Russia: Moscow Forces Issue Of Baltic Minorities Onto EU Agenda
By Ahto Lobjakas
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
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
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