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Baltics: Tempest Over Minorities Erupts During NATO Assembly

Russian minority rights in the Baltic states are once again on the international agenda. That's thanks to the efforts of the Russians attending this week's meeting of NATO's parliamentary assembly in Prague. They presented a report accusing Latvia and Estonia of mistreating their Russian communities. The Baltic countries dismiss the allegations -- and they say Russia is artificially trying to keep the issue alive in a bid to derail ratification of NATO membership, RFE/RL reports.

Prague, 29 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The document sounded harmless enough: "Special report on Russian minorities in the Baltic States."

It's the sort of dry-as-dust paper you might expect to hear discussed at bodies like NATO's parliamentary assembly, which met this week in Prague.

But when it was presented to the Civil Dimension of Security Committee meeting by Ljubov Sliska, a deputy speaker of the Russian Duma, it immediately caused a storm.

Half a million people in Latvia and Estonia -- mainly Russian speakers -- are treated as second-class citizens in the country of their birth, it said. They're taxpayers, but they're denied linguistic and political rights. Even some World War II veterans, instead of being honored for their contribution to liberating Europe from Nazism, are now on trial for crimes committed against Baltic civilians and members of the anti-Soviet resistance.

It concluded with this ominous appeal: "We hope that many of these points will have been eliminated before the formal admission of the Baltic countries to the [NATO] Alliance."

Latvia and Estonia, backed by Lithuania, dismissed the allegations. Sven Mikser of Estonia said the paper is "full of untruths and half-truths." Latvia's representative, Guntis Berzins, said it is "biased and aimed at creating a misleading impression" of Latvia, which last year eased its language laws.

Some of the U.S. delegation were bothered too, particularly by the way the report was compiled and introduced.

Usually committees elect a rapporteur to draw up this kind of paper. He or she is meant to be objective. But this one was written by the Russians themselves, and presented at the sole request of the chairwoman, Alice Mahon of Britain.

U.S. representative John Shimkus was one critic: "So you have an issue that probably wasn't on the minds of the vast majority of members of the parliamentary assembly discussed, first of all, and then you have a reporter who is extremely biased."

The controversy also comes as the Russian Foreign Ministry expressed concern this week about the rights of young Russian speakers in Latvia to be taught in their own language. Several thousand people gathered last week in Riga to protest education reforms that will mean Latvian becomes the main language in minority high schools.

The committee in the end merely "noted" the report and ordered a fresh one from more neutral observers.

But it means the topic will be discussed when the parliamentary assembly next meets in Florida later this year.

And that means the issue will be kept alive while the ratification process for NATO enlargement is going on. The three Baltic states are among seven Central European countries invited to join NATO next year.

Gediminas Kirkilas, who headed the Lithuanian delegation in Prague, says, "Russia, the Russian Kremlin are changing their tactics, you know. Right now they are trying to catch up. [Latvia] from the point of view of the Kremlin [is a] country with the biggest Russian minority and they are trying to use this issue, it's very clear."

Still, Doug Bereuter, the president of the assembly, played down the dispute. He said some good has come out of it:

"The report which came up in an untraditional fashion before the civil dimensions committee was constructive in one way. It caused the chairman to focus on a decision and it's her intention to develop a report with neutral observers or rapporteurs on this issue. So I think that's a proper outcome consistent with a democratic body," Bereuter says.

Bereuter is one of several U.S. congressmen to move on to visit the Baltic states. He said minority rights would be one of the topics up for discussion and he's expected to meet today with Latvian officials who deal with integration issues.

(Peter Zvagulis of RFE/RL's Latvian Service contributed to this report.)