Inside File: Not-so-happy families chafe in the East

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The Independent Online
BRITAIN and the rest of the West never accepted the Soviet annexation of the Baltic states, which was to last four decades. Why then, two years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, does the Foreign Office still lump in the Baltics with the rest of the former Soviet empire?

The Eastern Department, one of a multitude of Foreign Office sections dealing with post-Cold War Europe, was created to supervise relations with all the 'FSU' (former Soviet Union) countries, from Lithuania to Kyrgyzstan. The arrangement is described by British diplomats as 'inevitable'. The fact that the Russians maintain a worrying physical presence in the Baltic republics is seen as an argument for, not against, keeping all of them together.

But the policy runs counter to the forward-thrusting, trade-orientated profile the Foreign Office is seeking to achieve. The Baltics, in particular Estonia, have made substantial progress on reform and have built up substantial commercial links with their natural trading partners from Hanseatic times: the Scandinavians and Germans. These are the countries with which they belong, not their former Russian oppressors.

The existing arrangement is also questionable on another level. If the trend continues of a potentially aggressive and authoritarian Russia towards what it calls 'the near abroad', has the West drawn a clear line in the sand of where it would not tolerate Russian intrusion? Keeping the Baltics in the old Soviet box would seem to indicate that the West has not yet made up its mind whether Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians are part of the Western European family - or if they are to be left pressing their noses against the window.

'The problem with British foreign policy,' said one senior Baltic diplomat, 'is that it has always been very, very conservative in terms of timescale.'

That the Eastern Department includes the Central Asian republics of Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan also defies geopolitical logic: they are separated from the other regional powers with which they are naturally linked - Turkey (Southern European Department), Iran (Middle East Department) and Afghanistan (South Asian Department). Third country diplomats with an interest in, say, Tajikistan, have taken to bypassing the Eastern European Department and dealing directly with the Afghan experts in the South Asia Department.

As for the Balts, there is a comparable case in the context of another dissolved empire. When Yugoslavia fell apart, the components were all poured into the specially created Eastern Adriatic Unit. Yet one of the independent republics is distinct from the others in that it is not involved in the conflicts of the rest of them. Peaceful and prosperous Slovenia has allied itself increasingly with the Central European states of the Visegrad group - Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. The five are creating a free trade area, and the Slovenes enjoy the same status as the Visegrads with regard to relations with the European Union.

Now, Slovene diplomats say they have been given signals from the Foreign Office that their country will be moved out of the Eastern Adriatic Unit - where they are lumped in with Serbs, Croats and Bosnians - and allowed to join the Visegrads in the Central European Department.

Why then could not the Balts join their natural partners, the Nordic countries? British diplomats say this presents another problem: the Nordics belong to the Western European Department; letting the Balts in there would mean their jumping the queue into the Western family, ahead of the Visegrads in the Central European Department.

To get around this the Office could, of course, do the drastic but sensible thing and merge the Central and Western European Departments. With the growing trade and security ties between Central and Western Europe, there is no real need to keep them apart any longer. But given the relentless caution of British diplomats, it might be best if the Balts did not hold their breath.