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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- Drawing Borders -- Geographic And Political

  • Paul Goble

Prague, 22 October 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Boris Yeltsin's willingness to sign a border demarcation agreement with Lithuania now reflects the coming together of three strands in Russian foreign policy in the Baltic region.

But when Yeltsin signs this demarcation agreement with visiting Lithuanian President Algirdas Brazauskas later this week, the three strands may not prove to be equally obvious, even though all of them are likely to prove equally important.

First, Yeltsin's decision reflects Moscow's increasing willingness to treat the three Baltic states in a differentiated fashion, rewarding Lithuania, which has been the most cooperative, while putting pressure on the other two.

Second, it represents an effort by the Russian government to show that it can and will develop better relations with the Baltic countries if the latter are willing to cooperate.

This is especially important in Russian calculations because many in Scandinavia and the West have made the development of good relations between Moscow and the Baltic states into what former Swedish Premier Carl Bildt calls "the litmus test" of Russia's readiness to be accepted into Europe.

And third, Yeltsin's willingness to do so now appears to be part of a Russian effort to portray Estonia and Latvia in the most negative light, hoping thereby to reduce their attractiveness to Western partners and as potential candidates for membership in the European Union and NATO.

At one level, these three strands of Russian policy toward the Baltic states appear to be contradictory. Obviously, Moscow will have a difficult time in simultaneously presenting itself as a good neighbor and seeking so clearly to put pressure on two of the three Baltic states.

But at another level, this particular combination of factors is mutually consistent. First of all, Yeltsin and the Russian foreign policy establishment are behaving entirely rationally in treating the three Baltic countries differently.

Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are three very different countries with very different domestic and international positions.

Some Western governments continue to treat them as a unit because of their history of Soviet occupation between 1940 and 1991, but their very different situations both domestically and internationally justify a differentiated approach.

By treating them in a differentiated way, Yeltsin and Moscow not only demonstrate their maturity in treating these countries in terms of their specific approaches to domestic issues such as the treatment of ethnic Russians but also show their recognition of the very different security problems of the three.

In addition, Yeltsin can get credit for this approach, for backing an improved relationship with the Baltic countries without any real danger that they will have to live up to their promises.

The leaders of a number of factions in the Russian parliament have already indicated that they will not ratify any agreement Yeltsin may sign with Brazauskas. And as a result, Yeltsin will have the best of both worlds: approbation from the West without a commitment to follow the strictures of the agreement he appears likely to sign.

And last but not least, Yeltsin's very positive approach toward Lithuania allows him to place enormous pressure on both Estonia and Latvia to change their positions with respect to a variety of issues or face ostracism from at least some Western institutions.

Indeed, this last factor may ultimately prove to be the most critical in the thinking of the Russian government.

Both Russian nationalists and the Russian government have continued their criticism of Estonia and Latvia for their attitudes toward ethnic Russians within their populations, and signing an accord with Lithuania only highlights this difference.

Moreover, by signing an agreement with Lithuania now, Yeltsin and the Russian government put maximum pressure on Estonia to change its approach lest it lose the support of its West European partners who have already indicated that they want Estonia to the process of becoming a member of the European Union this December.

And that calculation on the part of the Russian government is unlikely to be mistaken, especially if Western governments now argue that Estonia and Latvia should make the same concessions that the Lithuanians have in order to have good relations with Moscow.

Even if this apparent Russian calculation backfires and the Western countries refuse to follow the logic of the Russian action, Moscow has the choice of shifting gears and signing border accords with Estonia and Latvia as Yeltsin has sometimes indicated that he is willing to do.

Thus, Moscow's latest effort to demarcate a region politically as well as geographically appears to be a situation in which Moscow has much to gain by its current policy and very little to lose.