Staunton, April 7 – In the wake of the Crimean crisis, a senior editor of Russia’s Regnum news agency says, the three Baltic countries have become even more geopolitically significant than they were for both Russia and the West, but because of its own policy failures, Russia has lost any significant influence in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania for the foreseeable future.
In an analysis posted online yesterday, Igor Pavlovsky, the editor in chief for the North-West office of Regnum based in St. Petersburg, first outlines why the three Baltic countries have gained in importance and then describes why in each case Moscow’s efforts to use “soft” power have failed (regnum.ru/news/polit/1787435.html).
Pavlovsky lists four reasons why the three are now more geopolitically important than they were before Crimea: they are NATO members on Russia’s border, two of them have “a critical mass” of Russian citizens and persons without citizenship, they are “strategic transit paths” for Russian and Belarusian goods, and they thus affect Russia’s energy security.
But his more interesting comments arise from his devastating critique of Moscow’s failure to gain influence there. As the Crimean crisis showed, Russian diplomacy in the Baltic region has been “absolutely ineffective,” and Moscow’s support for ethnic Russians there has “also turned out to be a failure.”
Russia has not only been unable to expand its influence among the three, but “today in the Baltic countries,” Pavlovsky continues, “we can observe the growth of anti-Russian attitudes, and this is not always connected with our actions in Ukraine or in any other country,” as some suggest in attempts at self-justification.
Instead, he says, “it is necessary to recognize that today the political space of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia has been lost by us,” that “not one politician who has declared his sympathy to Russia or is simply neutral about our country will be able to come to power in these countries,” despite business and even personal ties.
According to Pavlovsky, “the examples of Nil Ushakov [in Riga] and Edgar Savisaar [in Tallinn]” are only exceptions that prove this rule.
The Ukrainian crisis has clearly shown “the inability of Russian structures to work with the national mass media” in the Baltic countries. The situation is especially bad from Russia’s point of view in Lithuania, which lacks a large non-Lithuanian media, but it is not good in Latvia or Estonia either.
In all three countries, at present, Russia must deal with the fact that there is “a clearly formulated image of Russia as an aggressor.” And that anti-Russian rhetoric, which serves the current national elites well, will only intensify in the run-up to elections for the national governments and the European Parliament.
“Russia is not in a position to affect this process” in a positive way, Pavlovsky says.
As a result, the Regnum editor continues, “Moscow must prepare itself for the growth of popularity of nationalist parties in the Baltics and the sharp reduction in its possibilities for maneuver in measures and declarations in defense of the humanitarian rights of compatriots because from now on [these] will be treated exclusively as an attempt to ‘revise borders.’”
“At the same time,” he says, there is likely to be a radicalization of opinion among Russian compatriots, “who will extrapolate the Crimean situation to their own countries,” a view that will present real “challenges” for Moscow’s policy there. Unfortunately, Pavlovsky continues, the Russian foreign ministry “does not have an adequate answer” for these.
Adding to this challenge are the likelihood of a strengthening of NATO’s presence in the Baltic countries, who are seeking “real ‘security guarantees’” from the West and increasing restrictions on the transit of Russian oil, gas and other exports. Any effort by Moscow to discuss this will be responded to in “an extremely aggressive fashion” by Baltic media and elites.
Lithuania is the leader among the Baltic countries in anti-Russian rhetoric, Pavlovsky says. That is because of the upcoming presidential elections there, the failure of several major infrastructure projects, government control over or influence on the national media, and the increasing tendency among Lithuanians to ignore their ties with Russia.
Latvia, Pavlovsky says, “as a result of its geographic, national and territorial specifics cannot allow itself” to be as Russophobic as Lithuania. “Nevertheless,” the amount of what he calls “anti-Russian hysteriais quite high and will last at a minimum until the elections to the Latvian Seima which will take place in the fall.”
At the same time and partially in response, “the large ethnic Russian community” in Latvia will certainly seek to defend its rights and to make demands. What is needed, Pavlovsky says, is for Russia “to immediately formulate a clear position relative to ‘support’ or ‘non-support’ of this trend and to give answers to the questions of the ‘compatriots’ movement as a whole.
And in a backhanded way, Pavlovsky makes reference to an issue that some in Latvia fear Moscow might use as it has used the ethnic Russians in Crimea – Latgalian separatism. The Regnum editor says that Latvians are so afraid of that possibility that they won’t allow it to be discussed in the media even though many are thinking about it.
Estonia, “like the other countries of the region,” the Regnum editor says, “occupies in public a quite harsh position regarding Russia.” But the process of forming a new government, fears about new economic problems, and memories of the Bronze Soldier controversy of 2007 are making “issues of ‘opposing the aggression of Russia’ not as significant as in Lithuania.”
Given this pattern, Pavlovsky says, “if Moscow does not draw corresponding lessons from the events in Ukraine, then Russia will remain for a long time to come in a situation in which its interests will be ignored in this strategically important region,” one in which Russia’s opponents can “artificially create” chaos on its borders.
By describing the situation in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in this way, Pavlovsky is not suggesting that Moscow accept it but rather insisting that the Kremlin recognize that it has a problem in the Baltics and take steps to change it. What those steps might be will deserve the closest possible attention.