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Russia: Moscow Forces Issue Of Baltic Minorities Onto EU Agenda

Responding to intensive Russian pressure, the European Union has agreed to discuss the situation of the Russian-speaking minorities in the Baltic states at a 24 January foreign minister-level meeting in Athens. Although officials in Brussels say they do not see any problems with the way Estonia and Latvia treat their minorities, the Greek EU Presidency has indicated it accepts Russia will raise the issue and has prepared a response in consultations with other EU member states.

Brussels, 24 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Russia will be seen as having scored a minor diplomatic victory after the issue of the Russian minorities in the Baltic countries returns to the agenda of its talks with the European Union after a long hiatus.

Russia has spent the last few years doggedly writing to successive EU presidencies asking them to consider the issue. So far, all had refused, that is, until a letter dated 28 December from Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov to his Greek counterpart George Papandreou -- who represents the EU's current presidency until the end of June -- finally paid off.

Although obliquely, the issue now features on the agenda of Ivanov's 24 January meeting with Papandreou.

In the letter -- seen by RFE/RL -- Ivanov says that while Moscow is satisfied with Lithuania's "pragmatic decisions" to grant most of its Russian-speaking minority citizenship, he is "extremely concerned" about Latvia's more than 500,000 and Estonia's 170,000 noncitizens.

The rest of the four-page letter is devoted to Moscow's grievances vis-a-vis the two latter countries. Ivanov asks whether after EU membership Estonia and Latvia will extend full "social and economic rights" to their noncitizens, whether Latvia will allow them to vote at municipal elections, and why both countries do not allow their Russian-speaking residents to approach their local authorities in Russian.

The letter also says Latvia is in breach of commitments undertaken within Council of Europe conventions when it vets the political past of candidates in elections. In addition, Ivanov notes Latvia has so far not ratified the Council of Europe convention on the rights of ethnic minorities.

Ivanov also complains that governments of Estonia and Latvia promote ethnic division in their societies, warning that the EU now bears some of the responsibility for their actions and hinting that the issue could sour the fledgling "strategic partnership" between the EU and Russia.

Jean-Christophe Filori, the European Commission's enlargement spokesman, told RFE/RL on 23 January that the European Commission's progress reports on candidate countries in November gave full marks to both Estonia's and Latvia's integration strategies: "In the latest report, [the European Commission] expressed [its] satisfaction over the way the strategy of integration of the Russian minorities in those countries [has progressed]."

Another EU official -- who wished to remain anonymous -- told RFE/RL the EU side would reject Russia's criticism, pointing out among other things that the invitations to join the EU extended to Estonia and Latvia in December prove they meet the bloc's political Copenhagen criteria.

The official also noted that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has withdrawn its observer missions from the Baltic states without detecting any human rights violations.

However, the official said, although the EU does not think human rights are violated in any of the Baltic states, it is "aware of individual cases," such as lawsuits brought by Russian-speakers in the Council of Europe.

The official said that although certain problems exist and the EU does not ignore them, it recognizes the Baltic governments have made "a lot of effort" and achieved positive results in resolving what are "medium- to longer-term issues."

At the same time, the EU is interested in a solution to the problem of stateless citizens, and is pressing Latvia to ratify the Council of Europe convention on minority rights -- although officials in Brussels admit some EU countries have yet to do the same.

What is important, officials note, is that the Russian minorities issue is not on the agenda of the 24 January Papandreou-Ivanov meeting as a separate point but will only be raised in the rubric of "any other business." Had it been a separate agenda item, Russia could easily return to the issue in future, whereas a discussion under "any other business" avoids that, while keeping valuable channels of communication open between the two sides, says one official.

Nevertheless, it is an open secret in Brussels that Greece -- as well as Italy, which will take over the EU Presidency in July -- are among the EU member states most likely to lend Russia a friendly ear.

When Russia tried to force the issue in earnest under the Spanish Presidency in the first half of 2002, the EU refused to discuss the complaints. A background document seen by RFE/RL at that time noted that the EU thought Russian pressure had "political reasons, such as the wish to 'counterbalance' EU pressure on other issues in which the question of respect for human rights is involved."