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Baltics/Russia: Analysis From Washington -- Trapped By Democracy?

Washington, 18 March 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The escalating war of words between Riga and Moscow over the Latvian government's handling of a demonstration by elderly ethnic Russian pensioners highlights the way in which politicians in more open societies can threaten efforts by governments to reach agreements.

During the last six months, relations between Latvia and the Russian Federation had been improving. Not only had the two presidents exchanged what both sides described as positive letters, but their respective foreign ministries had been making progress on a variety of fronts.

And there was even talk that Latvian President Guntis Ulmanis would visit Moscow to sign an agreement demarcating the border between the two countries. Such an accord would have eliminated one of the biggest obstacles to ties between the two countries and also one of the brakes on Latvian integration into Western institutions.

But this progress has been put on hold and may have even been reversed in the aftermath of the March 3 demonstration in Riga. At that time, local police used batons to break up an unsanctioned demonstration by 1,000 elderly and predominantly ethnic Russian residents of the Latvian capital protesting increases in utility rates.

Immediately, both the Moscow media and members of the Russian Duma denounced this Latvian action as anti-Russian, a plausible claim in the minds of many Russians particularly because of past Russian media coverage of conditions in that Baltic country.

In response, some Latvian politicians dismissed these Russian claims out of hand, arguing that Moscow was simply exploiting this demonstration in support of a broader policy agenda. And others went so far as to suggest that the demonstration against higher utility prices was in fact a Russian provocation staged by Moscow. Such statements only fanned the flames of anger in both Moscow and Riga.

But more than that, these statements by the media and members of the respective parliaments had the effect of tying the hands of those in the two governments who had been seeking better ties.

No Russian government official could afford to appear "soft" on Latvia after this demonstration and even more after the sometimes tendentious discussions of it in the Russian media and the Russian parliament.

And no Latvian official could afford to appear to be backing down to Russian criticism, to be willing to acknowledge that Latvian officials might bear some responsibility for what had taken place.

In one sense, the responsiveness of government officials to parliamentary and popular pressure represents a triumph of democracy. A decade ago, the authoritarian regime in Moscow would not have had to worry about what either its media or its parliamentarians would say; it could dictate both.

But in another sense, their responsiveness to such popular and parliamentary outbursts reflect both how far both societies have yet to travel in the direction of institutionalized liberal democracy and also some of the difficulties inherent in conducting diplomacy among more open societies.

Some newspapers and political figures in both countries have adopted a more careful and nuanced approach to the handling of the demonstration, with some Latvian newspapers pointing out that the police may have used excessive force and some Russian commentators noting that this demonstration was first and foremost an economic one.

But overwhelmingly, both the press and the politicians have played to the crowd, drawing on stereotypes about the other country and its leaders rather than considering what actually happened.

Such a populist response to events abroad is always possible in more open political systems, but it seems to be an especially dangerous one in countries that are making the transition from authoritarianism to democracy and lack the greater sophistication that a longer experience with democracy can often provide.

More than that, however, this latest Latvian-Russian standoff calls attention to the problems political leaders face in conducting diplomacy when popular passions have been stirred.

As Riga and Moscow moved toward a rapprochement at the end of last year and the beginning of this, few people in either country seemed to care passionately one way or the other. Now, people and politicians in both do, and that makes it more difficult for the two governments to find their way toward agreement.

It would be a misfortune if the path to better relations between Latvia and Russia were blocked not by genuine obstacles but by something created by the media and populist politicians.