Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Is Moscow Going to Torpedo Border Accords with Estonia and Latvia?

Paul Goble

            Staunton, October 4 – Mikhail Demurin, a former Russian diplomat and an influential nationalist commentator on foreign policy, says that Russia does not need and would be better off without any border accords with Estonia and Latvia than to accept any that reflect the Baltic view that the current states are the legal continuation of the pre-war republics.

            Tallinn has again made reference to the 1920 Tartu treaty between Moscow and the Estonian Republic in the second border accord the two countries reached in 2014, Demurin says, arguing that “in this position of the Estonian side, there is nothing new,” given that it had included a reference to that treaty in legislation approving the 2005 border accord (
           That prompted the Russian side to withdraw its signature because Moscow does not accept the principle that Estonia has enjoyed legal continuity as a state since 1920 and thus was occupied by the Soviet Union between 1940 and 1991. In the Russian view, the Estonian republic ceased to exist in 1940 and a new republic was established in 1991.

            Before the 2005 border accord was signed, Moscow proposed that the two countries ratify the accord without any additional language but then agree to a joint declaration between Moscow, on the one hand, and Estonia and Latvia, on the other, that would foreclose any use of such differences to “the harm of good neighborly relations.”

            “Under pressure from the US and the EU,” Demurin continues, the Russian side backed down and did not insist on that.

            What happened next, he observes, “is well known: Riga and Tallinn tried to accompany the signing of the border treaties or their ratification with unilateral political declarations thus reserving to themselves the possibility of returning to their ‘right’ to the drawing of borders with Russia along the delimitation line established by the 1920 treaties.”

            In response, Moscow withdrew its signature and talks about the borders had to resume, and the current agreements do not include the same provisions that the Estonians and Latvians included in the earlier version. However – and this is Demurin’s key point – they are employing another tactic Moscow can and should invoke as justification for not agreeing to the accords.

            Riga, for example, is now insisting on a mention of the decision of the Latvian Constitutional Court of November 29, 2007, which speaks of the inviolability of Latvian borders as set out in the country’s constitution. Those borders, of course, are the Latvian-preferred ones and not those negotiated with Moscow in recent years.

Now, it appears, the Russian commentator says, that having failed with its earlier effort to include reference to the 1920 Tartu Treaty in its signing document – which despite Demurin’s claims does not make it part of the border accord as such – Tallinn has decided to include a legal analysis with its bilateral border accord that will make similar references.

Some may ask “what significance in a bilateral context can the decisions of constitutional courts and even more legal nots have?” But they can have a lot: Everyone should remember that it was a decision of the Constitutional Court of the Federal Republic of Germany on May 21, 1957, that became the basis for subsequent events, including German reunification.

Obviously, the principle of legal continuity of statehood remains critical for Estonian and Latvian elites, Demurin says; but in thinking about whether to ratify border accords, Moscow must “constantly keep in mind” the nature of the regimes with which it has concluded but not yet ratified these accords.

Estonia and Latvia have done everything they can to create difficulties for Russia’s relations with the EU and the US, they have sought and obtained a NATO presence on their territories next to Russia, they have tried to “revise” the history of World War II, and they have sought to “distort the truth about everything concerning the history of the USSR.”

Those in Moscow who say that it is “important to have functioning border treaties once and for all and are glad for that reason to make certain concessions are closing their eyes to this,” Demurin says, adding that he does not agree with that argument at all. On the one hand, the absence of such treaties hasn’t caused Russia any problems; and on the other, Moscow must view Estonia and Latvia as regimes that are advancing the interests of their chief patron, the US.

Demurin says he hopes and even expects that eventually the Estonians and the Latvians will come to their senses, but that is not yet the case. Consequently, the Russian government should refuse to ratify any border agreement with them that is tied to signing statements or legal analyses that contain provisions Moscow rejects.

Demurin is hardly the only Russian commentator making this argument. For others, see and Of course, this may simply be a negotiating tactic, but there are three reasons it is worrisome.

First, Moscow could use the absence of border accords to cause the kind of trouble along the Estonian-Russian and Latvian-Russian borders that could lead to the appearance of subversive “little green men” in the two Baltic states and a new international crisis given that the two are members of the EU and NATO.

Second, Demurin’s reference to Western objections to a joint Baltic-Russian declaration in 2004 about not exploiting historical differences was based on a principled understanding by the West of what legal continuity means in the Baltic context. Moscow may promote this idea again, and the current leaders in the West may view it differently now than 11 years ago.

And third, there is an even broader and thus more disturbing implication in Demurin’s argument.  It is one thing for Vladimir Putin to make bold declarations about the former Soviet space; it is quite another to see them operationalized as a requirement that Moscow never agree with anything at odds with the Soviet understanding of the past.

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