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Baltic States: Analysis From Washington - Divided On Security

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 10 August 1998 (RFE/RL) - Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians agree that they cannot defend themselves and that no one is likely to defend them, but they disagree profoundly about the nature of the threat to their countries and about the utility of various international groups to help them meet it.

Both the points of agreement and the points of disagreement are likely to make it increasingly difficult for the three Baltic governments to maintain a common position concerning their efforts to join NATO and the European Union and for the West to treat them as a single bloc rather than as three very different countries.

Earlier this summer, the Estonian Saar polling company interviewed 1,000 adults in each of the three Baltic countries to determine popular attitudes about a variety of security questions and how people in each thought their governments should proceed.

Commissioned by NATO and the Lithuanian foreign ministry, the poll revealed a remarkable pattern of agreement and disagreement along national lines.

Huge majorities -- 76 percent of Estonians, 81 percent of Latvians and 72 percent of Lithuanians believe that their countries could not effectively defend themselves in the event of a military attack. And most also believe in common that the West would be unlikely to help them in the event of such an attack.

According to the poll, only 23 percent of Estonians, 15 percent of Latvians, and 15 percent of Lithuanians are confident that Western countries would provide military assistance. Instead, small majorities in all three believe that the West's assistance in such circumstances would be limited to diplomatic activities.

Such judgments about the willingness of the West to help, however, apparently do not disturb most people in these three countries. Indeed, the Saar poll found that more than 95 percent of the residents in each country were convinced that their state does not now face any real military threat from another country.

But that is where the unanimity ends and differences begin. According to this poll, Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians disagree on the nature of the threats their countries face, on whether they should join NATO, and on what mix of international memberships they believe would best meet their security needs.

Estonians believe that the greatest threats to their security come from abroad, but Latvians and to a lesser extent Lithuanians believe that the greatest security threats are domestic ones. Only 35 percent of Estonians believe that they face a domestic security threat, while 62 percent of Latvians and 45 percent of Lithuanians hold that opinion.

According to the Estonian director of the poll, Andrus Saar, this pattern reflects Estonia's more equal economic development as compared to the situation in the other two countries.

The three nationalities also diverge if somewhat less dramatically concerning the value of NATO membership for their countries. A bare majority of Lithuanians -- 51 percent -- support the idea of joining NATO with only 25 percent opposed to that step. In Estonia, 43 percent want to join the Western alliance, but 25 percent are opposed. And in Latvia, only 37 percent support the idea of membership with 29 percent opposed.

But perhaps most interesting of all are the differences among the three peoples on the approaches they believe would give them the greatest amount of security. Some 30 percent of Estonians believe that membership in both NATO and the European Union would provide the best guarantee, while 29 percent think that neutrality would be the best stance.

Among Latvians, 29 percent believe that neutrality would be best, with 26 percent favoring membership in both NATO and the EU, and smaller percentages backing membership in only NATO or only the EU.

Finally, a plurality of Lithuanians, 26 percent, believe NATO membership would give their country the best chance for security, with 23 percent backing neutrality, and 23 percent backing membership in both the Western alliance and the European Union.

Obviously, these numbers could quickly change if the geopolitics of the region change or if national leaders expand their own efforts to promote particular security agendas.

But the differences this poll reveals suggest that the three countries are likely to move in increasingly different directions and that the international community, long accustomed to thinking of them as the undifferentiated Balts, is going to have to respond to that development.