U.S Experts to Evaluate Latvia’s Readiness for Visa-Free Regime with U.S.
(BNS 12/26) U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs Maura Harty will visit Latvia to evaluate Latvia’s readiness for a visa-free regime with the U.S. The delegation is concerned in passport and of travel document security the exchange of information on lost and stolen passports, monitoring of border crossings, combating illegal immigration and human trafficking. Latvia and the U.S. agreed in May to take measures towards lifting the U.S. visa regime for Latvians traveling to the U.S. Establishing a reciprocal visa-free regime with the U.S. is a top priority of the Baltic governments. U.S. citizens already can enter Baltic countries without a visa.
NATO Summit to be Held in Riga
NATO will hold its 2006 summit next November in Riga, Latvia (The Baltic Times 12/15).The decision is “proof of Latvia’s full maturity and political weight,” stated Latvia’s President Vaira Vike-Freiberga. It is estimated that the cost to Latvia of the two day conference will be about $26 million. The summit is expected to focus on the transformation of NATO from its origins as a bulwark against communism to a global security player. The summit “will allow our heads of state and governments to give new momentum to the political and military transformation of the alliance,” said NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer.
Lithuania and Ukraine Strengthen Strategic Partnership
On December 23 Lithuanian Foreign Minister Antanas Valionis and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Boris Tarasluk signed a joint statement on enhancing democratic values in the Baltic and Black Sea regions and supported Ukraine’s European and Euro-Atlantic integration efforts, (LitMAF 12/23). Specifically, Lithuania pledged to assist Ukraine in preparation of its EU Action Plan and within the framework of the Plan to cooperate in customs regulations, combating corruption, migration and visa matters and training of Ukraine’s state employees and diplomats in Lithuania. Lithuania also agreed to support Ukraine’s efforts to join NATO and in promoting EU mission in control of the border between Ukraine and Moldovia.
Baltic Economies Take Top Three Places in EU
According to The Baltic Times (12/22), during 2005 the Baltic countries recorded the fastest growth among the 25 EU countries and are expected to continue to do so for at least the next two years. Latvia consistently outperformed its neighbors. Its GDP growth in the first three quarters topped 10%, Estonia’s GDP reached 9.1% and Lithuania came in third with 6.1 percent. The figures differ from the EU’s forecasted full year scores of 9.1 for Latvia, 8.4 for Estonia and 7.0 for Lithuania. Nevertheless, they still have the top three highest rates of growth in the EU. Commenting of the Baltic economies the German magazine Das Spiegel (12/21) wrote: “The Baltic States have set a cracking pace with their radical economic reforms. Their fervor is alarming its old school neighbors in the west.”
A Way to Thwart the Moscow-Berlin Gas Pact
Martin Helme in the Brusselsjournal.com (12/22) in an article titled “Berlin-Moscow Gas Pact Easy to Thwart…if Balts Have Guts” suggests that a way for the Balts to stop the construction of the pipe line is for Estonia to reassert its rights to the Baltic Seabed in the Gulf of Finland. According to the 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, every country has the right to extend its sea border to 12 nautical miles from their shore or the uttermost island. The Gulf of Finland is so narrow (20 miles at the narrowest point) that the two countries cannot utilize their maximum 12 miles without colliding. Therefore, the border runs through the middle. In 1994, Finland and Estonia signed a treaty in which both gave up 3 miles from that middle border line to create a 6 mile wide international seaway in the gulf. This seaway leads to the Russian waters. Under the 1994 treaty, Tallinn and Helsinki can unilaterally revoke the agreement. If they do, it would make Estonia and Finland the only sovereign powers over the gulf’s seabed. As a result, Russia would not be able to construct the pipeline without the permission of Estonia or Finland.
Work Begins on Moscow-Berlin Axis Gas Pipeline
The construction of the Moscow–Berlin Gas pipeline commenced on 12/10/05 without an environmental impact analysis and without any consultation with neighboring countries along the route. The pipeline will extend about 744 miles under the Baltic Sea to Germany. The Baltic nations, Poland and Ukraine oppose the project because they fear it could compromise their energy security. The five countries are overly dependent on the Russian supply of gas, but the dependency was offset by the fact that transit routes to western Europe went through these countries. With the construction of the pipeline this leverage will be gone, and Russia will be able to charge what ever it wants. They also complain about being kept in the dark about the project. Lithuania’s President Algirdas Brazauskas told the German Bild that “during preparation of the project nobody asked our opinion not even once. Everything was done behind our backs.” There are also environmental concerns. The former Soviet Union placed thousands of sea mines and dumped tons of chemical weapons and explosives during and after World War II in the Baltic. “The launching of the construction of the pipeline is a political slap in the face of the EU. For Russia, gas is not only an economic matter but also political,” Toni Lukas head of the Estonian Pro Patria party told AFP reporter. Andrei Illarinov, President Putin’s outspoken aide, who recently resigned in protest against the President’s policies, speaking about the manipulation of Russia’s energy reserves stated that they serve not merely as an instrument of Russia’s foreign policy, but as a “weapon,” reports The New York Times (12/28).
