22 May 2000, Volume
ESTONIAN, LATVIAN ELECTRIC UTILITIES TO MERGE
The Estonian and Latvian governments approved a memorandum of intent on the merger of the state-owned electric power utilities Eesti Energia and Latvenergo, ETA and LETA reported on 16 May. To be signed on 26 May by representatives of the two companies--the largest in each country--the accord will be followed up with a formal proposal on cooperation and a possible merger by 30 June. According to Eesti Energia board chairman Gunnar Okk, neither utility is likely to survive on its own in a free market and a merger would give the new company access to cheaper credit for investments. Latvenergo supervisory board chairman Ojars Kehris said that another goal of the merger is to stabilize energy prices.INVESTORS ENDORSE REGIONAL BALTIC ENERGY PROJECTS
U.S.-based NRG Energy, which is negotiating to buy a strategic interest in Estonia's two largest Narva power stations, told ETA on 18 May that the company endorses the planned merger of the Estonian and Latvian state-owned energy firms. During her visit to their New York City offices, Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga was told by J.P. Morgan investment analysts that a "united Baltic Energy Ring" is an economically justified idea--one that they would invest in, LETA reported 17 May. At the Baltic Business Conference held in Riga on 19 May, participants urged the building of gas pipelines between Estonia and Finland (estimated cost $112 million) and between Lithuania and Poland ($160 million). Charles Frank, acting president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, praised the talk of energy mergers while in Riga for the EBRD's annual meeting, saying: "In the Baltics, each country has different advantages, so cooperation is essential in the energy field to maximize the potential of the region," BNS reported 19 May.KISSINGER WARNS AGAINST NEW COLD WAR
Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger has warned against a new cold war which could be triggered by Russia widening its strategic interests to include its neighbors, including the Baltic States, BNS reported 17 May. Writing in "The Washington Post," Kissinger stated that the Baltic States are "under permanent Russian pressure" even though they do not belong to the common economic space being created by Russia. "If Russia's strengthening as a result of reforms leads to territorial expansion, which all her neighbors fear, Russia's desire to dominate will sooner or later provoke a new cold war, Kissinger warned."
ESTONIAN BIRTHS UP FIRST TIME IN MORE THAN A DECADE
More babies were born last year than in 1998--the first year on year increase in Estonia since the 1980s, AP reported 15 May. But deaths still outnumber births by a wide margin. In 1999, 12,545 babies were born compared to 12,269 in 1998. The last time there was a year-on-year increase, 1988, 24,000 babies were born. The number of deaths in 1999 was 18,000--still yielding a net loss in population. As in other former Soviet bloc nations, the fall in births coincides with sharp increases in the cost of living. Most families earn less than 10,000 kroons ($600) a month. Estonia's population has dropped from 1.6 million in 1991 to 1.4 million this year, according to the country's Department of Statistics. Some of that decrease reflects ethnic Russians moving back to Russia after Estonia restored its independence.CENTRAL BANK AND ESTONIAN PRESIDENT STALEMATE OVER NOMINEE
The council of the Bank of Estonia nominated former Finance Minister Mart Opmann as the new central bank governor, ETA and BNS reported 18 May. Opmann would succeed Vello Vensel, who resigned due to health reasons before he could take up his seat at the central bank. But President Lennart Meri rejected the nomination on 19 May, saying that the council should find a politically independent candidate for the post. Opmann, a member of the Coalition Party--one of the opposition parties--defeated former transportation and communications minister and Reform Party member Kalev Kukk. The term of office is five years.TALLINN TO SELL HEATING UTILITY AND PUBLIC TRANSPORT
The City of Tallinn will sell its heating utility, as well as the public bus, tram, and trolley service, ETA reported on 17 May. The city government intends to privatize and find strategic investors for all of its large public companies including the water utility, Deputy Mayor Ivar Virkus told reporters. The public tender for Tallinna Soojus (heating utility), Tallinna Autobussikoondis (bus service), and Tallinna Trami-ja Trollibussikoondis (tram and trolley), will be launched in the second half of the year.ESTONIA TO INCREASE UN PEACEKEEPING EFFORT
Estonia will increase its peacekeeping expenses fivefold in next year's budget and in the future will pay 100 percent of its United Nations peacekeeping membership fees, BNS reported on 17 May. The announcement was made by the Foreign Ministry at UN headquarters in New York, which said that to date, Estonia has received an 80 percent discount from the UN for those peacekeeping dues. Estonia is one of five countries--including EU candidates Hungary and Cyprus--that has recently declared an increase in its peacekeeping budget.
