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Latvia: Analysis From Washington -- Another Precedent From Kosovo?

Washington, 8 November 2000 (RFE/RL) - Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga has suggested that NATO's willingness to intervene in Kosovo means that the Western alliance will be prepared to come to the aid of Latvia and other East European countries should Moscow threaten them at some point in the future.

Speaking on the BBC on Monday, Vike-Freiberga said that Russian nostalgia for the old Soviet empire continues to cast a shadow on its relationships with its neighbors but that she and other leaders in the region have been encouraged by NATO's willingness to intervene in Kosovo.

"Kosovo is not a member of the NATO alliance," the Latvian leader noted, "and yet the alliance was able to take action when it felt that, according to the principles on which it is founded, action and intervention was necessary." As a result, she said, "I would expect it to do no less anywhere else in Europe."

Many who opposed NATO's intervention in Kosovo argued that it created a dangerous precedent because the alliance was getting involved in a conflict that NATO itself defined as a civil war. And many Russians were especially concerned that NATO might some day be prepared to intervene in what they view as their country's internal affairs.

But now the president of Latvia is arguing that Kosovo set yet another precedent, one she and her colleagues in Eastern Europe may welcome but one that Russia may find equally unacceptable and that at least some in NATO may be unwilling to acknowledge.

Like many leaders in Eastern Europe, Vike-Freiberga often has expressed concerns about the pace of NATO expansion, fearing that any further delay in the expansion of the alliance will not only enervate her society but also encourage what they see as the increasingly assertive policies of the Russian government under Vladimir Putin.

NATO countries have sought to reassure East Europeans that the Western alliance already provides the countries of Eastern Europe with a kind of penumbra of security. They argue that the alliance's Partnership for Peace program, the proximity of alliance members to them, and NATO's efforts to promote a more cooperative relationship with Moscow all serve that end.

But East Europeans appear to find such statements less than reassuring, and Vike-Freiberga's comments represent the latest effort to find some basis for believing that the West will in fact defend their countries if they are attacked.

There are three obvious problems with the argument that Kosovo sets a precedent for future NATO action in the area.

First, NATO officials have been explicit that the decision to go into Kosovo did not set any precedents for its future action elsewhere -- despite what some Russians fear and what some East Europeans clearly hope. The leaders of NATO countries have said repeatedly that they responded in Kosovo as they would respond to any particular crisis -- in terms of its specific features.

Even the NATO charter's Article 5 -- which says that an attack on one member will be viewed as an attack on all and which many in Eastern Europe appear to believe requires NATO to respond with force -- in fact only requires that NATO countries consult as to how they would respond in any particular case.

Second, Vike-Freiberga's focus on the meaning of NATO for non-member countries may have some negative consequences for Latvia itself. It may reduce domestic support there for the kind of measures that NATO membership requires. In addition, it may distract attention from the need there for other domestic reform measures that appear likely to be even more critical for that country's future security -- and that NATO membership by itself will do nothing about.

And third, arguing that Kosovo sets the precedent Vike-Freiberga suggests could trigger precisely the kinds of problems she believes that the declaration of such a precedent is intended to preclude.

On the one hand, it almost certainly will lead Moscow to take an even harder line against the eastward expansion of the alliance, a line that ever more countries in NATO appear willing to respect. On the other, a claim of a Kosovo precedent are likely to force NATO itself to reiterate that Kosovo is not the precedent she hopes for, thus leaving Latvia and her neighbors in a less defensible position than they were in before such a claim was made.

Those twin developments in turn almost certainly would leave Latvia and her neighbors less secure than they are today, precisely the opposite outcome that both the Western alliance and regional leaders so clearly want.