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Inside File: Sweden stands free to help Baltic neighbours

IN ITS attitude to the formerly Soviet-run Baltic states, Sweden as always been torn between a desire to preserve its own neutrality, and guilt over failing to stand up for its weaker neighbours.

Yet last month, recognising a more aggressive trend by Russia towards what it calls its 'near abroad', the Swedish Prime Minister, Carl Bildt, declared: 'When I have difficulty in regarding neutrality as a likely choice for Sweden in those conflicts in our near abroad that we can imagine today, it is because it imposes very strict limitations on what we can do to help, primarily politically, neighbours who need our support. And I don't think that either our interests, or the Swedish people's view of what ordinary decency requires, would speak for such a limited position.

'That was not the case during the Finnish Winter War, and it seems to me even less likely that it would be the case in our own time.'

During the Finnish Winter War in the 1940s, when Finland tried to defend territory claimed by the Soviet Union, much of the conflict was fought by the Finns with the help of Swedish volunteers, arms and planes.

Mr Bildt added: 'We no longer live in a Europe that lies in the shadow of a totalitarian superpower dictatorship. We do live in a Sweden that has become increasingly alien to what is happening in our surroundings.'

Baltic diplomats greeted the speech with jubilation. 'It was met as a very positive sign, a stronger statement than anybody else had made,' said one senior Baltic envoy. 'It constituted a cornerstone in the remaking of Swedish foreign and security policy. In the Twenties and Thirties, Sweden was very passive towards us. They didn't see us as of any significance.

'Now, here was somebody who made a statement stronger than anyone else, and who very much thought through the old things. Neighbouring countries usually understand things better. And the fact that he called us Sweden's 'near abroad' was particularly significant.'

Modern conflicts, of course, cannot be fought like the Finnish war. Swedish air force planes - part of its considerable self-defence capability - are not designed for out-of-area use across the Baltic Sea. But the Swedes can assist the Baltic states in co-ordinated arms procurement to replace what they inherited from the Warsaw Pact.

After the Cold War, and under Mr Bildt's revisionist, conser vative-led government, Sweden calls itself 'alliance-free' rather than neutral. But as Mr Bildt pointed out, 'the military non-alliance refers, with the new formula established by parliament, to the fact that 'our country should be able to remain neutral in the event of a war in our near abroad' '. It was this formula Mr Bildt went on to reject in the event of a conflict in the Baltics.

This week the Swedish Defence Minister, Anders Bjorck, declared: 'As long as developments in Russia show great uncertainties, demands for cuts in Swedish defence spending must be firmly rejected.

'What has now happened in Russia - combined with the Russian military forces near Sweden which have not been reduced - means that it is more pressing to also look into increased spending in defence.'

Whatever the practicalities, Mr Bildt's determination to protect the Baltics can be summed up in the title of a history book, published decades ago, on Sweden's forced repatriation of hundreds of Baltic refugees to Russian labour camps in 1946: It must never happen again.