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Latvia: Is Russia Still A Security Threat?

NATO's further enlargement is expected to proceed at next year's alliance summit in Prague. Among those nations seeking entry are the three Baltic countries, which generally view NATO membership as a chance to move away from Russia's sphere of influence. But in Latvia, some politicians are beginning to soften on the issue. While right-wing officials are still pushing to escape the domination of their so-called "big neighbor" to the east, some liberal Latvian politicians no longer see Russia as much of a threat.

Riga, 1 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Last month (4 October), Bulgaria hosted a summit of heads of state from Eastern European countries hoping to join NATO. The Baltic nations of Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia are among those countries aspiring to membership in the security alliance.

In Latvia, the issue of NATO membership has been receiving its fair share of attention in the Latvian-language media. Most media outlets appear optimistic that the country will benefit from continued NATO enlargement, and that Latvia -- by joining -- will only succeed in reinforcing its security and forever ensuring its independence from Russia.

Lawmakers in Latvia agree that NATO enlargement will bind Riga to an alliance of democratic countries that share and defend common ideals. But if many of them look at NATO membership as indispensable to ensuring Latvia's independence and security from Russia, others on the left are softening their thinking. They believe Russia's journey down the path of democracy means that it simply is not the threat it once was.

Antons Seiksts is a Saeima (Latvian parliament) deputy for the centrist Latvia's Way party and the chairman of the Saeima Committee for Human Rights. Seiksts says Russia must come to terms with its history if it wants to be trusted.

"Since Russia is unable to look at its history objectively, neutrally, it cannot understand the reason why Latvia is so eager to join NATO. Our big neighbor never promised that it wouldn't have claims towards us and the land of the Baltic Sea countries."

Seiksts points out that Russia hasn't apologized for Soviet leader Josef Stalin's treatment of the ethnic Latvian population. Seiksts says that many people in Latvia were accused of being potential Nazi allies and deported to Siberia. This, he says, "is a wound that still hurts."

When Czarist Russia collapsed in 1917, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia restored their independence from Russia and signed a peace treaty in 1920 with the Soviet Union. According to the treaty, the Soviet government recognized the independence of the Baltic countries and renounced all rights of sovereignty over Baltic territory.

In 1940, however, the Soviet army invaded and occupied the Baltic countries, installing a new Soviet-controlled government. Seiksts remembers the historic event and says that because of it, it is impossible to trust Russia again.

"Is it possible to trust a neighbor of this kind? Soviet Russia on 11 August 1920, promised that it wouldn't have any claims over our country. A peace treaty sealed that promise. But 20 years later, [Soviet Russia] occupied our country. Taking into account this historic event, my party -- a centrist party -- always asks itself, 'Where would we be safe?' And the answer is under NATO's protection."

The left-wing Popular Harmony party's program contains three basic elements: the reconciliation of domestic policy, the merging of individualism and solidarity, and the necessary improvement in relations with Russia.

Janis Jurkans is the party's leader and the former foreign minister of the first Latvian government following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Jurkans says the terror attacks of 11 September have altered 21st-century security arrangements, resulting in new security alignments that no longer resemble the Cold War model.

But he points out that there are still people living in Latvia in accordance with past prejudices.

"There are many people in Latvia who still live [with] a historic hangover. For many people of the old generation, of course, it is very difficult to understand that there is no more a Soviet Union, that today Russia is a strategic partner of the United States and that today Russia has joined the world in its fight against terrorism."

Jurkans says Latvia has to join the Northern Atlantic Treaty Organization in order to feel joined to the countries of Europe. But he points out that Latvia will only be secure with a truly democratic Russia as a neighbor.

"The advantages [of joining NATO] for Latvia would be to live in a security atmosphere in Europe and in the world. NATO today is not what NATO was one year or two years back. So today we have to speak about the new arrangements and how they would look like and who will be included or would be excluded. My political understanding is that Latvia could be really secure, provided that it lives next to a democratic Russia."

Jurkans says Russia is on the path to full-scale democracy and notes that neither the Latvian nor Russian democracies are without flaw.

"I understand that Russia is as new a democracy as Latvia is. I understand Russia's and our democracies are incomplete. But there are all the trappings of a democracy developing in those countries. The main thing is that we live next to a friendly neighbor."

Jurkans believes that, after the events of 11 September, Russia is not as worried as it once was about Latvia joining NATO. But he believes it is still crucial for NATO and Russia to build a good relationship.

"Russia is a strategic partner of the United States. I don't think Russia cares much about [Latvia] being in NATO or not. If the relationship between Russia and NATO will be hostile, that could create problems and Russia would have to strengthen its borders with the Baltic countries. That will not [be] good to our economy, Russia's economy, and to the overall atmosphere."

Russia has consistently opposed the enlargement of NATO to include the Baltic states. But in Brussels last month (3 October), Russian President Vladimir Putin said that if the alliance becomes a political, rather than a military, organization, and if Russia were to "feel involved in such processes," it would reconsider its opposition to expansion.