Baltic activists in Washington focus on NATO

The second round of NATO enlargement, with possible invitations to Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to join the alliance, is expected to be one of the main issues occupying the minds of Baltic activists in Washington, D.C., during the next couple of years.

But some say more cooperation among the Baltic activists is needed.

Optimism stirred by the May 2000 "Vilnius statement," in which representatives of the nine NATO candidates called for their simultaneous entry, has somewhat dwindled. During a recent press briefing at Radio Free Europe in Washington, the three Baltic ambassadors to the United States agreed on the principle "one is better than none, two is better than one," though they didn’t abandon the possibility of all three neighbors joining NATO together. Ensuring at least a minimum Baltic presence in the next expansion round is what the embassies and the Baltic community activists are working for at this stage.

Baltic-American organizations have been trying for many years to promote Baltic interests in Washington. Although they have established a certain level of cooperation and operate under the umbrella of the Central and East European Coalition (CEEC), some say there is no coordinated strategy to secure the support of the U.S. Congress for the Baltic states’ admission to NATO.

Some community activists feel a need for a more coherent and integrated plan of action in order to achieve the enlargement goals. Except short annual meetings at the Joint Baltic American National Committee (JBANC), there is no event that would bring together all the organizations, Valdis V. Pavlovskis, president of the Baltic American Freedom League, told Latvians Online.

"The coordination could be much much better," he said, but added that "some organizations don’t consider it important to come together." More cooperation among the various groups is needed, with annual conferences that would discuss strategies for several days in a row, said Pavlovskis, who has tried to initiate such meetings.

Ilmārs Dambergs, representative of the American Latvian Association (ALA) at the new CEEC NATO Enlargement Task Force, said there doesn’t seem to be central coordinator that could publish the results of the meetings held among the three embassies, or the nine aspirant countries’ ambassadors, or different Baltic American organizations.

Coordination is sometimes missing on the grassroots level, too. The valuable NATO enlargement support groups in Eastern and Midwestern states, created during last year’s tour by ALA President Jānis Kukainis and the Latvian Embassy’s counselor on congressional affairs, Jānis Eihmanis, are now lacking coordination, Dambergs told Latvians Online.

Still, grassroots work is the best way to get legislators involved in the Baltic issues, everyone agrees. Baltic constituents can be very influential if they contact their representatives in Congress and explain their concerns, said Karl Altau, managing director of JBANC.

Baltic voters can be particularly effective in states with large Baltic populations, such as New York, New Jersey, Michigan, Illinois and California, Altau said. Organizations such as the JBANC and BAFL help to organize grassroots efforts by sending out e-mails, faxes and letters to Baltic voters asking them to contact their congressional representatives.

Also helping in the NATO expansion debate is the Web site, sponsored by American Latvian Association and World Federation of Free Latvians. ExpandNato posts all the NATO enlargement-related information on its Web site and sometimes sends out printed news updates. It follows the response from readers and answers their questions. The Web site, which now has an average of 500 hits a day, is planning to run interactive conferences in cooperation with JBANC, according to the site’s editor, Roy Dauburs. The number of visitors has tripled in the past few months, he said.

Although quite small, the Baltic electorate is regarded by many as one of the best organized in terms of ability to exert influence in Congress. "Baltic Americans are ‘rabid,’" Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.), co-chair of the House Baltic Caucus, said in a telephone interview.

A fourth-generation Lithuanian-American, Shimkus said the strongest way to enlarge the House Baltic Caucus is for Baltic-Americans to lobby their congressional representatives to join the interest group.

In Congress, the House Baltic Caucus and the Senate Baltic Freedom Caucus are the main channels through which the NATO enlargement and other Baltic interests are championed. Instead of talking to numerous congressmen, Baltic organizations more often contact just the members of the Baltic caucuses, who can then spread the message to other colleagues in Congress, said BAFL’s Pavlovskis. Baltic caucuses educate congressional representatives about the Baltic nations, distribute information and try to get support for Baltic causes. The House caucus had 69 members and the Senate caucus 7 members in the 106th Congress.

Baltic caucuses are likely to play a big role in securing Balts a strong voice during NATO expansion debates.

"The challenge of the Baltic Caucus is to make sure that the Baltic states are up-front in the enlargement process," Shimkus said. This year, Baltic organizations will use the help of Baltic caucuses to promote NATO-related legislative initiatives as well as the ongoing U.S. foreign aid and funding programs: Support for East European Democracies (SEED), Foreign Military (FMF) Funding and its subordinate, the International Military and Education program (IMET).

Though Baltic-American organizations enjoy good relations with the Baltic embassies, a result of which is frequent exchange of information and consultations, the local activists don’t want to be viewed as lobbyists for the Baltic states. "We’re lobbying for the interests of the United States," said JBANC’s Altau. "Our main idea is that the enlargement of NATO would be important for the U.S. security interests."

When the NATO debate approaches, Balts can hope for quid pro quo support of other Central and East European-American groups. The second enlargement road is a sequence in the process, which started some years ago and brought Hungary, the Czech Republic and Poland into NATO, said Altau. JBANC testified at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings, lending its support to the first countries to join, and now groups such as the Polish American Congress are very supportive, he added.

Enthusiastic support is seen from Poles and Hungarians as well as Czechs, agreed Dambergs of the CEEC NATO Enlargement Task Force. These groups are active members of the task force, which plans a major campaign to support NATO enlargement. The campaign will start with a series of letters to the U.S. president, vice president, state and defense departments, Senate, House and the National Security Council. The letters are to state the objectives of NATO aspirants and asking for meetings with officials, according to Dambergs. The working group, which among others includes also Balts, Romanians, Slovaks and Bulgarians, plans to concurrently assess the potential support from constituents in areas with Central and East European ethnic concentration, Dambergs said. It also plans to identify allies and friends among labor unions, veterans groups, NATO committees, think tanks and media—and enlist their support.

Baltic diplomats and local organizations don’t have to start anew in Congress and the Bush Administration. They stress long-time relationships and a lasting support that won’t vanish with the change of cabinet and legislators. And in terms of NATO enlargement, there is not much difference between Bill Clinton and George W. Bush’s administrations. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell stressed in his confirmation hearings that, although the administration would listen to Russia’s objections to the inclusion of the Baltic states in NATO, Russia’s protests shouldn’t determine the enlargement decisions.

"America is not a country who cleans the desk and starts from the beginning (after the elections)," said Stasys Sakalauskas, Lithuania’s ambassador to the United States. "You have the policies, you have the Baltic charter (the Charter of Partnership among the United States of America and Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania), you have all the middle-level officials who have been working for some time on the Baltic issues…We have developed good relations with some Republicans, now they’re going to take higher and lower posts. They will be there, so we won’t talk to people we don’t know."

As for supporters of Balts, Sakalauskas wouldn’t call it a "lobby," but "friends, people who really understand our aspirations." According to the Lithuanian ambassador, "The Baltic case is really clean and clear: We are freedom-loving nations who were deprived of it for 50 years. Therefore, it’s much easier to bring our case to the administration, to Congress, to activist groups. We have a lot of support."

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