Bear hug for the Baltic

The stream of cooperative and disarmament initiatives launched by President Boris Yeltsin in Stockholm towards the end of last year was more than one of his habitual public relations exercises. It was an attempted departure from Russia’s previous political course in the Baltic region. For at least five years Moscow has been so defensive and inflexible that most analysts had given up hope of positive development.

The World Today Updated 7 December 2018 Published 1 March 1998 4 minute READ

Looking at the accumulated mistrust and obstacles, it is reasonable to ask whether a Baltic breakthrough is really possible. Indeed, the interlocking border and minority problems between Russia and Estonia and Latvia remain, and to Russia’s utter irritation, Lithuania is leading the Baltic trio towards NATO. The US-Baltic Charter, signed in Washington in January, despite its remarkably nonbinding character, prompted a resolution of ‘concern’ from the Russian State Duma.

Until late last year, neither side had shown any interest in de-freezing relations; neither Yeltsin, nor his prime minister, nor even his foreign minister had bothered to visit the three Baltic states. And the remarkably conservative guidelines for Russia’s Baltic policy put forward by Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov in February 1996, still formally remain in force.

However, there is a solid background behind the Yeltsin initiatives. In late October, the report ‘Russia and the Baltics’ by the Council on Foreign and Defence Policy made a strong argument for abandoning empty rhetoric and adopting a new constructive policy. The recommendations are perhaps more trial balloons than policy papers, but they follow a trend. Another report, which summarised a series of seminars at the Carnegie Moscow Center, advocated an even bolder break with the current dead-lock.

First steps

The first step along the new line was taken by Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin in September when for the first time he set foot on Baltic soil for the summit conference in Vilnius. Several irritants in RussianLithuanian relations were quietly removed, making it possible for President Brazauskas to visit Moscow the following month to sign the border treaty. In January Chernomyrdin was at the Baltic Sea Council in Riga, emphasising Russia’s interest in developing regional cooperation.

Meanwhile, Estonia and Latvia have felt no extra pressure regarding borders; on the contrary, Russian officials have become very committed to finding compromises. Moscow has clearly indicated that while the ratification of the two border treaties would probably be blocked in the State Duma, they could still be signed without any linkage to the status of the Russian minorities in Baltic states. The Russian Foreign Ministry still pushes forward the citizenship issue but more as a bargaining chip than as a lever of pressure.

Moscow has explained its offer of security guarantees as a cooperative gesture aimed at increasing transparency and reassuring the neighbours of its benign attitude, but its real intentions are far from clear.

Recent bitter confrontation over the admission into NATO of three new members has seriously undermined Russia’s European profile. There has been a remarkably broad anti-NATO consensus in Moscow, so the leadership feels obliged to reiterate opposition to enlargement plans, particularly as far as the three Baltic states are concerned. But many analysts believe that this consensus is not necessarily an asset, since it pushes Russia into defensive battles it has no chances of winning and narrows the space for political manoeuvre.

The approach now is to deal with the ‘second wave’ of enlargement in a much less hysterical and more constructive manner. The progressive demilitarisation of the Baltic region makes this easier.

Russia is trying to accelerate the process, presenting the painful shrinking of its military as disarmament initiatives and making a virtue out of a disaster. If the pledge of a mature military partnership with the Alliance begins to be implemented, Russia’s positions vis-à-vis Euro-Atlantic security structures will rapidly improve.

Another ‘if’ here is the warming of the political climate in the Baltic. Russian policy planners might assume that new patterns of cooperation here, combined with the inevitable complications of enlarging NATO ‘on the cheap’ and with intensified security challenges in the Mediterranean, might make ‘Atlanticisation’ of the Baltic states – as well as of Finland and Sweden – irrelevant. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, frustrated in their aspirations to join NATO , might then reconsider the offer of Russian security guarantees.

A second wave of NATO enlargement, which is expected to follow 5-7 years after the first, might therefore be channelled towards Romania and Slovenia. The problem is that discussions about these new candidates could start even before the three front-runners are in. The Russian political class is ill-prepared for such debates; the partnership with NATO could stall again and cooperative initiatives in the Baltic might easily be derailed.

