A kiss on the hand or daggers behind the scenes?

Last week’s decision by NATO to invite Latvia and six other former Soviet bloc countries to join the organisation is certainly a momentous occasion. The striking photograph of red-clad President Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga having her hand ceremoniously kissed by Jacques Chirac as she stood amid the other dark-suited leaders of the western world provides an unforgettable memento of the Prague summit.

But behind the euphoria, questions remain about the meaning of joining NATO, the guarantees and obligations that will come with this, and the hard road that Latvia still has to travel to realise its membership. The Prague summit formally issued an invitation, but membership would com after fulfilling a number of conditions ranging from the amount of military spending to administrative reform to social policy issues. Anachronistically, even the U.S. Senate has to give ultimate approval as well. The final act of joining should come in 2004 for the candidates, which besides Latvia are Estonia, Bulgaria, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia. An earlier post-Cold War expansion of NATO in 1999 brought the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland into the pact.

Latvia’s desire to join NATO, like that of the other candidates, stems from a fundamental concern: to gain protection from western countries against any potential threat. The most likely threat is rarely mentioned by name but is overwhelmingly understood as Russia. This is a particular concern for the Baltic states that were formerly incorporated in the U.S.S.R. and for which memories of the Soviet years are still particularly sharp.

But curiously, this seemingly straightforward desire is now riddled with paradox. Is the NATO of today still the same creature as the Cold War warrior explicitly formed to counterbalance the Soviet Union? In the early 1990s when Latvia’s desire to “return to Europe” was first expressed and membership of NATO mooted, there was an overwhelmingly hostile reception from Russia. It would be unacceptable for especially the Baltic States to join NATO, Russia warned, and such membership would bring about an irreconcilable breach between Moscow and NATO. Now, hardly a murmur has been heard from Russia, whose foreign minister also attended the Prague summit as an interested but not antagonistic party.

What has changed?

The Washington Post in a perceptive editorial argued that NATO has long since lost its chief role as a military warrior and is now more a club of like-minded governments. Moreover, the expansion of NATO membership is coming at the same time as NATO included Russia itself more centrally into the functioning of the alliance (through the “Partnership for Peace” arrangement where consultation with Russia takes place on important issues). Rather than NATO now confronting Russia, NATO provides a window to the West for Russia.

Other actions have also been important, for example NATO’s complete agreement that the Chechen conflict is an internal matter for Russia alone and Russia’s own subsequent jumping onto the anti-terrorist bandwagon. In sum, the objections to the Baltic states joining NATO have withered away largely because Russia itself is very comfortable with NATO as it presently functions.

Despite this, the importance for the Baltics of being able to join NATO should not be underestimated. This is the first time in history that the Baltics in particular have had anything like a security guarantee from powerful western forces. America’s relentless push to expand NATO (the Europeans were always less unanimous on this) has yielded results.

Yet this in turn only leads to a deeper paradox.

It would be foolish to believe there were no longer threats to Latvia’s security as result of NATO membership. However, a crucial point is that of all the kinds of threats that might be envisaged from Russia, that of direct old-fashioned military invasion (against which ostensibly NATO would react to defend Latvia) is also by far the least likely. Threats to security can come in much less military ways: by diplomatic pressure, economic blackmail, using international organisations to push agendas on matters such as human rights, or manufacturing incidents and creating political instability. Watch this space.

Finally, there is the other question of just how well prepared Latvia is to fully contribute to NATO. NATO makes heavy demands, including having its members committed to spending 2 percent of their gross domestic product on defence (Latvia spends a little more than 1 percent at the moment but plans to rapidly raise this). Upgrading of defence capability, committing troops to NATO missions and re-equipping are also a must.

Beyond this, however, there are perhaps more difficult concerns over the ability of the candidate countries to avoid corruption, protect against espionage and accomplishing bureaucratic reforms. For the Baltic states there were even more demands: the position of the Russian minority and even Baltic participation in the Holocaust were all points of discussion with NATO.

A telling point here was that in the week before the NATO summit in Prague, the press reported (from undisclosed or shadowy sources) that the U.S. defence establishment was not happy with the security risks that countries such as Latvia presented for secret NATO information. In their view, corruption, the lack of checking of officials’ past credentials and generally lax security meant these countries could not be trusted with NATO information. Despite already several years of discussion and painstakingly detailed visits and inspections, this deliberate leak seems to have been timed precisely to keep candidate countries such as Latvia off-balance in the lead-up to the summit.

Latvia’s outgoing Foreign Minister Indulis Bērziņš fumed that these accusations were malicious and had never been raised formally with the Latvian government. This is an almost predictable sequence of events now in Eastern European politics: whenever progress seems to be made towards a particular outcome, last-minute doubts are raised (often from oblique sources) that particularly point to possible corruption or weakness to undermine the efforts. As it turned out, this behind the scenes criticism of certain countries was finally put to rest by U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who urged all candidate countries to institute the necessary reforms in their infrastructure that would enable them to be trusted with all NATO secrets.

Joining NATO is certainly one step forward for Latvia, but the road to security is still full of traps and dangers.

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