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Baltics step from Russia's shadow into Western club

By Special to The Christian Science Monitor / November 20, 2002



RIGA, LATVIA

Two decades ago, Raimonds Graube was drafted into the Soviet armed forces, and later served several years as a reserve officer in the vast military machine whose sole aim was to confront the West.

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Until very recently, the possibility never crossed his mind that he might one day command a NATO army.

In barely a dozen years, Colonel Graube's native Latvia, along with former Soviet Baltic sister states Lithuania and Estonia, has struggled across the 20th century's harshest divide. After nearly half a century in the Soviet fold, the Baltics are striving to regain their historical place in the West.

Despite a few last-minute doubts in the Pentagon about Latvia's preparedness to join NATO, some significant domestic opposition, and the protests of Russia, it seems almost certain that the coveted invitation will be issued at the alliance's summit this week in Prague.

"This means we are moving to our goal, which is to be a firm and permanent part of the West," says Colonel Graube, who heads Latvia's 5,500-strong military - a force too small to even rate a single general.

"It is not just a geopolitical shift," he says. "A complete change of systems has taken place in Latvia, from the Soviet way to the Western way of doing things."

For many here, the moment is one of supreme historical vindication, and the subject of unrestrained joy.

History's pawns

The three Baltic states have been mere playthings of great empires for centuries. They enjoyed barely two decades of independence before a secret deal between Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler handed them to the USSR in 1939.

Many Latvians felt betrayed by the West's acquiescence to their country's incorporation into the Soviet Union following World War II.

"For me personally, the idea of joining NATO is like touching the promised land," says Latvia's new foreign minister, Sandra Kalniete, who was born in Siberian exile because her Latvian parents were labeled "enemies of the people" by the Kremlin. "At last, we will be in the shelter, after all the dirty deals of the 20th century."

For Russia, however, NATO's seemingly inexorable march up to its 16th-century borders presents a strategic nightmare.

President Vladimir Putin has chosen to manage the problem pragmatically, by signing on to the US-led antiterror coalition, forging a direct relationship with NATO, and dropping the Kremlin's previous overt hostility to the Baltic states' westward lunge.

But there is no concealing the growing disquiet among policy-making circles in Moscow.

"The Baltics' entry into NATO will not improve security for anyone," says Sergei Shishkarov, deputy chair of the State Duma's international affairs committee. "Russia cannot be indifferent to what's happening on its borders. This must entail a Russian response [such as a military counterdeployment], and not just a political one," says Alexander Savelyov, an expert with the official Institute of International Relations and World Economy, which trains Russian diplomats

"Whatever it does, NATO will always carry with it the unpleasant odor of the cold war," says Mr. Savelyov. "If we are speaking of building a better Europe, it has become irrelevant."

Latvian leaders express hope that the move may actually improve relations with Russia.

"Admission of Latvia to NATO will create the basis for normalization, and assure that the Baltics will no longer be some kind of 'gray zone' of Russia's influence," Ms. Kalniete says. "We believe Russia has also made its European choice, and is moving in the same direction. We are ready to use our expertise from being part of the USSR to boost understanding between NATO and Russia."

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