It’s the economy, Boris

Russia’s cooperation strategy in the Baltic has a more solid foundation than tactical manoeuvres in geopolitical battles. Despite the heated political exchanges, Russian transit trade through Baltic ports has been steadily growing. Moscow banks are now the key players in the Baltic financial markets constantly increasing their investment portfolios. Various ‘shadow businesses’ – a not insignificant political force in Russia – are profiting from cross-border transactions.

Last year saw a strong effort at economic reform in Russia with an emphasis on attracting massive new investment, but the autumnal financial turmoil was an unfortunate spoiler. Dynamic economic cooperation in the Baltic region – for which the Baltic trio is a key channel – is seen as a crucial opportunity to save and sustain this effort.

Thinking geo-economically, Moscow encourages Finnish ambitions to become the centre and driving force of a new enlarged Nordic Europe. It also welcomes the European aspirations of the Baltic states and expressed no reservations when Estonia was named as one of the five top candidates for the European Union (EU).

Playing on discrepancies between the EU and NATO enlargements might be a tactic for the Kremlin, but calculations of direct economic benefits are the most convincing argument. In Riga, Chernomyrdin reminded the EU not to forget Russia’s economic interests while proceeding with enlargement.

Another major concern – and major argument in favour of cooperation – is the fate of Kaliningrad. The humiliating fiasco in Chechnya has increased Moscow’s obsession with territorial integrity, and also confirmed that this Baltic enclave has no future as a ‘garrison state’.

Economic stagnation and military dislocation have brought a dramatic deterioration of the social fabric among the 900,000 inhabitants of the Kaliningrad oblast (region). The worst AIDS epidemic in Russia is the best testimony.

As subsidies from the state budget have decreased quite drastically, the regional authorities have understood that this historical marketplace can only be invigorated by intensive cross-border contacts and an attractive investment climate. While many in Moscow still worry about Kaliningrad’s ‘Baltic drift’, it is also understood that turning the enclave into a free economic zone may be the only way to secure its links to the Russian Federation.

To outlast reshuffles

It is both an asset and a risk that vibrant Baltic cooperation corresponds so neatly with the current pattern of economic reforms in Russia. It is an asset because the team of young reformers wants to reconfigure foreign policy around an economic agenda, reducing NATO-related problems to third priority.

This would require replacing Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov – who is much more interested in, and efficient at, talking to Iraq’s Tariq Aziz than the European Union’sHans van den Broek – with a younger ‘Westerniser’. Indeed, the only input from Primakov to the Baltic initiatives has been ‘explaining’ Yeltsin’s intervention so that it become hollow, if not plain stupid.

The risk comes from the uncertain future of reformers in the Kremlin. The point is not that Anatoly Chubais – the battle-hardened leader of the present team – was wounded by a corruption scandal in mid-November and lost some responsibilities and a couple of lieutenants. The main risk is that President Yeltsin, his natural political instinct unaffected by his ‘colds’, feels that the continuing economic pain cannot be neglected, and the only answer he knows is reshuffling cabinets. Revolutions eat their children, but reforms just sack their architects.

A new turn in Russia’s economic policy would mean a more protectionist and antiliberal platform, and that is where Prime Minister Chernomyrdin quite firmly stands. The corresponding foreign policy would be more self-assertive, defensive and nationalistic. The question is whether the recent cooperative initiatives in the Baltic would remain relevant?

The answer depends very much on Western and Baltic reactions to these initiatives. Indeed, the reformers in Moscow cannot expect that their ‘peace-making’ efforts will be instantly embraced and rewarded. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have developed a habit of playing up the ‘Russian threat’ and collecting political dividends from it. Rapprochement with Moscow is also vulnerable to attacks from the opposition benches. They are now democracies - and that means that tactical calculations often outweigh strategic planning.

If any institution in the West could challenge this, it is the EU. The Baltic region is its borderland with Russia and expansion here is relatively uncontroversial. Developing a northern dimension of its Common Foreign and Security Policy, it should react quickly to Russian initiatives, turning them into cooperative frameworks that would remain in place whatever change of guard occurs in the Kremlin. It can throw a lifeline to Kaliningrad. A key precondition for this is the strengthening of Germany’s Baltic policy which remains wary and under-funded; indeed, the Riga meeting was also Chancellor Kohl’s first step on Baltic soil.