1920, but transferred by Stalin to the Russian Soviet Republic after the reoccupation in 1944. While these claims are understandable in legal and symbolic terms, they are very unwise in political and practical terms. It would not appear to be in the interest of Latvia or Estonia to bring solidly Russian-speaking areas into their states. A mutual effort should be made to put this irritant out of the way, thus paving the way for a complete Russian acceptance of the historical truth and full legal recognition of the existing borders by all parties concerned.

THE NORTHWEST PASSAGE TO PROSPERITY

Following the lead of Sweden and the other Nordic countries, the European Union recently concluded free trade agreements with the Baltic countries, paving the way for European agreements similar to those concluded with the Central European countries. More significantly, the EU has committed itself to having Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania eventually become members. Although this process, initiated at the Copenhagen meeting of the European Council in June 1993, will take time, it is logical and natural that the process proceed as far as possible parallel to the Central European countries. In this respect, they belong to the same category.

The process of gradually bringing the Baltic countries into the institutions of European cooperation contributes to their stability as well as to the security of the entire northern European region. They are not only full members of the Partnership for Peace, but at the Kirschberg Council of Ministers of the West European Union in May of this year they were granted status as associate partners of the WEU. At the same time, this status was granted to six Central European states that were once behind the Iron Curtain.

While closer cooperation between the Nordic and Baltic countries and their integration with the rest of Europe is vitally important, the role of the United States remains crucial in view of the relationship between Moscow and Washington. President Clinton’s July meeting in Riga with the presidents of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania was an important step. Indeed, it was remarkable that the president of the United States preceded the president of Russia in visiting them after they regained their independence. And President Clinton’s words at the Freedom Monument in Riga, "We will stand with you, we will help you, we will be partners so that your nation can be forever free", will ring in Baltic ears for decades to come.

But the West must also aim to include the rich and populous regions of northwestern Russia in the evolving networks of cooperation and trade in the Baltic area. Traditionally, the northwestern parts of Russia have played a crucial role in that country’s relations with the Western world as well as in its modernization. To see this, one need not go all the way back to the medieval age and the rich centuries of Hanseatic trade linking Russia and Western Europe across the Baltic Sea; it suffices to remember the role played by the region in the rapid transformation of Russia during the last decades of tsarist rule. It was as a symbol of Russia’s opening to the West that Peter the Great in 1703, on what was then still Swedish territory, founded the city of St. Petersburg, which in 1712 he made into Russia’s new capital. It remained so until the Bolsheviks returned to the traditions of old Muscovy.

Today northwestern Russia again has the potential to take the lead in the country’s transformation. With economic reform speeding along in the Baltic states, and with all of the Nordic countries joining the European Union, the region could be one of the most dynamic growth areas in Europe in the decades ahead, provided political stability is assured.

RUSSIAN PRIDE AND BALTIC PROMISE

The transformation of Russia will continue to be uncertain and unpredictable. While for years to come the country will likely continue to experience "times of trouble," and the Red-Brown revanchists will do whatever they can to derail the process and resurrect the past, there is ground for cautious long-term optimism. With some exceptions, the ability of Western policy to affect the outcome is limited. The relationships between Russia and the Baltic states is one of those areas where Western policy may in fact make a substantial difference, particularly by ensuring that Russia accepts that it must fully conform to international norms of behavior.

Russia, perhaps, would not have agreed to withdraw its troops from the Baltic countries had it not been for strong and sustained international support for the principles of international law. The CSCE process played a crucial role, but so did the open as well as silent diplomacy of the Clinton administration. Indeed, what the Clinton administration has achieved in Baltic affairs constitutes one of its most important contributions to European security and stability. By continuing to make it clear that relations between Russia and the Baltic states are the true litmus test of Russia’s new direction in international affairs, the West is also helping Russian democrats contain the Red-Brown revanchists in Russian domestic affairs. If they know that their designs in international affairs are doomed to failure, their chances will be diminished in domestic affairs as well.

As Russia changes from a cause to a country, the premises of Western policies should be reassessed. This debate is not a new one. In The Shattered Peace, Daniel Yergin in 1977 contrasted "the Riga axioms" to "the Yalta axioms" of previous U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union. The former represented the critical views developed by Robert Kelley, Loy Henderson, George Kennan, and others, based on observations in Riga during the 1920s and early 1930s. The Yalta axioms summed up more benevolent or even naive attitudes toward Soviet designs and policies. Today the Riga axioms are accepted as historical truth by most Russians I know, and probably by Daniel Yergin too. There was indeed enough evil in the Soviet empire to warrant the policies of the West during the coldest decades of the Cold War. But today the main point to recall is how much thought those associated with the Riga axioms had also given to the crucial long-term problem: the relationship between the West and the proud Russian nation that was bound to reappear once the communist system had collapsed.

In his remarkable 1951 article, "America and the Russian Future," in this journal, George Kennan proposed a set of prerequisites for a genuine accommodation between Russia and the West. One of his points merits particular attention:

The Baltic countries should never again be forced against the innermost feelings of their peoples into any relationship whatsoever with a Russian state; but they would themselves be foolish to reject close and cooperative arrangements with a tolerant, nonimperialistic Russia, which genuinely wished to overcome the unhappy memories of the past and to place her relations to the Baltic peoples on a basis of real respect and disinterestedness.

There is no reason why George Kennan’s vision of four decades ago cannot come true. The security of the Baltic nations needs to be assured by integration with the institutions of the West. The neo-imperialist forces in Russian political life must be contained by the process of democratic reform and partnership in international cooperation. If we succeed, it augurs well not only for the stability of this part of Europe, but for Russian policy toward the rest of the world as well. If we do not, we are headed for great trouble. The Baltic region provides the critical test of the relationship between Russia and the West. We must not fail.

FOOTNOTE:

1 Michael R. Beschloss and Strobe Talbott, At the Highest Levels: The Inside Story of the End of the Cold War, 1st ed., Boston: Little, Brown, 1993.

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