* During a six-hour period on 19 May, two bombs exploded in the Stockmann department store in downtown Tallinn, slightly injuring four people. A Russian-speaking man called the store's security at 3 am demanding 2 million kroons ($114,000), but he gave no instructions on how to deliver the money. The store was searched after the call, but no devices were found. Both bombs went off in the store's first-floor delicatessen.
* NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson said in Tallinn on 18 May that Estonia is a strong and serious candidate for membership. Robertson also said that it is important to increase defense spending and to train people because this is necessary "not just to accede to the alliance, but also to guarantee Estonia's own security."
* Visiting Finnish President Tarja Halonen said in Tallinn on 17 May that the European Union was not backing away from expansion promises, but she acknowledged that the "entry requirements get harder all the time."
* The Estonian government on 16 May sent to the parliament for approval amendments to the criminal code which will establish a tax police unit to serve under the Tax Board. This special tax fraud unit will initially employ 50 investigators and auditors and is expected to handle the 200 cases which are now part of the criminal police workload.
* The central bank estimates that the Estonian economy grew by 9 percent in the first quarter of 2000, an indication that the country is out of the recession triggered by the August 1998 Russian financial collapse. Central bank spokeswoman Kaja Kell cautioned on 16 May that local businesses shouldn't become overly confident and "overextend themselves by taking on too much credit."
* A survey called "Estonia's Labor Market and Employment Policy" that was released on 16 May in Tallinn suggests that the 20 percent unemployment rate among people with low education and skill levels may rise by 4 percent by 2001. ETA reported that many graduates of vocational schools fail to find jobs because educational reform still does not meet the needs of the fast-changing economy.
* The Consumer Protection Board will investigate Estonia's largest insurance firm, Sampo, after the death by self-immolation of Narva businessman Alexander Nikolayevski last week. Nikolayevski, 46, doused himself with gasoline and set himself ablaze to protest the Sampo Insurance company's refusal to pay him 240,000 kroons ($14,000) for his disability due to an car accident last year. The Consumer Protection Board, which is targeting insurance firms for failure to keep their contracts, received 27 complaints last year.
* The Center Party, led by ex-Prime Minister Edgar Savisaar, announced on 16 May a campaign to increase its membership by 1,000. The opposition party has the largest membership of any political party in Estonia with 4,000 registered members. The Center Party faction in the Tallinn City Council on 18 May urged a no-confidence vote against Deputy Mayor Ivar Virkus for proposing the creation of a red-light district in central Tallinn and thereby damaging the capital's reputation.
* Two leading newspaper publishers in Estonia, the Norwegian-controlled Eesti Meedia and the Swedish-controlled Ekspress Grupp, concluded a cooperation agreement on 19 May that will merge their respective tabloids, "Ohtuleht" and "Sonumileht," into a new joint venture, SL Ohtuleht.
* The Estonian Consumer Protection Board warned motorists on 19 May that gas stations are selling substandard fuel that could damage car engines. When experts tested fuel samples from 20 separate gas stations recently, only three met acceptable standards. A specialist on motor fuels, Professor Mihkel Naams of the Tallinn Technical University, said the problem is local because fuel components are brought in separately and mixed in Estonia.
* The Estonian Council of Churches, the Estonian Evangelical Alliance, and the Estonian Bible Society on 17 May released the results of a poll they sponsored which shows that nearly half of the Estonian population regard the church as the most trustworthy institution in the country--even though only one-fifth regard themselves as believers.
