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Booming Baltic States Anxious Neighbor Russia is Backsliding
The Washington Diplomat / March 2008

By Larry Luxner

This year, as Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania mark the 90th anniversary of their short-lived independence, there's plenty to celebrate. Despite their small geographical size and declining populations, the three Baltic states are free and democratic — and they boast the strongest economies in Europe.

The Latvian capital of Riga, a popular tourist attraction nicknamed "little Paris," has the fastest-growing airport on European soil, with air traffic rising by 35% annually. And in the last three years, Latvia's GDP growth has averaged 11% to 12% annually, giving the country a per-capita GDP income approaching $13,000 a year.

In e-savvy Estonia, birthplace to the web-based phone network Skype, some 98% of bank transactions are now made online. As of this year, tax returns can also be submitted online, and so far, more than taxpayers have elected to do exactly that — helped by the fact that nearly 70% of Estonia's 1.3 million people have Internet access.

Yet ambassadors of the Baltic countries, all of which were annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940 and remained a part of the USSR until its collapse 50 years later, now worry that democracy in their giant neighbor to the east is taking a beating.

Russia's Mar. 2 elections, in which President Vladimir Putin's handpicked successor, Dmitry Medvedev, is expected to receive up to 82% of the vote, has been declared off-limits to observers from the 56-member Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

The Kremlin, which has made clear that international observers won't be welcome for the election, has invited only 300 such observers, compared to the 1,163 who were invited in 2003. Analysts say that's hardly enough to monitor balloting in a vast nation of 143 million people that spans 11 time zones.

"The Russian government has made it impossible for international observers to monitor the elections," said Vδino Reinart, Estonia's ambassador to the United States. "We have been willing to develop good relations with all our neighbors, and Russia is no exception. But this is certainly a step backward."

Andrejs Pildegovics, Latvia's envoy in Washington, told the Diplomat that it's only in the last 17 years that his country has been able to build bilateral relations with Moscow.

"Historically, our relations have been rather rocky. For most of the 20th century, Lativav was technically part of the Soviet Union, and we became part of the Soviet Union against our will."

Even so, he said, the two countries have been able to solve "many difficult issues" including the removal in the mid-1990s of thousands of Russian troops stationed on Latvian soil.

"We have a 200-kilometer-long border with Russia, and we wish Russia would become a stable, democratic, predictable neighbor — and of course elections are part of that," said Pildegovics. "But we regret that Russian authorities won't allow OSCE monitors to observe those elections."

Audrius Bruzga, Lithuania's ambassador in Washington, says he's also unhappy with the latest developments in Moscow.

"We are surprised with what the leadership of Russia is saying," said Bruzga, whose country has 3.5 million inhabitants, making it the largest of the three Baltic states. "Lithuania is part of the EU and NATO, and we're engaged in cooperative relations with our European partners. So it would be in the interests of all of us to have a close relationship with Russia based on trust and respect. Russia should allow observers to come in, so that its elections are open and transparent. This is standard for a democracy."

Pildegovics, who was an official observer to the 1996 elections won by Boris Yeltsin, said Latvia "considers the Soviet period as an illegal annexation of the Baltic countries" — a view Moscow still refuses to accept.

"The people of Latvia made a very clear-cut decision to break away from the former Soviet empire and rejoin the European community of nations," he said. "Latvians made great sacrifices to re-establish their statehood, democracy and the rule of law. We are a miraculous example that such transition is possible, that people are able to regain their freedom and prosperity."

Unlike the other former Soviet republics, the three Baltic countries were sovereign, independent nations before being occupied by Soviet troops during World War II — an occupation never recognized by the United States. Most of the other 12 former Soviet republics won their independence simply because the USSR had collapsed.

And unlike the case in Russia, economic prosperity in the Baltics doesn't hinge on oil exports, but rather transportation, logistics and high-tech.

Estonia, for example, is a multi-ethnic country with more than 40 groups, though ethnic Estonians comprise about 70% of the population. Roughly one-third of the country's inhabitants reside in Tallinn, the picturesque medieval capital, though one of the government's main objectives is to bring more prosperity to smaller cities.

"Since the very beginning when Estonia regained its independence, we committed ourselves to developing an open society, and we decided to carry out radical economic reforms," said Reinart. "We did it by the book, and I believe this has served us well."

Last December, the three Baltic states became signatories to the Schengen accord, which removes all internal borders within the EU. That means one can drive from the Estonian capital of Tallinn to Lisbon, Portugal, and not be asked once to present a passport. All three countries, which became EU members in 2004, could be using the euro as early as 2010 or 2011.

Yet the ambassadors worry about the consequences of allowing elections to take proceed in Russia unless they are free, fair, open, transparent and democratic. That view is reflected by analysts and observers, who say Putin's state-controlled news media is creating an oppressive atmosphere for anyone opposed to the president's United Russia party.

Putin's second term is ending and he may not legally seek a third term, though all indications are that Medvedev — the favored presidential candidate — will pick Putin as his prime minister. Obstacles put up by Putin, who deeply distrusts foreign election observers, are what led the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights to decide in early February not to send its mission to Russia.

"We made every effort in good faith to deploy our mission, even under the conditions imposed by the Russian authorities," said Christian Strohal, director of the Warsaw-based human rights body. "The Russian Federation has created limitations that are not conducive to undertaking election observation."

The United States backs that position. David Kramer, a U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state, told the International Herald-Tribune by phone: "Countries should be accustomed to the fact that respected international organizations come in and observe and monitor their elections. Russia should not be exempt from that; it is part of developing into a normal democratic society."

Nevertheless, Bruzga said the worst thing the EU can do is turn its back on Moscow, whether or not Putin still controls the political machine there.

"We think Europe should not disengage Russia," said the Lithuanian ambassador. "Russia is an important partner of Europe. We should stick together."

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