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Baltics: Putin's Comments Strike A Raw Nerve

This past weekend during a visit to Finland, Russian President Vladimir Putin drew a comparison between the situation of ethnic Albanians in Macedonia and that of ethnic Russians in the Baltics. Putin noted that if greater language and political rights are being extended to one minority (ethnic Albanians) in a Balkan country, the same ought to be done for another (ethnic Russians) in the Baltic states. Is this a fair comparison or just another pressure tactic from Moscow toward its small neighbors?

Prague, 4 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- There is no question that Russian President Vladimir Putin's weekend comments struck a raw nerve in the Baltic states, especially in Latvia and Estonia, which have the largest ethnic-Russian communities.

Following decades of Soviet domination, nearly 40 percent of Latvia's 2.4 million people are today non-ethnic Latvians and count Russian as their mother tongue. In Estonia, the percentage is slightly lower, although in certain eastern regions of the country, more than 90 percent of the local population is composed of Russian-speakers.

Relations between the Russian-speaking and native communities have sometimes been strained, but most observers say efforts at integration are slowly bearing fruit, which is why Putin's comments are seen as especially unhelpful.

Peter Semneby is head of the Latvia mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. This was his reaction, in an interview with RFE/RL:

"We have a situation here where the relationship between the ethnic communities is quite a positive one and a promising one for the future. We have a functioning, harmonious relationship and any kind of dramatic steps in this situation will actually serve the opposite purpose."

Paul Raudsedps heads the editorial pages of Latvia's daily newspaper "Diena." He tells RFE/RL that the Russian president's statement -- not the first of its kind -- could even be interpreted as a threat:

"The momentum in Latvia and Estonia has been towards closer integration and the situation here, according to all European countries that have looked at this, is getting better. President Putin all of a sudden brings up this very inflammatory point where he's basically comparing the minorities in Latvia and Estonia to the Albanian minorities and saying: 'Look, they created an armed conflict there...' I think for a lot of people in Latvia, this can be seen as an indirect threat to Latvia from Russia. Because when he made a similar comparison in Slovenia, he said: 'We're not arming our compatriots in Latvia, the way the people are being armed in Macedonia.' Well, that's a veiled threat, if you ask me."

But Raudsedps and other Baltic commentators object to Putin's statement above all because, they say, it is a factually inaccurate comparison.

Raudsedps acknowledges that much remains to be done, but he says the situation in Latvia and Estonia is far different from that in Macedonia because of the growing economic prosperity of both countries, which has served as an impetus for economic and social integration of the Russian-speaking population.

Unlike in Macedonia, he notes, most ethnic Russians see their future as being in Latvia, are learning the language, and are already contributing significantly to the country's economy. Also in contrast to Macedonia, the police force is mostly integrated -- a fact confirmed by the OSCE:

"About the institutions, this is not an issue in Latvia per se. It's an issue in Macedonia, which we were just talking about, because there's a very clear ethnic divide, and it's clear that the police is almost entirely manned by Slavs. That's not the case in Latvia. In fact, in Latvia, depending on the municipality, you can have non-Latvians serving in the police and other institutions, as well. So this is not really an issue here."

Mari-Ann Kelam, an Estonian legislator, sits on parliament's foreign affairs committee. She tells RFE/RL that at a local level, especially, integration is proceeding apace. Kelam cites the case of Sillamae, in Soviet times a closed military town, whose population remains largely non-ethnic Estonian:

"The cooperation and trust that has been building there is just a pleasure to see. Various Russian representatives work very well with the Estonians and are eager to see a peaceful integration and a good future for everyone concerned. They graduate from the local gymnasium or high school to go on to Tartu University and to continue their studies in Estonian. So it is possible and it's very frequently a matter of attitude. If things are allowed to progress on the local level, in this friendly, peaceful kind of way, trust is built on both sides."

Kelam also takes Putin to task for roiling the waters, saying painstaking efforts to build up trust could be harmed by such comments:

"If Moscow begins interfering and hinting around that, well, you don't need to go to the trouble of learning the Estonian language, we'll make all these changes for you, it's only going to harm what right now seems to be going in a very good direction for all concerned."

Both Kelam and Raudsedps say the language issue remains a sensitive one. In neither country does Russian have the status of a state language, although Russian-speakers living in predominantly Russian areas may use the language in business or to communicate with the authorities. In Kelam's view, this policy must be maintained if the native language is to survive, after so many decades of forced Russification.

"It's a difficult problem that we're faced with, in the sense that so many people were brought here with the idea of resettling this small country. Estonia is the only country in the world where Estonian is the national language and it's the only place where it will have a chance of thriving and surviving and moving on even into the next century. Russian is in no danger of disappearing from the globe, that's for sure."

The head of the OSCE mission in Latvia, Peter Semneby, agrees that making Russian an official language in Latvia at this moment would slow efforts at building a cohesive society. On the one hand, it could discourage Russian speakers from learning Latvian, while on the other hand engendering a local nationalist backlash:

"A policy based on a step-by-step approach is the best way to achieve stability in the long run. And if we talk about the issue of introducing a second official language, I think that would be a disruptive break with such an evolution, such a step-by-step approach in Latvia."

In the end, Raudsedps says President Putin's comments will be seen as little more than political expedience by the Baltics, as they contradict statements he made just a few days earlier:

"In Kyiv, he said that the Albanians are terrorists, that they have no human rights, that they have no legitimate humanitarian goals, that they are simply terrorists who want to take territory. And now he flip-flops and all of a sudden says that these people have legitimate grievances. First of all, he should decide what he thinks about this issue and then start making some comments about it."

One thing is certain -- the Baltics will continue to analyze the Russian leader's words closely.