On May 29, 2009 the online version "Diplomatic Pouch" published the following article on the JBANC Security Conference held in Washington, DC on May 16, 2009.
Baltic States Nervous as Ever About Big Neighbor
Special to the Diplomatic Pouch contributed by Larry Luxner
On May 16, some 120 Latvians, Lithuanians, Estonians and U.S. academics gathered at the Renaissance Mayflower Hotel for a conference elaborately titled "Baltic Regional Security: Old Threats and New Challenges."
But for most of those in attendance, those threats and challenges could be neatly summed up in one word: Russia.
Latvian President Valdis Zatlers, the keynote speaker, devoted a good part of his 30-minute lecture during the daylong conference to the perceived Kremlin menace, warning that Moscow could seek to turn current economic turmoil in the three tiny Baltic states to its own advantage.
“We should not be naive,” warned Zatlers, whose appearance was sponsored by the Joint Baltic American National Committee (JBANC), based in Rockville, Md.
“The last couple of years have shown that Russia is — more than at any time since the end of the Cold War — prone to unilateral action,” said the Latvian leader. “Just a few examples of this are suspension of the CFE [Conventional Forces in Europe] treaty, its war against Georgia, the gas cutoff to Europe and its disregard of commitments followed by claims of privileged spheres of influence.”
He added: “Some in Russia see the crisis as an opportunity to influence its ties among the countries as they become weaker due to the crisis. Others find it useful to use available media tools to highlight economic difficulties in countries of interest, in order to provoke additional tensions.”
Zatlers acknowledged that “the greatest immediate threat to Baltic security is the economic downturn,” which will cause Latvia’s GDP to tumble by as much as 12 percent this year. Lithuania and Estonia are only slightly better off — their economies will probably shrink by 8 percent to 10 percent in 2009 (also see “Latvia Sobers Up As the Party Ends” and “Baltic Neighbors Lithuania, Estonia Clean Up Their Own Economic Houses” in the May 2009 issue of The Washington Diplomat).
“In the near future, we have to avoid becoming vulnerable to social instability and external political pressures,” warned the Latvian president. “We must avoid becoming easy prey to radicalization of the political process. Therefore, it is crucial that we do all in our power to overcome these difficulties.”
It’s a safe bet that the Russian Embassy did not send a representative to the JBANC seminar, which devoted much of its program to analyzing the actions of former president (and now prime minister) Vladimir Putin and his handpicked successor, Dmitry Medvedev.
Indeed, Zatlers was hardly the only one to sound the alarm on Moscow.
Janusz Bugajski is director of the New European Democracies Project at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Democratic institutions will be severely tested for the first time since the collapse of communism,” argued Bugajski. “We may witness a succession of weak governments and more radical opposition that will seek to tap into populist sentiments. In a worst-case scenario, social conflict may escalate and minority populations may be targeted.”
It’s likely, he said, that in such a scenario, “a belligerent Russia will exploit Baltic turmoil” in an attempt to regain control over the three states, which enjoyed a few years of autonomy before being forcibly occupied by the Soviet Union following World War I. Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia all regained their independence following the breakup of the Soviet Union and, until recently, enjoyed some of the world’s fastest growth rates.
“Russia defines its national interests at the expense of its neighbors,” Bugajski charged. “In the case of the Baltic states, Russian officials seek to marginalize all three countries, regardless of whether they are inside or outside of NATO. From the Kremlin’s standpoint, the economic downturn among its former colonies presents an ideal opportunity to inject itself into local political structures.”
Bugajski claimed that Russia’s actions are “no longer based on ideological convictions” but on lucrative business deals in countries where former communists now hold positions of power.
“There have been various attempts at bribery and political blackmail by Russia to discredit local politicians or influence policies to become more pro-Russian,” he said, calling such actions a deliberate provocation. “Even though Moscow’s resources have been depleted by the financial crisis, the expansion of Russian influence ranks as a top priority for the Kremlin.”
And one way Moscow continues to exert influence over the Baltics is through control of energy resources.
Robert Nurick, senior fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, noted that Europe imports 60 percent of its natural gas needs, and that half those imports come from Russia. For the Baltics, those numbers are considerably higher.
“Energy generates 25 percent of Russia’s total GDP, and export revenues are clearly critical to Russia’s economic recovery,” said Nurick, an expert on Russia and arms control. “The Baltic states feel themselves in a particularly vulnerable position, especially in the case of Lithuania.”
Nurick explained that because of their former status as Soviet republics, the Baltics’ electrical and other energy infrastructure networks are almost entirely connected to Russia, rather than to the rest of Europe.
“Up until a few years ago, much of the Western discussion reflected the view that the problem was too much Russian gas. But when you look at what’s happening inside Russia, and compare their own production forecast with their supply and delivery commitment, the problem will very shortly be too little gas,” he warned. “The numbers simply don’t add up. This is one reason Russia is so anxious to monopolize all gas supplies from Central Asia, so they can meet both domestic demand and continue to control supplies to the rest of Europe.”
Nurick urged action to immediately reduce Russia’s leverage over Europe and “provide a margin of safety to the Baltic states.” One alternative is to construct a transmission line from the Baltics to nearby Sweden. But that, he said, “depends on creation of a functioning internal market for electricity which does not exist now.”
Another possibility is to build a liquefied natural gas facility just off the Baltic coast to supplement Russian natural gas. He also advocates the construction of a nuclear power plant to lessen dependence on Russian energy.
As world oil prices have dropped, Moscow has lost some of its clout. But that’s not necessarily a good thing, warned Harri Tiido, representing the Estonian Foreign Ministry.
“We have to be afraid when Russia is strong,” Tiido told his rapt audience, “but we have to be more afraid when Russia is weak.”
above photo (courtesy of "Washington Pouch") From left, wife of the Latvian ambassador Elena Pildegovica; Mrs. Lilita Zatlere; President of Latvia Valdis Zatlers; and Ambassador of Latvia Andrejs Pildegovics attend the 2009 U.S. Baltic Gala at the Renaissance Mayflower Hotel.