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Russia/Baltic States: Analysis From Washington -- Primakov's New Hard Line

Tallinn, 10 January 1997 (RFE/RL) - Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov said on Thursday that Moscow should "not be afraid" to impose economic sanctions on Estonia and Latvia to force them to end what he called the violation of the rights of Russian speakers there.

Speaking to a meeting of the Russian government, Primakov sharply criticized his colleagues for failing to develop tough measures to deal with this situation.

He singled out their past approach to Estonia for particular attention. There, he said, the government had not yet ended what he called an openly discriminatory policy against local Russian speakers.

And he urged that his fellow Russian ministers do what they couId up to and including the imposition of economic sanctions to reverse that situation lest the ethnic Russians there return to Russia and put pressure on its social welfare system.

In comments to the press after the meeting, Primakov went even further. For the first time, he explicitly linked Moscow's willingness to sign a border agreement with Estonia to Tallinn's approach to ethnic Russians living in Estonia.

Primakov's new tough line on the Baltic republics echoes the charges regularly made by extreme Russian nationalists in the Duma and the Moscow press. But there are three reasons why his suggestions may backfire against Russian interests even while creating a more dangerous situation in the Baltic region.

First, Primakov's expressions of concern about ethnic Russians living abroad are transparently cynical and are likely to be seen as such by the international community.

Not only have all international inspections of the Baltic countries found them to be in compliance with international norms on the treatment of ethnic minorities, but Primakov's own words convict him of being less concerned about the status of ethnic Russians there than about their utility to Moscow.

He clearly hopes to use this charge against Estonia and Latvia to isolate these countries from the West just as his predecessors have done. That this is his goal was made even clearer by Primakov's retreat from past commitments to sign a border agreement with Estonia.

Because both NATO and the European Union have made the absence of border disputes a requirement for membership, Primakov all too obviously hopes to keep this dispute alive in order to limit Estonia's options.

While such an approach may reflect Russia's own interests, it will inevitably anger those Western countries that have encouraged Estonia to make concessions and thought that Moscow had agreed to sign.

Second, Primakov's language may frighten many and give new credibility to Baltic and East European arguments that they should be taken under the Western defense umbrella.

Even if some Western governments are cowed by Moscow's threats, the regimes in states neighboring Russia tend to respond by being more independent-minded and more interested in joining the West.

Primakov's tough new language thus offends and pushes away the very people he hopes both to influence and to attract.

And there is yet a third reason that reinforces the other two. Primakov's recommendations are unlikely to be implemented because his comments highlight both divisions within the Russian government itself on this point and the inability of the current regime to implement such a policy.

But Russia's incapacity to carry out Primakov's threat makes the situation more, not less dangerous. On the one hand, Moscow's inability to follow through may lead the Baltic countries and others to behave in ways that will only exacerbate Russian anger.

And on the other, the Russian government's inability in this case to use economic and political measures to promote its agenda will only encourage those Russian nationalists who have called for more radical and violent approaches.

In the final analysis, however, how things play out probably depends less on what Russia and its Baltic neighbors do than on how the West reacts to this latest effort by Moscow to exploit ethnic Russians abroad to promote its own geopolitical interests.