NATO Protects Rights of Ethnic Minorities in Baltic States

When recently visiting Latvia and Lithuania, NATO's Secretary General George Robertson displayed political rhetoric of a fundamentally new kind. In Lithuania, he announced that her NATO membership could not be guaranteed. As to Latvia he non-equivocally said her future with NATO rode on how the October Parliamentary elections were held and whether her attitude towards Russian-speaking population became more liberal. Estonia, her municipal elections approaching fast, should also take thought as concerns the issue of ethnic minorities. For the past five years, these Baltic States have demonstrated to Brussels their complete readiness to support any peacekeeping or anti-terrorist operations of NATO and their resolve to incur whatever military expenses prescribed, even facing the poor house. The former Soviet Baltic republics meet all the formal requirements set by NATO military technocrats. Their military officials learn strategic planning conducting joint operations while on governmental and presidential levels they keep swearing, time and again, that for them there is no alternative to becoming members of the North Atlantic alliance.

However, NATO's Secretary General made a move unexpected to many Baltic politicians and set a number of additional requirements. The decision of the NATO summit in Prague would depend on how they are conformed to. The further development of democratic institutions, the support of membership in NATO not just by politicians but also by general public, the social integration of ethnic minorities and, finally, good neighbourly relations with Russia were all on the list. In other words, Mr. Robertson made it clear there would be no formal criteria of joining NATO by the three countries. Accepted would be only those not likely to cause Brussels political problems in the future.

Today Latvia has found herself the weakest link in NATO's Baltic flank. Late last year, Latvia and Estonia were notified through the OSCE channels that their further integration into European political and military institutions was not likely unless they curbed the odious phenomena of the so-called 'ethnic democracy'. The West was severely critical of that to be elected to a public office one was legally required to speak, the Latvian and Estonian languages, respectively. This requirement severely limits the political rights of ethnic minorities.

While Estonia, although with a heavy heart, has abolished the discriminatory language requirement, Latvia is still sitting tight on her ethnic-democratic gains of the nineties. Vaira Vike-Freiberga, the Latvian President, asked the Parliament for a change in the law on elections in order for the country not to lose the U.S. support of her NATO-related aspirations. Not long before the visit of NATO's Secretary General, Latvian Parliamentary Committees on Defence and National Security convened. The Latvian Ambassador to the U.S. urgently came back home to attend.

According to certain information leaked from behind closed doors, the participants said should their country give in to these NATO demands, they certainly would not be the last. Latvian mass media are convinced that once the elections law has been changed, NATO will insist that permanent residents, non-citizens, to put it plainly - foreigners be granted the right to be elected to municipal offices. Next should come pressure to institute secondary education in Russian.

The results of the Parliamentary debates will greatly impact on what NATO member-states will decide. When speaking at a press conference after his meeting with the Latvian President, Mr. Robertson said the expectation was that all prospective members be open on all issues, including those of ethnical minorities. He further noted that even though Latvia had never faced such requirements before, it was not that NATO had raised its standards. Yet as he put it, 'democracy is dynamic'. NATO always looks at how ethnic minorities are treated, comparing existing situations with the accepted standards of democracy. NATO is not just a military organisation. It is a fraternity of nations whose members share the law-upheld values of democracy and freedom.

Latvia's adherence to 'ethnic democracy' is unprecedented. While in Estonia over 250,000 non-citizens, 80,000 of them Russians have participated in local elections since 1993 and Lithuania granted this right to non-citizens just a month ago, Latvia remains unmoved. Over half a million of her non-citizen population can neither elect nor be elected. Their electoral rights at a municipal level are not even theoretically considered. Citizenship through naturalisation became possible five years ago, yet since then the number of naturalised Latvians has not exceeded 50,000. This is just one third of the number of naturalised Estonians while Estonian population is half that of Latvia.

George Robertson made clear to the Latvian Parliament that NATO would not follow the principle once stated by the US President Franklin Roosevelt who said, 'Sure, Somosa is a son of a bitch, but he is our son of a bitch.' Mr. Robertson insisted that all candidate states, including Latvia, must conform to the highest standards of democracy. And that adherence to these principles would be closely watched all the time until the summit in Prague. 'We are talking about the standards common to all democratic states', he said.

When asked why Turkey, though having lots of unresolved democracy issues, is nevertheless a NATO member, the Secretary General explained that Turkey had been accepted 50 years ago and the standards of democracy had been elevated since then. Mr. Robertson especially noted that NATO members had never made any decision as to how many countries would be ultimately invited to join and when. The tension is still here, and it is serious. Membership in NATO is an enormous responsibility.

The second stage of NATO's contemporary expansion more and more differs from the first one, when Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic were accepted. Then the decision was based on political considerations rather than on adherence to democratic norms. Preparations were underway to surround Yugoslavia and curb the Balkan superpower. Today the situation is different. Brussels, backed by Washington, intends to raise NATO's admission requirements. To demonstrate its fidelity to principles, NATO may even close the door in the face of the most persistent adherents of 'ethnic democracy'. To believe it all one needs to do is remind oneself of what Mr. Robertson said over and over to the effect that Russia would have no vetoing power where the issue was concerned. NATO members could make this decision all by themselves.

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