LEADERS of the three former Soviet Baltic states are hoping that President Clinton's visit to the Latvian capital of Riga July 6 will reaffirm United States support for their newly independent democracies.
The six-hour visit, the first by a US president to a Baltic state, is meant to show the world - including Russia - that the White House is no longer focused only on the Kremlin.
In exclusive interviews with the Monitor, the leaders of Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania said they are looking to the West - particularly the US - to guarantee security and economic development.
``We [Baltic countries] were always between the two great flames of Russia and the West,'' said Latvian President Guntis Ulmanis in a telephone interview from Riga. ``Now we are interested in gaining the participation of the United States to help us get out of that role.''
Forcedly annexed into the Soviet Union in 1940, the Baltic states gained independence from Moscow in 1991. But they remain deeply suspicious of Russia and still struggle to emerge from under their former ruler's shadow.
``Our security is the biggest problem,'' said President Algirdas Brazauskas of Lithuania. ``We are in a dangerous situation. Lithuania suffered through numerous sad events after we lost our independence in 1940, and for that reason we are interested in strengthening our state.''
The Baltic visit will be Mr. Clinton's first stop in a week-long tour centered around the economic summit of the Group of Seven (G-7) leading industrialized nations in Naples, Italy.
Clinton is expected to focus on the Baltic nations' long-term security when he meets with Presidents Ulmanis, Brazauskas, and Lennart Meri of Estonia. All three pin hopes on full integration into Europe and NATO, and are signatories to the Western alliances' Partnership for Peace program, which offers its former Warsaw Pact foes limited participation in the alliance.
``It's positive that both Russia and the Baltics are in the Partnership. I see no contradictions,'' Ulmanis said.
Highest on Clinton's agenda is the presence of former Red Army troops left behind after the Soviet collapse. About 130,000 troops have left the tiny Baltics - whose combined population totals less than 8 million - since 1991. No troops are left in Lithuania, roughly 2,000 remain in Estonia, and about 10,000 are still in Latvia, although agreement has been reached for their withdrawal by Aug. 31.
Washington has accelerated the pullout by giving Russia millions of dollars to dismantle military installations and build homes for departing officers. But Russia says it cannot provide for the remaining soldiers, and has linked their return to the Baltics' treatment of their Russian-speaking minorities.
Clinton called Russian President Boris Yeltsin's withdrawal of troops from Lithuania and promise to leave Latvia ``rather encouraging,'' according to remarks published yesterday by the Izvestia newspaper. He said Russia is no longer a threat to Eastern and Central Europe and expressed worries that the Baltic nations may be overstepping their boundaries on human rights.
``The US energetically supports the rights of Russians who choose to stay in the Baltics, and the rights of national minorities in general,'' Clinton said. ``It's a very serious problem for us ... and also for the entire world.''
Talks with Estonia over troop withdrawal are deadlocked, with tensions exacerbated after Mr. Yeltsin issued a June 18 decree saying Russia will recognize only the 1991 border that existed between the two countries. Estonia prefers a 1920 demarcation.
``The position of the United States [concerning the troop withdrawal] has been very clear,'' Estonian Prime Minister Mart Laar said. ``We hope it will help Russia understand that it is more useful for them to withdraw the troops than to keep them here.''
Though Russia agreed to pull out its soldiers from Latvia, relations between the two countries worsened recently after Latvia's parliament proposed a controversial citizenship law that effectively precluded the country's large Russian minority from becoming citizens.
``We were occupied for 50 years, and cannot solve the problem that quickly,'' said Ulmanis, whose parliament backed down after he recommended that the bill be reviewed. ``But we have no alternative but to work it out according to international standards.''
Despite problems with Russia, the Baltic nations' economies have thrived since independence. Stores in the Baltic capitals are starting to resemble Western ones; Estonia's currency is the most stable in the former Soviet Union.
Clinton's visit is a ``very important acknowledgment for us of what we have achieved in the last year, as an independent market-oriented society in the true sense of the word,'' Estonia's Prime Minister Laar says. ``In trade and economics we don't want aid, but to be a real partner.''