* The Estonian government together with Tartu University organized an Estonian Day in Pskov, Russia on 17 May to show the residents Estonian culture, lifestyle, and politics. Estonian MP Sergei Ivanov lectured on the "Keys to Estonia's Success," and two exhibitions dedicated to the Year of the Estonian Book opened. Lectures took place on philosophy, science, and drama, as well as a rock concert by Estonian pop singer Tonis Magi. The Tallinn and Pskov city councils and universities signed cooperation agreements.
* AP reported on 15 May on a concert at Columbia University in New York featuring the music of Estonian avant-garde composer Erkki-Tuur. Born on the island of Hiiumaa, the 30-something Turr is credited with opening his country's cultural doors to the West. Raised on the remote island in the Baltic Sea and listening to lots of 60s rock music has influenced his compositions. "My pieces are abstract dramas in sound," said Turr.
PROSECUTOR SAYS WAR CRIME INVESTIGATION IS PRIORITY
New Prosecutor-General Janis Maizitis said that the investigation of war crimes committed during World War II is a priority for his office, particularly the cases of Konrad Kalejs and Karlis Ozols, alleged Nazi war criminals who were members of the Arajs Kommando, BNS reported on 12 May. Nazi hunter Efraim Zuroff criticized Latvian authorities for what he called a lack of enthusiasm in bringing the two--who are still in Australia--to trial, AP reported. "There is sufficient evidence" to prosecute, Zuroff told the AP. Responding to Zuroff's criticism, Dzintra Subrovska, a spokeswoman for the prosecutor's office, said that Latvia "was not the first country to investigate these cases. Others have taken as long as 10 years and never pressed charges." She added that Latvia was ready to charge Kalejs and Ozols "at any moment as long as we have the evidence." Russian criticism of Latvia grew this week after Mikhail Farbtukh, a former Stalin-era official, was sentenced to a five-year prison term on 17 May after being convicted of the deportation of 31 Latvian families to Siberia in 1941, BNS and AP reported. The 83-year old, who admitted his guilt, was immediately transferred to prison even though he had appealed to the court to suspend the sentence because of his poor health.SWEDEN SAYS MOSCOW'S CRITICISM OF LATVIA 'UNACCEPTABLE'
Swedish Foreign Minister Anna Lindh sharply criticized Russian statements about Latvia's legal proceedings against former Soviet partisans as "unacceptable" and "vulgar," BNS reported 17 May. Lindh, who is on a one-day visit to Riga, said that Russia's behavior is "unacceptable to Sweden." Russia has condemned Latvia over the trials of former Soviet partisans for war crimes saying that Latvia is attempting to revise the outcome of World War II. Lindh called on European Union members to show more solidarity with Latvia on this issue, and predicted that "Latvia will be ready to join the EU next year."RIGA HOST TO EBRD ANNUAL MEETING
Latvia's capital, Riga, hosted the annual meeting of the London-based European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, AP and LETA reported 20 May. Three thousand banking and government officials attended the two-day meeting, which elected a new EBRD president and discussed EU enlargement. The EBRD also released a report that charts the progress of countries from Central Europe to Central Asia. The EBRD was established by Western governments in 1991 to channel development aid to the nations of the former Soviet bloc. EBRD Acting President Charles Frank told LETA 18 May that Latvia has a positive investment climate and the bank is planning to participate in new Latvian power projects. The Riga and Latvian governments have spent over 6.6 million lats ($11.4 million) to build facilities and improve infrastructure for the event.LATVIAN GREENS PROTEST GLOBALIZATION AT EBRD MEETING
The Latvian Environmental Protection Club (VAK) staged a rally outside the Congress House in Riga where the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development was meeting, BNS and LETA reported on 21 May. The protesters called for the prevention of "globalization" and "financial totalitarianism." The picket was peaceful and monitored by the police. On the same day, four protestors from the Greenpeace were detained and questioned by Riga police after holding an unsanctioned protest outside the EBRD meeting. Greenpeace activists were protesting the EBRD's plan to finance the building of two nuclear power plants in Ukraine.
