The Little Guy's Zest to Join West

Like many in Eastern Europe, people in Baltic states aim for the security of NATO and the EU.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Meelis Virkebau is an Estonian who manages a 5,000-employee textile company in Narva, a northeastern town that borders Russia. His company manufactures upholstery fabrics and dyes.

His cash crop, though, is cotton diapers: He sells more than a million of them each month to stores like Walmart.

Like other businessmen in the region, Mr. Virkebau doesn't export to Russia, because of prohibitively expensive tariffs. The bulk of his exports go to the United States and other European countries, and he's looking to expand his business.

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So last month when Presidents Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin were in Paris signing a charter giving Russia a voice in NATO, Virkebau was optimistic. He, like many here, sees full membership in NATO - and the European Union - as a final break from the former Soviet Union and a move toward added security and financial benefits.

"It's so hard to get financing from Western banks," says Virkebau, explaining how foreign lenders are often reluctant to make long-term investments in the emerging economies of the Baltics region.

"Certainly life has become more difficult [since the collapse of the Soviet Union]," adds Kristine Henilane, a young mother in Riga, Latvia. She says membership in the European Union (EU) would bring Latvia "economic order." "Food costs are high, and salaries are not enough to pay for electricity," she says.

Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania gained their independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991. Since then, each country has privatized businesses, combated organized crime and the drug trade, and stabilized its economy.

But memories of occupation by Nazi Germany in World War II and subsequent forced "Russification" by the Soviet Union are sharp in the Baltics, sparking in each country a fierce determination to hold on to its culture, language, and political independence.

Indeed, Baltic leaders were putting forth a united front last month in Tallinn, Estonia, saying Russia's new relationship with NATO "opened the door" to the Baltic states' eventual membership.

But behind the scripted press conference that coincided with the signing of the NATO-Russia charter, there were cracks in the united front revealing differing agendas among the three countries.

Estonia, perhaps furthest along in privatizing its economy, has first sights set on EU membership. Lithuania is focusing more on NATO membership. Latvia is somewhere in the middle, both in terms of economic progress and in wooing the organizations.

"It will be quite a problem to join NATO all together," says Lithuanian President Algirdas Brazauskas.

Baltic leaders are faced with an almost certain "no" in the first round of NATO acceptances in Madrid next month. And EU membership appears equally uncertain - each country's application will be reviewed next month with a possible recommendation five months later.

"Estonia is performing better than at least one [EU] candidate country," says Toomas Hendrik Ilves, the country's foreign minister. "If we're denied [membership] and others are let in, the EU is a strange organization."

A rejection from NATO and the EU "would be a tremendous setback to the [elected] elites who have staked their careers on freedom and independence," says Atis Lejine, founder and director of the Institute for International Affairs in Riga.

Meanwhile, leaders of the three countries also find themselves in a position of having to educate their citizens: A recent European Commission poll found that, while roughly 30 percent of each country's populations favored NATO and EU memberships, an almost equal percentage was undecided, while 10 percent or more didn't like either, citing fears ranging from no benefits to worsened economic conditions.

During interviews with reporters, Baltic leaders and scholars mulled over what they could do to strengthen Baltic independence. A common refrain among officials was that they were all but left out of the NATO-expansion debate between the United States and Russia. Their suggestions include:

* Further European integration through more efforts by nongovernmental organizations.

* Continued participation in the joint peace-keeping force Baltbat, NATO-sponsored Partnership for Peace exercises, and the Council of Baltic Sea States, a forum for matters of mutual interest.

* Most important, completion of the Baltic-American Security Charter, now being written, to underscore American support of Baltic security. "America understands our predicament," says Mr. Lejine. "Offering us a charter - that's something. They're a superpower."

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