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Russia: Analysis From Washington--Putting Pressure On The Baltics

Washington, 14 February 1997 (RFE/RL) - Moscow has codified a new, "longterm" policy on the Baltic states, one intended to expand Russian influence there and block efforts by these countries to join Western institutions.

As disseminated by the Russian embassy in Washington on Wednesday, this policy statement issued "on instructions from President Yeltsin" outlines both what Moscow will oppose in the Baltic countries and what it expects from them and from the West as well.

And while the statement claims that Moscow seeks "to fully realize the potential of goodneighborliness" between Russia and the Baltic countries, few people in both the Baltic countries and the West will see Yeltsin's statement as pointing in that direction.

This policy document appears to have been released now because of the increasingly vocal Russian campaign against the expansion of NATO to the East. Indeed, it begins with the assertion that Moscow remains totally opposed to NATO membership for Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

Their entry into the Western alliance, the statement says, "would have an extremely negative impact" on relations. Indeed, it continues, the only basis for Baltic security is "the preservation of their status outside blocs."

Russian opposition to Baltic efforts to join NATO and other Western bodies is nothing new, but this statement is the most authoritative indication yet that Moscow intends to take steps to include the Baltic states within a Russian sphere of influence.

And it is the most ominous because of the steps it suggests Moscow plans to take both to expand Russian influence in all three and to isolate these countries from their friends in the West.

First, the Yeltsin pronouncement repeats the longstanding Russian claim that Estonia and Latvia are mistreating ethnic Russians in their populations.

Every international organization that has examined the situation there has dismissed these Russian claims as groundless.

Consequently, this latest iteration of Moscow's complaint is transparently designed to isolate these countries internationally rather than to help the supposedly oppressed ethnic Russians there. To this end, Moscow is also demanding that the Baltic countries agree to submit, apparently in perpetuity to outside supervision, something the three are unlikely to agree to.

Second, the Yeltsin statement demands that steps be taken to "strengthen" the position of Russian capital in the economies of the Baltic countries and that Moscow will use its ability to shift the flow of goods across Baltic territory to get its way.

On this point, the statement indicates that Moscow wants to develop crossborder trade and ties, much as it has with the countries in the Commonwealth of Independent States.

And it states that the Russian government will insist on "creating favorable transport conditions for the Kaliningrad region." This particular demand is directed against Lithuania which does not have a transit agreement with Moscow concerning the movement of goods, services and military equipment between Russia proper and the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad.

If Poland becomes a member of NATO, Lithuania will be the only landbridge between the two. And Moscow is thus making it very clear that it will demand a transit accord with Lithuania, something Vilnius is unlikely to agree to willingly.

And third, the Yeltsin statement indicates that Moscow will not sign any border agreements with the Baltic states until there are "specific measures" to improve the situation of Russian "compatriots" in these states.

Because NATO and other Western institutions have made the existence of such agreements a requirement for membership, Moscow is demonstrating that it has the ability to block efforts by Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania to rejoin the West.

The statement gives yet another reason for Moscow's desire to improve border security between the Russian Federation and these countries: what it calls the "criminal threats against Russia from the territory of the Baltic countries."

Many in the Baltic countries are likely to find this assertion too extremely problematic. All of them have been subject to the actions of criminal groups originating in Russia, but the Yeltsin statement fails to acknowledge that such a problem even exists.

The Baltic governments have already reacted negatively to what Yeltsin has announced. But like their own citizens, they are more outraged than intimidated.

For them as well as for many others, the key question is not just what this latest example of Russian bluster means but rather whether the West will react with understanding to the difficulties they face from their eastern neighbor.