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Baltic States: Analysis From Washington--Baltic Hopes And Fears

Washington, 13 September 1996 (RFE/RL) - This week the three Baltic states found themselves caught between an assertive Russia and a West that appears to them more concerned about good relations with Moscow than about their security.

In response, the three have taken public positions designed to enhance their security, but which may ultimately highlight their lack of it.

Statements emanating from Moscow and Washington brought these fears and these actions to public view. On the one hand, a spokesman for Russian President Boris Yeltsin sharply criticized Estonia and Latvia on Tuesday for continuing to insist that treaties concluded in 1920 must serve as the basis for their relations with Moscow.

Sergei Yastrzhembsky said that this Baltic effort to "reanimate" treaties that no longer have any juridical validity was part of a broader plan to threaten the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation and the status of ethnic Russians living in Estonia and Latvia.

From the perspective of the Baltic governments, such a claim looks like an implicit threat to their security, especially since Yastrzhembsky pointedly said that "the best security guarantee for the Latvian and Estonian republics is the development of good neighborly relations with the Russian Federation."

On the other hand, U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher indicated in a speech that NATO would not take up the issue of expansion until late spring or early summer 1997, and that in the intervening period the alliance would seek to conclude a charter with Moscow.

From a Baltic point of view, Christopher's words -- especially as amplified by senior American officials now visiting the Baltic capitals -- demonstrated that they now have no hope for early NATO membership, that the West has not given sufficient thought to the Baltic security problem, and that their fate is once again to be decided by outside powers.

Each Baltic country has reacted in its own way. The Lithuanians have taken the most dramatic steps: On Monday, President Algirdas Brazauskas issued an appeal to the Lithuanian diaspora to come to the aid of Lithuania's security. And the next day, the Lithuanian Defense Council announced that Vilnius would double the amount of money it is spending on defense.

While Vilnius took this step ostensibly to bring the Lithuanian military up to NATO standards and thus make Lithuania a better candidate for alliance membership, its decision to do so now also appears to mirror growing Lithuanian worries about the future, regardless of whether NATO expands or not.

The Latvians also spoke out more sharply this week than in the past. Latvian Foreign Minister Valdis Birkavs, for example, used a visit to Copenhagen to reiterate the common Baltic refrain that these countries have "no alternative" to ultimate NATO membership.

And he specifically ruled out the various arrangements -- membership in the European Union or some kind of Nordic-Baltic security structures -- that many in the West have proposed recently as possible substitutes for Baltic inclusion in the Western alliance. Even more, Birkavs argued that Baltic security concerns must be addressed before there is any expansion of the alliance.

And in Estonia, as in Lithuania, officials discussed this week the possibility of dramatically increasing defense spending. At the same time, in a press release Estonian President Lennart Meri sharply criticized Moscow's suggestion that Estonia has territorial aspirations against Russia or is in any way mistreating ethnic Russians in his country.

And Meri told the visiting American officials that Washington needs to focus on Baltic security concerns and expand the existing Partnership for Peace program into what Meri calls a Partnership for Security.

Obviously, as the date for a decision on NATO expansion approaches, and as countries like the Baltic states conclude that they won't be among the first taken in, such reactions will become more frequent.

That is because they reflect the very real fears of those who, as Latvia's Birkavs said this week, must try to "sleep next to an elephant." But in making such statements or taking such decisions, the Baltic states are adopting a high risk strategy: they call attention to a problem that they cannot by themselves solve.

That in turn could leave them in an even more difficult position in the future.