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Western Press Review: Latvia Stares Into Russian Economic Gun Barrel

By Don Hill and Alexandre d'Aragon

Prague, 9 April 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Tiny Latvia, for 50 years a spot under Soviet Russia's thumb, has emerged in recent months as a thorn in post-communist Russia's side. Some Western press commentary today examines the change.

LOS ANGELES TIMES: President Yeltsin is diverting attention

Vanora Bennett writes from Moscow in an analysis in the Los Angeles Times that Russian President Boris Yeltsin may be using the confrontation as a political distraction. She writes: "Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin diverted attention (yesterday) from his own country's rumbling government crisis and a nationwide day of protest that discontented workers plan for (today) by ordering an economic onslaught on the neighboring, former Soviet state of Latvia."

Bennett says: "Latvia, ruled from Moscow for 50 years after being annexed in 1940, has been slow in the post-Soviet era to integrate the ethnic Russians who still make up more than 40 percent of its population. This rankles Russia and relations between the two have been less than cordial. Latvian treatment of its Russians has received top billing in Russian media in the last month."

"Trumpeting the idea of protecting beleaguered Russians suffering at foreign hands is usually a sure-fire way of arousing nationalist sympathies in Moscow. And Yeltsin needs public support now, as he struggles to impose his shock choice of new prime minister on a reluctant Parliament after sacking the entire Russian Cabinet last month."

She writes: "Russia's moves sparked a sharp reaction in Latvia, where five of 18 Cabinet ministers resigned, protesting that Prime Minister Guntars Krasts was being insufficiently conciliatory to Moscow, the regional power. Krasts said he would not back down."

LONDON GUARDIAN: Relationship plunges to a new low

"Russia's troubled relationship with its Baltic neighbor Latvia plunged to a new low yesterday," writes Moscow correspondent Tom Whitehouse in London's The Guardian. Whitehouse writes in an analysis: "A series of affronts on Latvia's Russian speakers sparked the growing dispute." He says: "these incidents have coincided with the charged political atmosphere in Moscow."

The writer says: "About a third of Latvia's population are Russian speakers (and) many complain their housing and social benefits have been reduced or removed because of their second-class status." He writes: "Of the three former Soviet Baltic states, Lithuanian, Estonia and Latvia, only Lithuania has offered automatic citizenship to its Russian speakers after regaining independence in 1991."

WASHINGTON POST: Yeltsin endorses calls to tighten economic noose around Latvia

In a Washington Post news analysis, David Hoffman says the crisis portends problems for Latvia. Hoffman writes: "A simmering dispute over the treatment of ethnic Russians in Latvia intensified (yesterday) as President Boris Yeltsin threatened to take economic reprisals against Riga, such as rerouting Russian oil exports away from the Baltic state. After a month of rhetorical jousting between Russia and Latvia, Yeltsin for the first time endorsed calls by Russian politicians to tighten the economic noose around Latvia in retaliation for the treatment of Russians there." He says: "Latvia could be hurt severely by Russian sanctions."

Hoffman writes: "In Riga, the dispute prompted the Master Democratic Party to pull out of the coalition government. The party had five seats in the cabinet, including the post of economics minister. That minister, Atis Sausnitis, had come under fire from the prime minister for saying that Latvia would suffer from economic sanctions."

FINANCIAL TIMES: Relations have been poor since 1991

Latvian-Russian problems have been brewing since the collapse of the Soviet Union, says an analysis in the British newspaper Financial Times. Matej Vipotnik writes: "Relations between the countries have been poor since 1991, when the Baltic state regained its independence from the Soviet Union. Moscow has repeatedly accused Latvia of violating the human rights of ethnic Russians, who account for about a third of the population."

Vipotnik wrote: "Relations between the two countries deteriorated further last month after Moscow accused Latvian police of using force to disperse a crowd of predominantly Russian pensioners who blocked one of Riga's main thoroughfares during a demonstration. The protest, over the high cost of living, was advertised in a Russian-language newspaper, thus drawing mainly Russian support Moscow threatened to impose trade sanctions against Latvia over the incident. The European Union has said Russia's reaction was out of proportion."

On another topic:

EL PAIS: International criminal tribunal would gain credibility by getting its hands on Radovan Karadzic

El Pais, Madrid, editorializes that Bosnian Serb war leader Radovan Karadzic should be brought as soon as possible before the international crimes tribunal in The Hague. El Pais says: "The international criminal tribunal is finally working at full rhythm. So far, it has pronounced three condemnations, 75 people are under accusation and 24 are kept in jail. The fact that a good number of suspects from all parts of the conflict have surrendered voluntarily was surely very helpful. As are the efforts of the Stabilization Force in the pursuit of war criminals and the cooperation of Biljana Plavsic's Bosnian Serb government. But without doubt, the tribunal could still gain in credibility if it managed to get its hands on criminals such as Radovan Karadzic."

El Pais says cooperation is needed from an unlikely source: "Although it is frustrating to admit it, cooperation from Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic is nonetheless necessary for the prosecution of war criminals to go on. But Milosevic knows all too well that in the long run he himself could end up in front of the tribunal for his responsibility in a great part of the horrors of this war. A case is already in the works against him, that could pressure him to bow to international demands."

DIE WELT: Where is Radovan Karadzic?

A writer in Germany's Die Welt ponders Karadzic's whereabouts. Commentator Boris Kalnoky writes: "Just where is Radovan Karadzic? In Russia, if you believe the latest agency reports." The writer continues: "The fact is that the Bosnian Serb leader, wanted in connection with war crimes charges, has not been seen in public for roughly 18 months." Kalnoky writes: "In addition to Montenegro and Russia, Karadzic is reported to have been seen in the Czech Republic. He was said to have been seen either at Prague airport or at Belgrade airport on a Prague-bound flight. The Czech intelligence looked into this rumour but arrived at the conclusion that there were no facts to substantiate it."

Die Welt's commentator says: "There is also a Belgrade version, which is that Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic is holding his former henchman in a nuclear fallout shelter near Belgrade." And writes: "Diplomats say that NATO knows where Karadzic is but prefers to wait until the new, moderate Bosnian Serb government has stabilised its position before arresting him. The likeliest theory is that Karadzic is still in Bosnia, albeit not in his own home."