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Russia: Baltic states see their worst nightmare come true

'TERRIFIED' was the word used by one observer to describe the mood in the Latvian capital, Riga, as the full extent of Vladimir Zhirinovsky's victory in the Russian election began to sink in. 'Terrified, anxious, concerned, upset - you bet we are]'

For Latvians, Estonians and Lithuanians, the dramatic showing for the ultra-nationalist Mr Zhirinovsky represent a nightmare come true. Barely two years after regaining independence from Moscow, all the old fears came flooding back. 'This heralds the beginning of a sinister new era,' predicted Tarmu Tammerk, editor of the Baltic Independent newspaper. 'There is a deep sense of shock and foreboding.'

The presidents of the three Baltic states meet in the Estonian capital, Tallinn, today to frame a response to the election shock. They will almost certainly urge the West to speed up their integration into European economic and defence structures. 'A security guarantee by Nato is the only sort of language Zhirinovsky understands,' Mart Laar, the Estonian Prime Minister, said earlier this week. Like many in the Baltics, Mr Laar has compared the rise of Mr Zhirinovsky to that of Hitler in the 1930s. And he likens Russia's attitude towards the Baltic states - described as part of the 'near abroad' - to that displayed by the Nazi leader towards the Sudetenland.

Baltic fears of Mr Zhirinovsky's intentions are well founded. Never able to accept their independence, he has blamed them for precipitating the break-up of the Soviet Union and warned repeatedly that should he ever come to power, Estonians should get ready to flee to Sweden in fishing boats. Those foolish enough to remain would either be sent to Siberia or given the most menial jobs. Mr Zhirinovsky has also threatened to pump nuclear waste into the three countries to force them to comply with Moscow's wishes.

Even if the other parties gang up to keep Mr Zhirinovsky on the opposition benches, many Balts fear the political agenda in Russia has shifted irrevocably to the right and that, to steal some of his thunder, the nationalist drum will be beaten with ever greater intensity.

With hundreds of thousands of ethnic Russians forming substantial minorities in the Baltic states and just under 20,000 Russian troops still stationed in Latvia and Estonia, relations with Moscow were, anyway, set to remain brittle. Optimists in Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius were yesterday nevertheless hoping Mr Zhirinovsky's success would open the West's eyes to the dangers they faced and result in a quick pledge of military and economic support. Others were just praying that Mr Zhirinovsky's bark would prove worse than his bite.