Russia seeks better Europe ties, says Latvia

Financial Times
Robert Anderson
January 22, 2008

(STOCKHOLM) Russia is interested in improving relations with Europe in a pragmatic way and Latvia is a good example of this, according to Maris Riekstins, the country’s new foreign minister.

“I tend to believe that the Russian leadership has come to the conclusion that they ought to be interested to develop these pragmatic relations with all European Union member countries,” Mr
Riekstins told the Financial Times in an interview, pointing to the transformation of Latvia’s once frosty relationship with its former overlord.

Russia’s relations with several EU countries have worsened significantly over the past year – notably with the UK over the assassination of Kremlin critic Alexander Litvinenko – but Mr
Riekstins believes that the atmosphere will change after Russia’s presidential election this summer.

Latvia has been able to build a constructive dialogue despite disagreement over the status of Latvia’s large Russian minority as well as the legal basis of the Soviet occupation. While neighbours have complained about Russia using its energy supplies as a political weapon, Latvia is quietly storing Russian gas to be sent back to western Russia in the winter.

“In natural gas we have managed to develop very good co-operation,” Mr Riekstins said. “We don’t have a single case which might be seen to show bad will in this particular field.”

Even the Ventspils oil terminal – whose pipeline was cut off in 2003 during a row over Latvia’s Russian minority – is now thriving again, with oil products being brought from Russia by rail for export.

The warming of relations culminated last month in the signing of the final settlement of the border between the two countries, disputed since Latvia’s independence in 1991.

“We have managed to improve our relationship with Russia in the past one and a half years,” said Mr Riekstins, a former ambassador to Washington. “Both sides showed a certain flexibility. This
created the basis for understanding and mutual respect.”
However, Latvia remains the exception among the Baltic states. Neighbouring Lithuania and Estonia still have tense relations with Russia – Estonia even suffered “cyber attacks” from Russian
servers last May after it moved a Russian war memorial. In the past Moscow has often chosen to favour one Baltic state temporarily as a lesson to the others to behave. “We still have plenty of
issues on our agenda where we still have disagreement [with Russia],” Mr Riekstins said.

Latvia is seeking assurances that the planned Nord Stream gas pipeline through the Baltic Sea will not damage the environment.

Mr Riekstins also called Russia’s decision in December to suspend the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe treaty “very unfortunate”. Russia used as a pretext for withdrawing from the treaty that the Baltic states, as recent Nato members, were not covered by it.

“What we are not ready to do – and what perhaps some Russian politicians would like to see – is to take some kind of political decision about our armed forces, about [troop number] ceilings,” Mr Riekstins said.