* The EBRD announced that it has supported a total of 22 projects in Latvia for a sum of 252 million euros ($230 million). The projects include a loan to Latvenergo for the reconstruction of turbines, three rural programs, and the restructuring of Latvijas Unibanka, Hansabanka, and Pirma Latvijas komercbanka--58 percent of EBRD programs have gone to the banking sector.
* The Latvian government approved and signed an additional agreement on economic policy with the International Monetary Fund on 16 May. The IMF sees Latvia's current account deficit as too big and is requiring the government to reduce budget expenditures by 0.5 percent of GDP or 20 million lats ($33 million). All revenue from privatization, not including administrative costs, as well as the reserve fund, must be given to the State Treasury.
* In response to the Latvian parliament's recent decision to lift protectionist measures to defend the country's domestic pork industry, the Latvian government said it will provide 1 million lats ($1.65 million) in direct subsidies to pork producers by 1 June to help them maintain their livestock, LETA reported on 16 May. Funding for the subsidies will come from surplus budgetary income. On 17 May the subsidy was set at 6.5 lats ($10.72) per sow a month--2.6 times less than originally proposed by the Ministry of Agriculture.
* The Russian Foreign Ministry on 16 May issued a report noting that the Latvian parliament on 11 May "again blocked ratification of the Council of Europe Convention on Ethnic Minorities," which Latvia signed in 1995. The report says that is more evidence of the "unwillingness of the country's legislature to apply European standards in the policy on ethnic minorities."
* China's Xinhua news agency announced on 17 May that China and Latvia have signed an agreement on bilateral trade that helps clear a path for China's entry into the World Trade Organization, Western agencies reported. Latvia, along with the EU and several other countries, was among the last of the WTO's 136 member countries to sign a bilateral trade accord with China.
* President Vaira Vike-Freiberga said at a 19 May press conference that she had used her ten-day visit to Canada and the United States to update Canadian and US officials on Latvia's foreign policy goals and to attract foreign investment. The president also met with diaspora Latvians who expressed their readiness to continue to support Latvia. The president said that $3.5 million of humanitarian assistance is sent to Latvia annually from the Latvian community in Toronto.
* While in New York, President Vaira Vike-Freiberga received an award from the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation in recognition of her contribution to "exploring her nation's past and facing the historical truth," LETA reported 15 May. The foundation, headquartered in Buenos Aires, Argentina, with branches in New York City and Jerusalem, is a non-profit, non-denominational organization dedicated to honoring the work of Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, who saved thousands of Hungarian Jews during World War II.
* Latvian Transit Business Association Chairman and Mayor of Ventspils Aivars Lembergs, speaking at the Baltic Business Conference in Riga on 19 May, called Latvia an "unstable and risky partner" because its national policy has resulted in a "stunted" business sector. The vice chairman of the People's Party Saeima faction, Janis Lagzdins, called Lemberg's comments an attack against the Latvian nation. Lembergs had just returned from Moscow where he spoke to at the "TransRussia 2000" conference on 18 May. In Moscow, he had called for Lithuania, Estonia, Russia, and Latvia to cooperate in forming "an alternative to the Southern Silk Road," saying, "The Baltic states and Russia should not be viewed as rivals but as partners who unite their forces."
* The Latvian parliament on 17 May adopted an amendment to the law on holidays and commemoration days designating 17 June as "Latvia's Occupation Day," because at dawn on that day in 1940 more than 100,000 Soviet Red Army troops crossed Latvia's border and illegally occupied the country. The law stipulates that flags should be displayed draped in mourning on that day. The parliament also voted to designate 22 September as "Baltic Unity Day," commemorating the victory of Baltic tribes against the Teutonic knights at the Saules battle in the year 1236. Latvia now has 27 legal holidays and commemoration days.
