Latvia fears Russian 'time-bomb': Zhirinovsky's rise and a new stridency in Moscow have spread alarm in the Baltics, writes Adrian Bridge from Riga

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The Independent Online
LIKE most Latvians, President Guntis Ulmanis is looking increasingly uneasy. 'You tell me,' he said, attempting to strike a jocular tone. 'Is there a deal being done over our heads? Is our sovereignty about to be sacrificed? Is the West going to let us down? We really would like to know.'

Until recently, such comments might have been dismissed as being typical of Latvia's almost obsessive fears about the intentions of Russia, its neighbour to the east, and the possibility of a repeat of the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, under which the Baltics were surrendered to Stalin.

They do not sound so fantastic now. Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the ultra-nationalist who made big gains in Russia's December elections, has made sure of that with his utterances about his expansionist plans, which would include re-annexation of the Baltics. Mr Ulmanis and his colleagues, yet to celebrate the third anniversary of independence, have been equally alarmed by some of Moscow's policy directives. On New Year's Day, President Boris Yeltsin said 1994 would mark a more 'energetic' defence of the 25 million ethnic Russians in neighbouring states. Then a comment by the Foreign Minister, Andrei Kozyrev, brought howls of protest all the way from Tallinn to Vilnius, the capitals respectively of Estonia and Lithuania. Mr Kozyrev told Russian ambassadors that, to prevent a 'security vacuum' on Russia's borders, its troops should remain stationed throughout the 'near abroad', Moscow's term for the former republics of the Soviet Union. Although Foreign Ministry officials later said the comments had referred to Commonwealth of Independent countries - and not the Baltics - much of the damage had been done.

With 10,000 Russian troops still in Latvia and a 3,000 in Estonia, the situation is tense: on 10 January Russian forces in Latvia were put on alert after an official in Riga seeking to reclaim army property arrested two Russian generals and ordered them to be deported. President Ulmanis received a phone call from the commander of Russian forces in Latvia ordering him to hand back the generals within 30 minutes - or else. His security service tracked down the arrested men and had them returned on time. The situation was further calmed by the sacking of the official responsible for the arrests and an apology to Moscow.

'It was by far the most uncomfortable moment of my presidency,' said Mr Ulmanis, whose great-uncle, Karlis Ulmanis, was president and prime minister of pre-war Latvia for more than 20 years.

In Riga, conspiracy theories about the incident abound. Many believe it was a Moscow- inspired plot to show Latvia in a bad light during the visit to Russia that week of President Bill Clinton. Others see it as electioneering by the official concerned, who hoped that by 'getting tough' with the Russians he would improve his standing for municipal elections in Riga in May.

Whatever lay behind it, the incident was an example of what one Western observer called the 'time-bomb' ticking in Latvia. Russian forces in Latvia were authorised to use deadly force to defend the 'security, honour and dignity of the Russian military and their family members' and Mr Yeltsin warned of a tougher response should there be any more incidents.

Pessimists in Latvia see parallels with 1940, when, before the Red Army invaded, Soviet media castigated 'provocative' actions of Latvian 'extremists'. It could easily happen again, they fear.

Optimists believe it will not come to that. Unlike nearly all the other former Soviet republics, they insist, the Baltics could resist being sucked back into Moscow's orbit. An encouraging sign, they point out, is that Russian troops stationed in Lithuania have all gone and that those left in Latvia and Estonia are due to quit by the end of August.

Diplomatic sources in Riga say Russia and Latvia are about to sign a deal under which, in return for agreeing to the August pull-out date, Moscow will continue to use the important early-warning radar at Skrunda for four more years and will be given another 18 months to dismantle it.

The removal of what Latvians see as occupation forces will do much to ease tension. So, too, would the passage of a citizenship law clarifying the status and rights of the country's hundreds of thousands of non-Latvians. But, according to President Ulmanis, not even a full security guarantee from Nato would ensure Latvia's long-term independence. 'In the end, our security will not depend on a physical border across the continent but, rather, on the symbolic border dividing the forces of reform and reaction in Russia itself. Europe will only be safe if democracy really wins through in Moscow.'