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  Russia and Baltic States: silent “reset” of relations?

Viktor Denisenko
2011 07 04

Today the ”reset” of transnational relations (e.g. with the United States or Poland) is quite a popular subject in Russia. Certain “reset” of relations between Russia and Baltic States could also be suspected but so far these are only unofficial talks.

It is not easy to trace the warmth in the above relations. According to the pubic polls, Russian society is accustomed to treat Baltic States as a hostile territory. The polls indicated that Latvia and Lithuania were “most hostile” countries toward Russia in 2005, Latvia and Georgia in 2006, Estonia, Georgia, Latvia, the United States and Lithuania in 2007, Georgia, the United States, Ukraine, Latvia and Lithuania in 2009. The list of “hostile countries” hasn’t changed, however, according to analysts of an independent Levada-Centre polling agency, “the picture of an enemy” might change its locality depending on the political situation.

Traditionally the Baltic States are still the first in the list of “enemies” and the image of hostile states is still in the hearts of Russian society and politicians. But aren’t there any changes?

In summer 2010, while analyzing relations of Russia and its neighbors, Anders Aslund, an expert on economic issues from Finland claimed that “Russia's relationship with the three Baltic states has never been better than it is today”. This could be evaluated as an unexpected statement, but there is some rational explanation behind it.

Today Russia and Baltic States have no major conflicts. Everybody’s got tired of the old disagreements concerning interpretation of history. Russia pays less attention to the so called non-citizen problem in Latvia and Estonia. There are also small but actual signs of warming relations. For instance, in summer 2009 Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitë called Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and discussed the problems of Lithuanian carriers and milk exports. Another important event was the visit of Latvian President Valdis Zatlers to Russia. Both countries evaluated the visit positively.

Maybe Russia is too busy in clarifying relations with other countries, e.g. Georgia, Belarus and Ukraine (President of Ukraine Yanukovych turned out to be less pro-Russian than expected).

If the ”reset” does take place, it goes smoothly and silently. The current Russian government still follows the principle “the stronger is right”. According to the Kremlin, Baltic States are too small and irrelevant players of the global policy to make the “reset” of relations public.

Certainly, today Baltic States are members of the EU and NATO and have certain political weight. Yet, Russia, which is trying to avoid more serious talks with the EU and NATO as global players, tries to develop bilateral contacts (within the EU) with more powerful Germany and France (recently with Poland).

Besides, due to psychological barriers Russia cannot change the nature of relations with Baltic States. Although the idea of recovery of the Soviet Union has practically died during the past two decades, Moscow still has a strong feeling of its influence in the post-Soviet space. The fact that countries still existing in the “sphere of influence” (Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia) have become members of the EU and NATO are still evaluated by the Kremlin as a slap in the face. This explains an illogical and quite painful response of Moscow to the message that NATO prepared a special defense plan for Baltic States. Though Moscow hardly has any intentions of military intervention to Baltic States, and NATO’s defense strategy for the three Baltic States shows the Alliance’s determination to pursue the commitments, the Kremlin cannot hide its irritation after finding out details of the defense plan. But this phantom imperial pain was quite short and the fuss about it was not supported and highlighted.

Linguistic implications also demonstrate the “reset” of thinking and relations. Is our region considered by the Kremlin and the entire Russian population as Pribaltics (Прибалтика), i.e. a single space/part of the soviet empire, or the Baltic States (страны Балтии)? Earlier Russian information space used the first option, but today Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia are more often referred to as Baltic States. It seems like a good sign.

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