* The Soros Foundation will reduce its financial support to Latvia's Open Society Foundation from the current $5 million to $3 million in 2001, LETA reported on 17 May. Soros is cutting back on funding its network of foundations throughout Eastern Europe.
* According to data compiled by the Latvian banking publication "Banku Apskats," 59.6 percent of polled Latvian residents have no personal accounts at any commercial bank. Of those who do have accounts, 20.2 percent say their employers opened the account at the bank, 7 percent keep the account for savings, 6.6 percent believe it is safer than keeping their money at home, and 6 percent opened their accounts to receive transaction (credit or debit) cards.
* In April, 56 percent of all the unemployed in Latvia were women, according to the Central Statistical Bureau. Some 109, 600 persons were registered with the unemployment bureau seeking work--32,900 of whom had been unemployed for over one year, LETA reported.
PARLIAMENT BEGINS DEBATE ON SHIFTING PRIORITIES
The Lithuanian parliament opened debate on a controversial initiative calling for a reallocation of the country's defense spending to the educational system, BNS and ELTA reported 12 May. The proposal, a result of a successful referendum launched by the New Union (Social Liberal party) led by ex-presidential candidate Arturas Paulauskas, was severely criticized by parliamentary Speaker Vytautas Landsbergis, who called the New Union a "mouthpiece of the strategic interests of a foreign country." Landsbergis added that this is "Russia's policy." The proposal calls for 148 million litas ($37 million) to be taken from the defense budget and given to education. The government of Conservative Andrius Kubilius had earlier rejected the proposal which now needs more than a majority of total parliamentary votes (71 of 141 votes) to be adopted. The government maintains that if the proposal succeeds, it would destroy the Lithuanian armed forces and ruin Lithuania's chances for NATO membership.VILNIUS NATO CONFERENCE PROPOSED "BIG BANG" ENLARGEMENT PLAN
The foreign ministers of nine NATO candidates met in Vilnius on 19 May to propose that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization expand into all nine countries as early as 2002, AP and BNS reported. Lithuanian Deputy Foreign Minister Vygaudas Usackas described the proposal as a "big bang" approach which is meant as a "wake up" call to Western leaders to move forward with planning for enlargement rather than waiting for diplomatic change to evolve by itself, or for the U.S. presidential elections. BNS reported 18 May that representatives of the main U.S. presidential candidates--Democrat Al Gore and Republican George W. Bush--will attend the Vilnius conference, which is the first official meeting of the NATO candidates: co-hosts Lithuania and Slovenia, Latvia, Estonia, Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, Macedonia, and Albania. U.S. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott sent a letter of greeting expressing his belief that Lithuania will eventually be a NATO member, and Senator Jesse Helms, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, gave his full support to the proceedings which "will add to the momentum of NATO enlargement."U.S. URGES LITHUANIA TO STAY COURSE ON DEFENSE SPENDING
A senior U.S. diplomat has urged Lithuania not to undermine its own credibility by reducing its defense spending, BNS reported 18 May. Walter Andrusyszyn, director of the European Security and Political Affairs Office at the U.S. State Department, made the comments at a roundtable discussion with journalists in Vilnius. Andrusyszyn encouraged the country and its political leaders to live up to its public commitment to spend 2 percent of GDP on defense. He said that the 2 percent figure was "realistic" and that other NATO candidates had also adopted the figure as a target for defense spending. "The political significance of the 2 percent figure is an indication of your political will to contribute to the national defense," Andrusyszyn said, adding, "Your case is stronger for membership in the alliance." Public opinion on increasing defense spending has become controversial in Lithuania because some opposition parties have charged that it is diverting critical resources from social spending.VILNIUS PUBLIC TRANSPORT WORKERS STRIKE
Public transport workers staged a one-day warning strike in Vilnius, ELTA and BNS reported 18 May. Only two city trolley buses and 18 buses driven by six strike-breakers and scab drivers operated, supplemented by 82 private mini-buses and 435 vans recruited by city officials to take over the transportation routes for the day. Normally, 243 trolley buses and 202 buses operate on the daily routes. Danute Ilyina, chairperson of the Vilnius Trolley Bus Municipal Workers Union, told BNS that the drivers are demanding their wages be paid on time and that there be no layoffs. Public transport companies in Lithuanian cities are burdened with debt because city governments have failed to pay the promised subsidies while mandating low fares for pensioners and students. Negotiations between the union and city officials began during the strike and are expected to continue into next week. Because the Vilnius first district court has already ruled the strike illegal, the union may be held responsible for losses incurred by the city, estimated at 80,000 litas ($20,000).
