Prague, 12 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Latvian President Guntis Ulmanis said yesterday that Russia will constitute what he calls "the great unknown" in European security for years to come.
In a speech in Prague at the headquarters of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Ulmanis also said that NATO is emerging --in Ulmanis' words-- as "a central element of the European security system."
"We can conclude that the North Atlantic Alliance is establishing itself as a central element of the European security system. I would like to stress that we are actually talking about an organization that is developing as the main guarantor of security to all sub-regions of Europe."
The Latvian President urged NATO and the West to devote greater attention to understanding and accommodating Russia's needs and interests. And he said that, in the period following NATO's 50th anniversary summit meeting in Washington last month, Russia should seize the opportunity to cooperate with the Alliance. As he put it: "I think that it would be in the interest of all European nations, including Russia itself, for Moscow to use this present opportunity to cooperate with NATO."
President Ulmanis spoke at the close of an RFE/RL-organized, one-day conference on the future of NATO after the Washington summit. He was preceded by a panel of specialists on Baltic, Russian and South Slavic affairs.
Ulmanis spoke of Latvia's urgent desire for the three Baltic nations to be included as a group in the next expansion of NATO. He said that often-expressed fears that an enlarged NATO would contribute to an increasingly mono-polar world order were unfounded. Ulmanis did not mention the United States, but in recent years the expression "mono-polar world order" has usually been taken to mean increased U.S. dominance of international affairs.
In fact, Ulmanis said, inclusion of more European states would have the opposite effect:
"NATO expansion does not suggest that the world is becoming mono-polar. To the contrary, an expanded alliance will have to exert much greater effort in the decision-making process and its interest will more precisely correspond to the security interests of the European states."
Ulmanis is currently serving his second term as president of Latvia. First elected in 1993, he was re-elected in June 1996. A former Communist Party member, he said that ideological antagonism has faded as the greatest threat to world security. But, he said, new threats to security now exist:
"Although we have stepped back from ideological antagonism, threats to European security have not disappeared. One of the gravest threats after the cold war are local ethnic conflicts. As the Kosovo experience shows, these conflicts tend to expand into broader, sub-regional territory."
The Latvian president called on the West to abandon the stereotype of Russia as an enigma, and to renew efforts to understand Russia's needs and interests.
Panelist Don Jensen, RFE/RL's associate director of broadcasting and a Russian specialist, told the conference that the essential difference between Russia and NATO is that the Alliance constitutes a community of values --democracy, rule of law, human rights. Russia, he said, is a nation stuck between the old Soviet socialist ideology and democracy. Jensen said that Russian-Western relations are at a crisis point, and it comes at a deeply troubled time in Russian history.
Atis Lejins, director of the Latvian Institute of International Affairs, spoke of the importance to the Baltic states of eventual accession to NATO. He said he sympathizes with NATO's difficulties as it contemplates expanding NATO to the Baltic states over Russia's impassioned objections. The problem, he emphasized, is political, not technical.
Lejins also said that Latvia is as well prepared technically and militarily to join NATO as were the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary when they joined the Alliance two months ago.
In brief sketches of the Balkan states and their readiness to join NATO, Balkan regional analyst Peter Baumgartner of RFE/RL placed Slovenia at the top of the list. Bulgaria has emerged, he said, as a strong candidate and is continually improving its situation. Baumgartner said the remaining potential candidates among the Balkan states --Romania, Slovakia, Albania, Croatia and Macedonia-- are for the time being disqualified for varied reasons.