Heart of Europe Waits to Join Europe's Alliance

Someone stole the small granite statue that marked the geographical center of Europe not far from here.

A new monument has imprecisely been set up several miles away in a woodland park. But while Lithuanians view with pride the calculation by the French Geological Institute that this is Europe's heart, politically, culturally, and economically, the Baltic country remains on the periphery and looks likely to stay there for some time, unwanted by the European Union (EU) and NATO.

"The security and economic gains of integration would be substantial. But Lithuania is unlikely to see membership in either in the near future," says one Western diplomat, who requested anonymity.

Since independence at the start of the decade, Lithuania and fellow Baltic states Latvia and Estonia have rejected joining the Russian-dominated Commonwealth of Independent States, preferring to go it alone on the outskirts of the West.

Only Estonia has been accepted for fast-track EU incorporation. NATO inclusion remains elusive for all three.

The first round of eastward expansion instead targeted Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic. On Wednesday, a US Senate panel approved their entry into the Western alliance, sending it on to the Senate floor. The new entries must be ratified by all 16 current NATO members.

Russia would welcome EU membership for the Baltics, hoping to benefit from the increased trade, prosperity, and economic stability it could bring. But many analysts believe that NATO will continue to be a distant dream, due to growling by the Rus-sian bear.

"The Baltics are the last buffer between Russia and NATO once Poland gets in. The issues are very sensitive," says the Western diplomat. Moscow has constantly objected to having what it considers its sphere of influence ceded to the Western alliance.

Russian President Boris Yeltsin emphatically rejected admission of the Baltics in his State of the Nation address Feb. 17, saying any such plans would be firmly opposed. "[It would be] a threat to national security and will entail a reconsideration of the entire complex of relations with NATO," he said.

If Moscow's wrath were incurred, it would probably take the form of an economic squeeze. Russia uses Baltic ports to transport goods elsewhere and provides the former Soviet-ruled states with a variety of goods and services, including fuel.

"Russia has real economic influence and could wield it," says Yevgeny Kozhokin, an expert on the Baltics with the Moscow-based Center for Humanitarian and Political Research.

Some politicians, however, believe strong pressure could be brought to bear on the Russian government by ultranationalists, who feel deeply humiliated by the collapse of the Soviet Union.

"Politicians make certain decisions under political pressure," says Ilya Kudryavtsev, an expert on the Baltics from the center-right opposition party Yabloko.

Analysts say the whole matter may be moot, however, depending on the cost of NATO's first-round expansion, set for 1999. Estimates of the US share of the burden range from $1.5 billion to $125 billion over 10 years.

In the meantime, diplomats say much depends on the consolidation of democracy in Russia, and whether Moscow realizes that NATO's post-cold war role has changed to a balancing force with more emphasis on peacekeeping, such as in Bosnia.

"Things cannot happen overnight. I hope democracy will gain in Russia year by year and that the democratic majority will prevail," Lithuania's new President Valdas Adamkus told the Monitor in an interview.

"Today it is maybe a little bit early to discuss these things."

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