* Lawmakers adopted legislation seeking compensation for damage incurred during the half-century of Soviet occupation, ELTA reported on 16 May. The bill, submitted by speaker Vytautas Landsbergis, requires "every government of Lithuania" to seek compensation from the Russian Federation, as the successor state to the USSR, for occupation-era damage to the state and population. Landsbergis said that the goal of compensation is based on international law and the will of Lithuania's people, who overwhelmingly approved a 1992 referendum calling for the withdrawal of foreign troops and compensation for damage caused to Lithuania.
* Ex-president Algirdas Brazauskas issued a statement on 17 May claiming that the Russian news agency ITAR-TASS "distorted" his comments on 5 May concerning the Lithuanian parliament's legislation making Russia liable for compensating damages caused by the Soviet occupation of Lithuania. Brazauskas said, "I have always believed that Lithuania had suffered gigantic losses, therefore, it is necessary to open talks on the issue with the government of the Russian Federation." The ex-president also said that the issue was being raised "belatedly."
* Having returned from Belarus, where he met with President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, ex-Lithuanian President Algirdas Brazauskas told the daily "Lietuvos Rytas" that "Belarus cannot be ignored nor should it only be criticized."
* DPA reported 15 May that Germany's top parliamentarian, Wolfgang Thierse, avoided meeting Lithuania's leading radical politician--who is known for his anti-Semitic and anti-European attitudes--during a three-day trip to Lithuania as a guest of the country's parliament. Sustauskas, dubbed by DPA as "Lithuania's Haider" (after Austria's right-wing politician Joerg Haider), ordered his staff to cancel a planned reception for the visitor. Thierse said he never had any intention of meeting the mayor, abiding by an unofficial EU boycott of Sustauskas.
* 137 delegates representing 700 members founded the National Socialist Party in Siauliai, the fourth largest city, over the weekend, BNS and ELTA reported on 15 May. The party's program advocates restrictions on immigration and also the import of foreign goods. It also expresses doubts about Lithuania's EU candidacy. Mindaugas Murza, chairman of the new party, had previously headed the National Social Union, which Lithuanian authorities refused to register as a legal entity on nine occasions over the last two years on the grounds that it violated rules on political parties. The country's Justice Ministry has one month to decide on the party's registration. Lithuanian laws ban propaganda by fascist and other "violent" ideologies.
* Andrew Cater, chairman of the Lithuanian-British Chamber of Commerce, denounced Lithuania's bureaucrats as the "principle obstacle for successful development of business in Lithuania," ELTA reported on 17 May. Speaking to a meeting of the chamber's members and sponsors, Cater said that British businessmen had never before encountered "such a bureaucracy as in Lithuania," which abuses its powers and has created an unfavorable environment for new investment. The chamber was established a year ago and unites 30 British and Lithuanian companies which seek to expand trade and business between the two countries. UK investors rank sixth with a total 589.3 million litas ($147.325 million) of direct investment in Lithuania.
* Adidas, the German sports footwear company, has decided to withdraw from its joint venture with the Kaunas-based Inkaras plant, which is on the verge of bankruptcy. Adidas charged that the workers are low skilled and waste raw materials. The assets of Inkaras total 8 million litas ($2 million) and its debts to creditors are 16 million litas ($4 million).
* On 18 May, Patikimo Verslo Sistema UAB (Reliable Business System) began operations as the first credit bureau in Lithuania to register data about personal debt to enterprises for goods and services. The firm will accumulate data about debtors for the first of their clients, two mobile phone companies, Bite GSM and Omnitel. Eventually, persons owing money to 200 other firms will also be recorded in the database.