European Union Urges Moscow to Sign Border Treaties
EU has urged Russia to sign border treaties with Estonia and Latvia, reports EU Business (11/15). “I personally raised the matter at a meeting with [Russian] presidential adviser Sergei Yastrzehemsky, EU Commissioner for External Relations Benita Ferro-Waldner said in a letter to European Parliament members. Russia pulled out of a border treaty with Estonia in June, over what it called an “untruthful preamble” that included the terms “aggression by the Soviet Union” and “illegal incorporation by the Soviet Union” of Estonia. Latvia was to sign a border treaty with Russia in May, but the Kremlin refused to sign the pact after Latvia appended a declaration saying it had been occupied by the Soviet Union. Russia perceived Latvia’s declaration as a territorial claim, although the Latvian government has repeatedly stated they do not have any territorial claims. Just recently, on December 23, Latvia’s President again reiterated the position that Latvia has no intentions to claim any part of the Abrene region [now Pytalovo] that was annexed by Russia in 1945.
Russia Calls for Curbing OSCE Election Monitors
At the opening of the Organization for Security and Cooperation In Europe conference, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called for curbing “out of control” OSCE election monitors as tensions mounted over their criticism of voting in former Soviet states, reports EU Business (12/5). It was the presidential vote in Kazakhstan that aroused the Ministers ire. The Russian backed candidate, Nursultan Naarbayev, won 91.01% of the votes cast. The catalogue of violations that the monitors presented included persons interfering in polling places, multiple voting, ballot box stuffing, pressure on voters, tampering with election protocols and records. “The vote failed to meet international democratic standards,” stated the monitor report.
Council of Europe Closes Its Human Rights Monitoring Post in Latvia
After a decade in operation, the Council of Europe voted on 11/23, against strong Russian opposition, to close its human rights monitoring office in Latvia, reports The Baltic Times (12/1). Vladimir Socor writing in the EDM (11/3/05) notes that the CE found that Latvia had ratified and met the requirements established by the Framework Convention [for human rights] and demonstrates a commitment to accelerate the naturalization process of its non-citizens. Furthermore, the EU has repeatedly stated that Latvia fully complies with the EU’s Copenhagen criteria, including minority rights. OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities, Rolf Ekeus, on an assessment visit in June stated that Latvia had made significant progress on naturalization of non-citizens. In 2005, Latvia’s Naturalization Board received nearly 19,000 applications for naturalization of which it rejected 91, most of them because of the applicant’s criminal record. Since the program began the Board has received nearly 110,000 applications.
Russian Lawmakers Pass Bill On Curbing NGOs
AFP/Interfax/AP reports that on 12/27/05 Russia’s upper house of Parliament, the Federation Council, approved by an overwhelming vote of 153 to 1, with one abstention, a controversial bill that drastically curbs the activities of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin is expected to sign the bill. The bill calls for the establishment of an agency to oversee the establishing, financing and activities of NGOs. The bill was fiercely criticized by Russia’s leading human rights groups and NGOs who claim that the law will make their work in Russia very difficult, and that a number of requirements in the bill are in violation of democratic principles and international law. The bill was denounced by the EU, the U.S. Congress (HCR 312, S339), Council of Europe and a number of western and Russian human rights organizations. Critics of the law fear that it will be used to clamp down on the country’s independent and spirited NGOs—one of the last independent political forces in Russia. The agency is empowered to dissolve any NGO if its purpose or activities contradict Russia’s constitution or pose a threat to sovereignty, political independence, territorial integrity, and the national interests of Russia. “The law was written to destroy NGOs except those loyal to the state,” Valentina Melnikova, head of the Soldiers Mothers,” a leading human rights group told reporters. The New York Times (12/27) in an editorial on the bill wrote: “[The bill] is broad enough to make all unofficial groups permanently vulnerable to the Kremlin whims.”
Freedom House Rates the Baltic Countries as Free and Russia as Not Free
Freedom House’s 2005 comparative assessment of the status of political rights and civil liberties in 192 countries rated Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania as Free while Russia was classified as Not Free. The political and civil rights categories provide numeral ratings between 1 and 7 for each country, with 1 representing the most free and 7 the least free. The status designation of Free, Partly Free, or Not Free is determined by a combination of political and civil liberties ratings. Estonia received 1, Latvia 1.5, Lithuania 2.0 and Russia 5.5. According to the report, countries classified as Free enjoy open political competition, a climate of respect for civil liberties, significant independent civic life and independent media. In Partly Free countries, political and civil rights are more limited. In Not Free countries such as Russia, Rwanda, Chad and Cambodia, civil liberties are widely and systematically denied and political rights are absent. In Russia, the report notes, the Russian government has adopted policies that will make it more difficult for the development of a genuine civil society and will impede the development of democratic political opposition.
In its press freedom survey of 2006 which tracks trends in media freedom in 194 countries, Freedom House ranks the Baltic countries as Free. According to the numerical ranking of press freedom in each of the countries, with 1 being the best, Estonia ranks 26, Latvia 27, the United States 28, and Lithuania 31. Russia with 151 was rated as Not Free and placed after Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Haiti and other autocratic and third world countries.