Ex-Soviet NATO state hosts Russia to make history

By Sebastian Alison

21 Apr 2005
Source: Reuters
VILNIUS, April 21 (Reuters) – Diplomatic minnow Lithuania made history on Thursday by becoming the first NATO state on ex-Soviet soil to host former overlord Russia at a senior alliance meeting, highlighting the shift of influence in Europe.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov signed an agreement with NATO chief Jaap de Hoop Scheffer allowing for closer cooperation between their forces — in a hotel whose every floor used by foreigners was bugged during the Soviet era.

“The venue … does stimulate reflection on the historic turns of international relations over the last 15 years,” de Hoop Scheffer told a news conference after NATO foreign ministers met Lavrov.

The three Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940, after Germany ceded them to Moscow’s sphere of influence in the secret Molotov-Ribbentrop pact.

The Red Army withdrew in the face of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, but reconquered them in 1944. They remained unwilling members of the Soviet Union — and so of its military alliance, the Warsaw Pact — until its 1991 collapse.

All three Baltic states have rejected the Soviet past absolutely, joining the European Union as well as NATO.

Lavrov put a brave face on this, even as his own security was guaranteed by Dutch-piloted NATO F-16 jets based in Lithuania and guarding airspace over Vilnius, saying the talks had widened and deepened political dialogue.

“All of that contributes to an improved area of trust between Russia and NATO. All members of this format are now committed to its continuing success,” he told a news conference.

Despite his optimism, the leaders of two Baltic states, Lithuania and Estonia, are boycotting a massive party in Moscow on May 9 — the day it calls “Victory Day” over Nazi Germany but which Balts see as marking the resumption of Soviet occupation.

In a further sign of how Moscow’s influence in its backyard has declined, Lavrov was sucked into a row on Thursday over whether the United States had a right to seek “regime change” in Russian ally Belarus, and had to watch its huge neighbour Ukraine be offered talks towards NATO membership.

The Lietuva hotel, where the ministers met, was once the only hotel in Soviet Lithuania where foreigners could stay, and was earmarked for interning them if war broke out, top Lithuanian historian Arvydas Anusauskas told Reuters.

“Military planners during the Soviet era designated the Lietuva Hotel as the location for interning any foreign tourists in Lithuania who might have been in the country in the event of a threat of war with the NATO countries,” he said.

Those days are gone. Lavrov had to be content with being philosophical when asked if Ukrainian membership of NATO was compatible with Moscow’s interests.

“It would be the choice of Ukraine to choose its partners, and it’s the sovereign matter of Ukraine,” he said.

Kiev, which staged a coup last year to overthrow a Moscow-backed government after it rigged a presidential election, has made its choice. And it favours NATO. (Additional reporting by Darius James Ross in Vilnius)