EU and Nato beckon the Balts

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The Independent Online
THE EUROPEAN UNION and Nato will both take steps in the next few days to reassure the Baltic states about their links with the West.

Lithuania signed a Partnership for Peace agreement with Nato last week which it regards as 'a real step towards Nato membership,' Algirdas Brazauskas, the country's President, told the Independent on a visit to Brussels. He also met Jacques Delors, the President of the European Commission, who said the EU would now move swiftly to build links. 'Mr Delors in plain words expressed his desire to see Lithuania's path to associate membership (of the EU) set out within the next 12, perhaps the next six months,' Mr Brazauskas said.

New mandates to negotiate free-trade agreements between the European Union and the Baltic republics (Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia) will be discussed by EU foreign ministers next Monday, and it is hoped that the pacts can be finalised by the end of June, according to Commission officials. This would enable them to go into force before the beginning of next year. The new agreements will make clear that the Baltic states are, like their counterparts in central Europe, on track to a place in the EU.

An earlier draft of the free-trade agreements was sent back by ministers and revised after the turmoil in Russia last year, with the specific aim of reassuring the Baltic countries about their future in Europe. The agreements will open up EU markets for imports immediately. Estonia will also open its market to EU exports immediately, though Latvia and Lithuania will move to the same goal over six years, officials say.

The Baltic republics are also in the process of signing agreements with Nato under its Partnership for Peace scheme. One of the advantages of this initiative, according to a Nato diplomat, was that 'we were not leaving the Baltic states out in the cold', which would have been the effect of more explicit pledges of membership to central European states.

Nato experts leave today for the Baltic states to discuss with officials there what they can expect of Partnership for Peace. The Northern team will visit Riga, Tallinn, Vilnius and Warsaw. A parallel Southern team of experts will visit other central and south-eastern European states. It is not yet decided whether a team will visit Ukraine and Moscow.

There is growing concern in Europe to underpin the independence of the Baltic republics, provide them with a degree of reassurance and hasten the departure of Russian troops. Alain Lamassoure, the French European Affairs Minister, returned from the region last week saying that ties should be strengthened. 'The security of the Baltic states is an integral part of European security,' he said. The US has also expressed concern. 'The United States puts great importance on the prompt and rapid withdrawal of Russian troops from Latvia,' Warren Christopher yesterday told the Latvian Foreign Minister.

Recent statements from Russian officials have increased this concern. Andrei Kozyrev, Russia's Foreign Minister, said the Baltics were 'a region of vital interest for Russia,' and that troops should 'not leave regions which, over the years, have constituted Russia's sphere of influence'. Mr Brazauskas said that Nato should forcefully protest about Russian statements that implied continuing occupation of the Baltic states.