Estonia seeks shelter from icy Eastern wind

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Among the many carefully framed maps adorning the walls of the Estonian President Lennart Meri's Tallinn study, one in particular catches the eye. It depicts the Baltic region in the 17th century when the Swedes were at the height of their power and when the boundaries of Estonia stretched far inside what is today Russia. "It is a wonderful map, but I always try to stand in front of it whenever the Russian ambassador comes to visit," jokes Mr Meri.

Joking apart, much of Mr Meri's time is spent thinking about the almost permanently strained relations between Moscow and Tallinn and about how - and whether - they can ever be repaired. There does not, he concedes, appear to be any immediate prospect of a thaw. Indeed, in the run up to next month's presidential election in Russia, Estonia seems to have been transformed into a whipping boy for Russian politicians anxious to prove their nationalist credentials, a prime target for Moscow's ire.

Quite apart from the usual objections over what it terms human-rights violations against ethnic Russians living in Estonia, Moscow recently claimed it had evidence that members of a volunteer defence force in Estonia had been selling arms to the IRA. Shortly afterwards, the two countries were plunged into a mini version of the spy row between Russia and Britain, which ended with both Moscow and Tallinn expelling one diplomat apiece.

"In any election campaign one must always be careful to separate the electoral rhetoric from the real political substance," Mr Meri says. "But there is no doubt that there has been a sharp increase in the level of hostility coming from Russian politicians towards the Baltic states and especially Estonia."

While Estonian defence officials quickly denied the IRA arms sales charges, many in Tallinn interpreted them as yet another attempt to damage Estonia's international image. As the most economically successful of the three Baltic states, some even saw the move as a deliberate attempt to deter the many western firms seeking to join those who have already invested here.

Mr Meri puts it more diplomatically. "We are a small state, but in our five years of independence we have successfully established a parliamentary system and built a free market economy," he says. "We have been able to do things that Russia has not been able to do. Somehow that undermines the prestige of the Russian leadership. And that is the real reason why Russia has invested so much effort in trying to show Estonia in an appalling light."

Mr Meri personally has good reason to feel wary of Moscow. As an 11-year- old boy, he experienced the annexation of his country by Stalin's Red Army in 1940 and then, one year later, faced the horror of deportation to Siberia - a fate shared by tens of thousands of his countrymen.

In his eagerness to ensure that nothing like it could ever happen again, Mr Meri has become one of the most ardent champions of Estonia's drive to join the European Union and, above all, Nato. A well read and travelled man, the Estonian President, now 67, has long since made his mark in the international arena as someone who brings a refreshing new perspective and tone to the EU and Nato enlargement debates.

When Nato originally proposed its Partnership for Peace programme in 1993, he compared it to a used bottle of Chanel perfume: "Nice to look at, but empty". On suggestions that, given the strength of Russian opposition, the Baltic states might have to accept something less than full Nato membership, he once famously quipped: "Security is like virginity: you're either a virgin or you are not. You either have security or you don't."

In a couple of hard-hitting speeches in Brussels recently, Mr Meri castigated western officials for showing too much caution over admitting new members from the east. Declaring that the "dream of Europe is fading", he accused the West of "failing to take a full breath of the winds of change in central Europe: all it has done is smell them cautiously, as you would chemicals."

One look out of the window towards Russia and the east reminds him of the scale of the problems facing Estonia, the smallest of the three Baltic states with a population of just 1.5 million. "In 1991 there was a tremendous wave of idealism in Russia but the west somehow took it for granted that democracy would spread to it, rather like a meteorological phenomenon, of its own accord. We lost a lot of valuable time in which we could have helped the Russians implement a genuinely democratic society."