Baltic Summit Awaits Putin’s Confirmation

The Moscow Times
May 23, 2008

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has been invited to attend a Baltic summit in Latvia but so far doesn’t plan to go, his spokesman said Thursday.

Putin never visited Latvia, Lithuania or Estonia during his eight years as president, a time that saw relations deteriorate between the Baltic states and Russia. A rejection of the invitation would signal that Moscow has little interest in improving ties with the Baltics, a foreign affairs analyst said.

Putin has been invited to attend a June summit that will address ways to improve regional cooperation, said Vilmars Henins, foreign policy adviser to Latvian Prime Minister Ivars Godmanis. Henins said Latvian authorities had not received confirmation of Putin’s attendance, denying a Latvian news report that Putin would likely go.

Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Putin’s agenda did not include a trip to the summit, adding that the invitation was sent when Viktor Zubkov was still prime minister.

Riga will chair the seventh Baltic Sea States Summit on June 3 and 4, a biennial event that has brought together government leaders from 11 countries since 1996. If Putin attended the gathering, he would become the first Russian prime minister to visit Latvia in a decade. Then-Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin participated in the summit in Riga in 1998. Putin attended the forum in 2002, when Russia hosted it in St. Petersburg.

Over the past two years, relations have soured with Estonia and Lithuania, which only dropped its veto of key Russia-EU talks on Wednesday.

Even though Putin visited East European countries like Poland as president, he stayed away from the Baltics, a decision that analysts have described as a missed opportunity.

Russia’s relations with Latvia are relatively good, compared with those with Lithuania and Estonia. In March 2007, Moscow and Vilnius signed a border agreement, officially marking the post-Soviet boundaries between the two countries for the first time. “If he refuses, it would be pretty telling,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of the Russia in Global Affairs journal. He said Putin might send one of his deputies.

Henins shrugged off a suggestion of lingering tensions. “You think we had bad relations?” he said.

On the bright side, Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves plans to participate in a Finno-Ugric congress Russia is hosting in Khanty-Mansiisk in late June, RIA-Novosti reported from Tallinn. Prime Minister Andrus Ansip and Tallinn Mayor Edgar Savisaar have also been invited. This stands in stark contrast with last year, when Estonian officials were not invited, following a dispute over a Soviet-era monument.

Even though Putin’s job as prime minister focuses primarily on domestic issues like infrastructure development, he has a busy international schedule. He is expected in Belarus for a CIS meeting of heads of state on Friday, and he will travel to Paris next week.