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Baltics: Presidents Urge Closer EU, NATO Ties

The World Economic Forum now underway in Davos has produced its usual colorful palette of ideas and opinions, as scores of heads of state and government mingle with hundreds of top businessmen and intellectuals. This year a strong contingent of Eastern European leaders has attended the forum. Among them are the presidents of all three Baltic Republics: Valdas Adamkus of Lithuania, Lennart Meri of Estonia, and Vaira Vike-Freiberga of Latvia.

Davos, 29 January 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The three Baltic presidents, sharing a stage for a panel discussion, managed to convey the various hopes and anxieties of their nations. There were expressions of regret at the long isolation behind the Iron Curtain, there was a longing to join Euro-Atlantic structures, and there was a touch of anxiety about the future, but also a sense of confidence and determination in the new era.

Vike-Freiberga described Latvia -- as the two other republics -- as a victim of the political dividing line that split Europe more than half a century ago. She said it is no longer acceptable to think in terms of spheres of influence in Europe. She called that concept "obscene" and said her country looks westward to the European Union as its true home, because of the values the Union represents. She said it also looks forward to NATO membership and has a right to choose that path.

On economics, Vike-Freiberga noted Latvia's long history as a crossroad of trade, and said the capital Riga is now striving to become a financial center like Dublin -- the Irish Republic's capital, which is an EU success story. She said the Dublin authorities are helping Riga with advice.

Estonia's Lennart Meri also spoke about the effort of rebuilding economic, cultural and political life from point zero, as he called it. He compared Estonia in 1990 with Germany shortly after the Second World War, needing to build a complete new foundation. But he said that Estonia had the advantage of starting off modern, and that was perhaps why his country has succeeded so well economically. He said a high social price had to be paid for this success, but he said older Estonians remember how things were in prewar Estonia and were willing to tolerate lower pensions now as they looked forward.

Striking a note of confidence, Meri said that when Estonia joins the European Union, it hopes to be able to inject some of its own economic dynamism into the Union.

He also spoke of the many unexplored opportunities for cooperation with Russia, and he said that Estonia wants to be like Finland in developing much deeper cooperation with Russia. He singled out what he called the "beautiful possibility" of opening up the city and region of St. Petersburg to Europe.

Lithuania's Valdas Adamkus also spoke of his country's desire for close relations with its eastern neighbors, and he mentioned the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, which he said Lithuania is seeking in particular to help.

Adamkus also strongly put his country's desire to join Western structures, saying no one will stop Lithuania from joining the European Union and NATO. He said Lithuanians will be fully fledged members of Europe, and he thanked neighboring Scandinavian countries for the guidance and help they had already given along that path.

The prime minister of one of those countries, Denmark, appeared in the same panel discussion with the three presidents. Poul Nyrup Rasmussen said membership of the EU for the Baltics will be a "win-win" situation not only for the Baltic states, but also for present EU members -- something, he said, which is often forgotten. He said the entire Baltic Sea region is now becoming an area of high economic growth.

Rasmussen also said it's necessary for the EU to develop "very, very" close ties with Russia. He spoke last week of his vision of a strategic partnership between those two sides, in which the Baltic states would benefit. He said:

"Of course, the three Baltic countries and Poland would have a much better 'take off' if their becoming members [of the EU] and we [the established EU members] at the same time are having an active partnership with Russia."

The Danish leader also said that what had been achieved in the Baltics within the last decade rates as a "miracle."