|Series Title||European Voice|
|Series Details||21/03/96, Volume 2, Number 12|
THIS June's presidential election in Russia will be watched with interest across the world.
Can Boris Yeltsin win? Will there be a run-off in the second round between Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov and the ultra-nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky? What effect would either a Communist or a nationalist win have on East-West relations, let alone relations with the other former Communist countries of Eastern Europe?
In particular, what will the immediate future hold for Russia's 'near abroad', including the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia? The Baltic trio are now fiercely independent, but wary of the embrace of the Russian bear.
All three states look to the West for security guarantees and membership of the European Union. Fifty years of Soviet occupation, dating from the Stalin-Ribbentrop Pact, are a painful but recent memory.
Meeting the three prime ministers on a recent delegation visit to the Baltic states, I was told that the three countries see the need for security as the primary reason for joining the EU.
Membership of NATO, it is hoped, would follow membership of the Union. Of course there are other reasons for wanting to join, including the desire to become members of the European family once again and to raise living standards to western levels.
But fear of the Russian Federation, and domination by Moscow are top of the agenda in the capitals of Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius.
Although Russia has indicated that it is relaxed about the Baltic states joining the European club, membership of NATO is quite another matter.
Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have already signed up to the Partnership For Peace (PFP) programme, which encourages cooperation and consultation on making the Baltic military structures more compatible and transparent.
Russia itself is participating in PFP, but right across the political spectrum - from President Yeltsin to Zyuganov and Zhirinovsky - all Russia's political leaders are opposed to NATO enlargement to the federation's borders.
From Russia's point of view, NATO was formed to counter the former Soviet Union, and remains an anti-Russian military bloc. To extend this military alliance up to Russia's north-western borders, a few hundred kilometres from St. Petersberg, is both militarily and politically unacceptable.
The Atlantic alliance, aware of Russian sensitivities, especially in an election year, is making no firm promises of membership to Central and Eastern European states, and it is widely accepted that Russia's legitimate concerns will have to be met before NATO is enlarged.
A special relationship is likely to be on offer to Russia, which would include a closer partnership with NATO, a non-aggression treaty, and far greater cooperation and consultation in the security sphere.
Security may be one problem, but of course it is not the only one facing the Baltic states as they confront the realities of life without Big Brother. All three countries have been plagued by political instability, and even Lithuania, run by former Communists and until recently considered the most stable of the trio, has been rocked.
President Algirdas Brazauskas sacked Prime Minister Adolfus Slezevicius in the wake of the banking scandal which also saw the resignation of the chairman of the central bank. In Latvia, over 30 banks have gone to the wall, affecting half the nation's personal assets. Estonia's government was brought down by a bugging scandal involving Interior Minister Edgar Savisaar of the Centrist Party. Inflation is rampant, at around 27&percent; in Latvia, 30&percent; in Estonia and 40&percent; in Lithuania. Each country has budget deficits, and unemployment is almost double the official average of 8&percent; in all three countries. Right-wing governments dominate the coalitions in Latvia and Estonia.
The nuclear and environmental legacy of the Soviet Union requires a massive clear-up job throughout the entire Baltic Sea region.
The question of the treatment of Russian minorities in Latvia and Estonia remains unresolved. The Russian minority is less than 10&percent; of the population in Lithuania, and there is no history of friction. However, in Latvia and Estonia the Russian-speaking population is over 30&percent; and native Latvians make up just over half the population. Both the Estonian and Latvian governments resent the 'Russification' policy of the former Soviet regime, and regard many of the Russian speakers as part of the Soviet strategy to erase their cultural identity.
Citizenship laws, residency and travel permits still remain a problem for many Russian speakers in the two countries and a cause of political tension with the Russian Federation. A recent plebiscite to tighten citizenship laws in Latvia, which would restrict citizenship to those who lived in the country prior to 1940, failed narrowly by a few thousand votes.
Russia is determined to keep the pressure on Estonia and Latvia to give equality of treatment to Russian speakers. For their part, Estonia and Latvia fear Russian speakers could become a 'fifth column' in the event of a hostile government taking power in Moscow.
EU association agreements, the first step to membership, were signed with all three Baltic states on 12 June last year.
Much remains to be done before the three countries are ready to join the European Union and before the EU can enlarge so far to the east. The Common Agricultural Policy and the Structural Funds aiding the depressed regions require overhauling if enlargement is not to bankrupt the EU.
Economic and political stability, together with greater legal and social harmonisation, are a prerequisite for membership. The EU will also have much to reform, including the decision-making process and the structure of the Commission, Parliament and European Council.
A European Union of perhaps 27 members will take time to build, especially if a wider Union is to lead to deeper and broader political cooperation.
Negotiations with those states wishing to join the EU will begin at the end of the Intergovernmental Conference. It may take a decade to get things right, but you can be sure that Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania will be knocking hard on Europe's door to join the club at last.
Meanwhile, it can be expected that Yeltsin will continue to develop his 'Russia first' policy in the run-up to the presidential elections, and we can expect further nationalist utterances on the expansion of NATO and Russia's relations with its 'near abroad'.
Zhirinovsky remains the most likely nationalist candidate to pick up right-wing votes, with other nationalists such as General Alexander Lebed, Boris Gromov and former Vice-President Alexander Rutskoi making little impression.
Zhirinovsky cannot be written off entirely, because he harps back to a golden age of Russia as an undisputed superpower, with a recreated Soviet Union and the Mafia firmly dealt with. However, many Russians regard him as a political caricature.
Zyuganov and the Communists are clearly in a different league. Zyuganov is keen to make allies across the political spectrum. He hopes to follow the examples of Poland and Hungary, which have returned reformed Communist parties in Eastern Europe. And who is to say he will not succeed?
The development of a working relationship with the Russian Communist Party is not only practical politics if Europe is to influence those with political power in Russia, but also essential for global peace and security. If we want to influence Russian political parties to have a positive attitude to Europe, we must engage them politically.
Dr Peter Truscott is Labour MEP for the UK constituency of Hertfordshire, was the European Parliament's rapporteur on the EU's Association Agreement with Estonia and shadow rapporteur on the Association Agreements with Latvia and Lithuania. He is vice-president of the Parliament's security and disarmament committee and a member of the EU's delegation for relations with the Russian Federation.
|Subject Categories||Politics and International Relations, Security and Defence|
|Countries / Regions||Northern Europe, Russia|