* On 19 May, Lietuvos Dujos (Lithuanian Natural Gas) suspended the supply of natural gas to city-owned Kauno Energija (Kaunas Energy) for non-payment of 64 million litas ($16 million). At the same time consumers owe Kaunas Energija 74 million litas ($18.5 million) for gas consumption. Kauno Energija told its customers not to worry because it was expecting natural gas from another supplier, Stella Vitae. Last year, Lietuvos Dujos supplied 30 percent of the natural gas used by the Kaunas utility.
* The farmers trade union of Joniskis city, situated in northern Lithuania, launched a registration drive of government arrears owed to its members on 15 May. While the Lithuanian Peasants' Party has asked the government to re-instate state regulation of milk prices. The organization wants a uniform purchase price of 55 centas (.55 litas) per kilo for all grades of milk.
A Big Bang Outside A Closely Guarded DoorBy Paul Goble
Several East European countries are calling on NATO to admit all nine applicant states in 2002, an appeal that reflects both their concerns about developments in Moscow and their fears that the alliance may put off any further expansion well into the future.
Lithuanian Deputy Foreign Minister Vygaudas Usackas has labeled this the "big bang" approach. He presented it at a meeting of applicant states in Vilnius last week. According to Usackas, this idea is designed to reenergize discussions about European security by highlighting the anxieties of the countries located between NATO and the Russian Federation.
After admitting Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic in 1999, the alliance pledged that the door to alliance membership would remain open to all other countries interested in joining. But as Munich's Sueddeutsche Zeitung pointed out on Wednesday, this door has turned out to be "a very closely guarded" one.
On the one hand, NATO's current members are experiencing some difficulties in fully integrating the three newest members and also in defining what role the alliance should play relative to other defensive organizations such as the West European Union and the European Union security initiative.
Moreover, several NATO countries, including the United States, are now involved with elections or recent changes in government that have effectively stalled foreign policy initiatives, such as NATO expansion.
And on the other hand, many NATO countries appear reluctant to move the borders of the alliance further east out of concern about a Russian backlash. Moscow has made it very clear that it would view any further expansion of the alliance as a hostile act, and as a result, the alliance has devoted a great deal of work to restoring ties with Russia.
This week, for example, the Russia-NATO Joint Permanent Council met in Brussels at the ambassadorial level. That meeting set the stage for Russian participation at the ministerial level in the NATO council meeting in Florence on May 24--the first time since NATO's Kosova operation that the Russian government will have been represented at that level.
The nine countries which seek to join the alliance--Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovenia, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Romania, Macedonia, and Albania--have drawn various conclusions from this.
Some have expressed doubt that NATO will ever take in any new members. Estonian Prime Minister Mart Laar, for example, said recently that "the big question is less a matter of who will be admitted in the next NATO expansion than whether there will be another round of expansion at all."
Others have counted on being among the chosen few, an approach that has sometimes put these countries at odds. Slovakia, for example, is counting on Hungarian backing. Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban has pointedly said that "without Slovakia, there won't be a second expansion round."
Usackas' call for a "big bang" approach to expansion is clearly intended to overcome both these competing assessments and what many of these countries see as a certain Western complacency about developments in Russia.
Many of these countries are extremely worried by the newly assertive Russian foreign policy of President Vladimir Putin and by the West's obvious desire to find a common language with the new Russian leader.
Some of them fear that in the absence of NATO expansion anytime soon, they will fall into a dangerous gray area of insecurity where their politics will be about national survival rather than about domestic development. And many are cocnerned that the inclusion of some rather than all will provoke Russia to put new pressure on those not taken in.
Those fears are not new, but the call from Vilnius suggests that they are growing. That may not prompt the alliance to move more quickly on some or all of the applicant states. But the introduction of the term "big bang" may have the effect of leading to a renewed discussion of just how open the door to NATO membership really is.