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Latvia: Analysis From Washington -- The Bear Is Back

Washington, 29 April 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Even as opponents of NATO enlargement point to the ways in which Russia has changed over the past decade, that country's acting foreign minister has delivered a speech that highlights the ways in which it has not.

Speaking to the Moscow State Institute of International Relations on Tuesday, Yevgeniy Primakov said that "the bear" -- a term often used as a symbol for Russia in the past -- has been "aroused" by the behavior of the Latvian government toward ethnic Russians living there and that Moscow will respond in what he described as an appropriately vigorous manner.

In addition to his use of this term, Primakov advanced three arguments, each of which point to continuities rather than to changes in Russia's approach.

First, he signaled that the Russian government is prepared now, as it was in the past, to use its size and power to insist that Russia's smaller neighbors conform to its demands.

Primakov pointedly noted that "we will not retreat" on the issue of how Latvia deals with ethnic Russians on its territory. He expressed the hope that Latvian leaders "will understand that they cannot set themselves against others." And he said that he believed "they have enough sense to give up such a foreign policy."

The Russian foreign minister said that Moscow was not asking more of Latvia than international organizations have recommended, but in fact, his words are almost certain to be viewed in Latvia and elsewhere as a demand that Russia's neighbors again conform to Moscow's requirements or face some unspecified but very serious consequences.

Second, Primakov repeated earlier Russian claims that Moscow has a special role in protecting what he called "our people" in what are now foreign countries.

Some observers have suggested that such efforts by Primakov and other post-Soviet leaders to extend Moscow's protection to ethnic Russians living in former Soviet republics and the Baltic states is a departure from Soviet practice. In fact, their approach not only does not represent a change but entails even more serious consequences now and in the future.

On the one hand, Primakov's suggestion that defending "our compatriots beyond the borders of Russia" represents a continuation of the Soviet practice of elevating ethnicity over citizenship as a principle of political organization, an approach that will make it more difficult for these countries to become genuinely independent civil societies.

On the other, his argument this week echoes earlier Soviet claims that Moscow has a special right to intervene on behalf of people who are not its citizens but only its co-ethnics, a right few other countries have claimed and that no international organization or group recognizes.

li>And third, Primakov demonstrated a skill many of his Soviet predecessors appeared to have perfected, a propensity to shift the blame for a problem to others and an ability to play verbal games to escape responsibility for what Moscow has done.

As have Moscow spokesman in the past, the Russian foreign minister suggested that Latvia was entirely to blame for the current situation and that it alone could correct the situation. Both assertions are at odds with the facts.

No one would contest the notion that Latvia bears some responsibility for dealing with the status of ethnic Russians on its territory who have not yet gained Latvian citizenship. But no disinterested observer would conclude that Russia has not made the situation worse by its past and present approach.

And Primakov's claim that Russia "is not imposing economic sanctions" is especially disingenuous. Not only did Russian President Boris Yeltsin's spokesman acknowledge as recently as last week that Moscow was doing precisely that, but Primakov himself noted that Moscow was proceeding in that direction, encouraging a boycott of Latvian products and redirecting trade across that Baltic country.

Primakov's speech widely reported by the Russian media appears to have been timed to affect the debate on NATO expansion taking place in the United States Senate, providing support to opponents who claim that any eastward growth of the alliance will drive the Russians back to the past.

But the Russian foreign minister's invocation of the term "bear," his tone, and even more his arguments may have just the opposite effect. Together, they may help to bolster the case of those who advocate enlargement precisely because they remind everyone why virtually all East Europeans want to join the alliance lest they have to face a Russia that may not have changed as much as some suggest.