This year has seen some impressive gains by Latvia and the other Baltic states in foreign relations, but all that could be seriously undone by Latvia’s confused tactics in the proposed border agreement with Russia.
Earlier in the year, President Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga’s decision to go to Moscow for the May 9 celebration marking the 60th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany was controversial at the time but subsequently brought great dividends. Vīķe-Freiberga used the occasion to make very well reported pronouncements about 1945 being a liberation from the Nazis but also the beginning of 50 years of Soviet oppression.
This theme was picked up by many others in the West, leading to Russia’s foreign ministry strenuously attempting to counter this criticism, and seriously detracting from President Vladimir Putin’s hoped for triumphal celebrations.
For the small Baltic states this was an important step up in having the international community understand their situation more fully.
At the same time, the long-standing border dispute with Russia seemed to be coming to a perhaps successful conclusion. Negotiations—ever since 1991!—had been difficult as Russia continually wanted to tie aspects of the border agreement to Estonia’s and Latvia’s treatment of their Russian-speaking minorities. For their part, both Estonia and Latvia wanted any agreement to make reference to the peace and border treaties of 1920 in which Soviet Russia, as it then was, recognised these two states and their borders. This historical recognition is important because it marks the continuity of Estonian and Latvian statehood. The states that emerged in 1991 were not new, but the legal continuation of the pre-war independent states.
But after the incorporation of the Baltic states into the Soviet Union in 1941, small areas were carved out of Estonia’s and Latvia’s former territory and made part of Russia. After regaining independence in 1991, these areas remained part of Russia. In Latvia’s case this was the Abrene region.
In the long discussions about new border agreements, neither Estonia nor Latvia have made any claim to take back their former territories, areas that are now entirely russified.
The border agreements in the late 1990s became a priority for Estonia and Latvia as both countries hoped to join the NATO defense alliance and the European Union, and needed to have the issue cleared up. For its part, Russia was happy to delay talks hoping this would confound these attempts to join. Who would want to accept as members countries with unresolved borders? Negotiations, held in secret, did go part of the way to getting agreement on borders (in Latvia’s case in 1997), but no further progress was made as other political agendas were played out.
To the surprise of Russia, the EU and NATO did accept Estonia and Latvia with the de facto borders as they stood, while urging the two countries to come to an agreement with Russia. For its part, Russia in the last couple of years has tried to work towards a visa-free regime with the EU, but the unresolved border issue has been a reason for the EU to not hurry. So, for many reasons, there was some need to finally come to an agreement.
Serious talks resumed in early 2005. At one stage Russia hoped the agreements would be signed at those same May 9 celebrations in Moscow. At another stage Russia proposed joining to the agreement with Latvia a statement of political principles that should guide relations between the two countries, but this met a cool response and was not pursued. It seemed an agreement was close, along the lines of the still secret 1997 draft.
Then, at the end of April, Latvia released its bombshell. It now wanted to attach to the agreement a one-sided declaration reserving for Latvia all rights granted by the 1920 peace settlement. At Russian insistence, the 1997 draft agreement had removed all reference to the 1920 peace settlement. Constitutional advice to the Latvian government, it was now said, was that if the agreement did not contain such historical reference, it would breach Latvia’s constitution, paragraph 3 of which states that Latvia consists of the 4 provinces of Vidzeme, Kurzeme, Zemgale and Latgale—implying then Abrene as well. And this paragraph can only be changed through a referendum.
Russia refused to proceed with negotiations, interpreted the move as a grab for territory and loudly criticised it. Latvia had to explain, not least to the rest of Europe, why it needed such a statement now. Latvia has found the going here very tough, even though such one-sided declarations are at times used in international agreements.
Moreover, this decision has revealed sharp differences in Latvia’s internal politics. The president, who apparently was not consulted, is furious. Different politicians are criticising the move. And lawyers and commentators are disagreeing strongly over the necessity of the declaration and whether it would be unconstitutional to proceed without it.
The president sought to regain the initiative by urging that the issue should be looked at by Latvia’s Constitutional Court before the agreement is signed, not afterwards if an objection is made as prescribed in normal legal process. But this requires changing the court’s legislation. Others have suggested such a one-sided declaration was more appropriate if it came from Parliament during the ratification process. After signing, the border agreement would need to be ratified by both sides.
Latvia’s government now finds itself fighting on two fronts—internationally and internally—to work out a way of handling the situation that would not place it in constitutional hot water and would still leave some hope for an agreement eventually being signed with Russia.
Meanwhile, Estonia took a different tack and signed its border agreement with Russia in early June. In this case, too, all reference to the 1920 peace settlement was omitted, but in Estonia’s constitution there is no reference to specified territory. However, in its ratification process Estonia’s parliament has since announced it will only ratify if a one-sided declaration is attached reasserting the historical continuity of Estonia. This too has infuriated Russia, which accuses Estonia of not previously negotiating in good faith if this point now comes up, but it has placed Russia itself on the back foot as to why it will now refuse to ratify the agreement it signed.
Latvia remains in a mess, with all the appearance of ad hocery. And many other questions arise. Why did the 1997 agreement not contain any historical reference (it was negotiated in secret by a prime minister from the nationalist For Fatherland and Freedom party!)? Is there a constitutional crisis or not? Will signing an agreement be interpreted as unconstitutional? Is such a one-sided declaration needed after all?
The Latvian government is in a genuinely difficult situation, but there is no end to debate about how much of this is Latvia’s own making—an example of seemingly snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
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