Baltic states pin their hopes on Clinton visit

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The Independent Online
WHEN Bill Clinton touches down in the Latvian capital, Riga, tomorrow morning, he will be the first US President ever to set foot in the Baltic states.

The visit, the first stop on an eight-day tour of Europe which will take in Poland, Naples and Germany, is seen as a great coup by his hosts. More than any number of words, they believe that President Clinton's presence in Riga will underline US support for the independence they regained from Moscow just under three years ago. And they hope he will make it clear that their rightful place is now with the West.

'Through this signal the US will be showing the world that we are independent - and that we are going to remain that way for some time to come,' said Janis Eichmanis, chief-of-staff to the Latvian President, Guntis Ulmanis. 'We hope that the President will also acknowledge the significant strides we have made along the path of reform over the past three years.'

As in Warsaw, to which Mr Clinton will fly later tomorrow, the main item for discussion in Riga will be security. But while the Poles will be looking for firmer signals that they may one day become fully-fledged members of Nato, the Balts will be seeking Mr Clinton's support for their insistence that Russia honour its commitment to remove its last remaining troops from Latvia and Estonia by the end of August.

The US, which helped to broker an agreement between Moscow and Riga on the troop pull-out earlier this year, will undoubtedly reiterate its insistence that the agreement be honoured. Like other Western leaders, however, Mr Clinton may urge the Latvians to amend a controversial naturalisation law under which up to 400,000 ethnic Russians living in the country may be excluded from acquiring citizenship. The Balts are hoping Mr Clinton will offer some material aid: on the military front in the form of equipment and training for a recently formed 'Baltic battalion' and on the economic front in the form of an announcement of a Baltic Enterprise Fund under which dollars 50m ( pounds 32.6m) will be set aside for new enterprise in the three countries. Just by his visit, they hope that the President will put their countries 'on the map' for international companies.

Unlike the Latvians, Estonians and Lithuanians, the Poles are no strangers to US presidential visits, having twice received George Bush during his term of office. But like their neighbours to the north, they share bitter memories of subjugation to Moscow, acute fears of a resurgent Russian nationalism and growing alarm over the huge concentration of troops (estimated at 200,000) in the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad between Poland and Lithuania. Like the Balts, their deepest wish is for a security guarantee from Washington.

When President Clinton earlier this year outlined his Partnership for Peace proposals for countries seeking closer ties with Nato, the Polish President, Lech Walesa condemned the scheme as inadequate. But if relations between the two presidents were strained when they last met in Prague in January, they are likely to be more cordial at tomorrow night's state banquet in Warsaw. For since January, the Poles, like most East European countries, have signed up to PFP and now see it as a useful stepping stone on the path to full membership of Nato.