Hurd must expose Moscow's Baltic lies: As the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary make forays into Russia and the Baltics, Adrian Bridge challenges the pessimism that is growing in the West

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The Independent Online
DURING his visit to Latvia today, Douglas Hurd will doubtless be re-alerted to the plight of the hundreds of thousands of ethnic Russians who live in the Baltic states of Latvia and Estonia when he meets some of their representatives.

In Moscow, he may already have seen pained expressions come over the faces of his Kremlin hosts as they recounted sorry tales of the discrimination and persecution endured by their long-suffering countrymen at the hands of the Balts - and explained just how difficult it was becoming for Russia to stand idly by.

Moscow's conviction that there are widespread human rights violations in the Baltic states was forcefully reiterated by the foreign minister, Andrei Kozyrev, this month in Newsweek. 'In Latvia, they are trying to deport thousands of people to Russia,' he proclaimed. 'I call it ethnic cleansing.' The guilty, he said, should be subject to the same universal condemnation as the 'ethnic cleansers' in former Yugoslavia.

There are, however, a number of problems with the Russian argument, the most important being that its basic premise is simply not true. To compare the treatment of Russians in Latvia and Estonia with that, say, of Bosnian Muslims at the hands of Bosnian Serbs is to distort the position beyond all recognition.

Fact-finding missions to the Baltics over the past two years have, without exception, rejected Moscow's allegations. The claims of mass deportations have simply not been substantiated. Nor have teams like the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE) and the UN Centre for Human Rights and others found evidence of other practices commonly associated with 'ethnic cleansing', such as summary executions, arbitrary arrests and confinements, torture, dispossession and rape.

Concluding its report on Latvia, a UN team said that not only had it failed to find 'gross and systematic violations of human rights' but that 'no instances of violence, mass dismissals from employment, exclusion from educational establishments nor evictions from apartments were reported'. A CSCE mission to Estonia found 'no evidence supporting charges of discrimination against the Russian-speaking population'.

That said, the Baltic states do not emerge from their first two-and-a-half years of independence without blemish. While clearly not guilty of human rights violations according to conventional international criteria, questions have been raised about the civil or political rights of the hundreds of thousands of mainly ethnic Russians who were brought in after Stalin's annexation of the Baltics in 1940 as part of a systematic policy of Russification.

In Latvia and Estonia, Russification coupled with mass executions and deportations to Siberia left ethnic Latvians and Estonians numbering only just over 50 and 60 per cent of the two countries' populations respectively. After these states restored their independence, the settlers - or 'colonists' as they are frequently termed - were not immediately granted full citizenship, and, with it, the right to vote and own land. As Janis Eichmanis, chief of staff to Latvia's president, Guntis Ulmanis, put it: 'After so many years of having our own identity, language and culture suppressed, we were facing extinction. Naturally we wanted to redress the balance somewhat.'

In Riga, the policy of Russification reached its logical conclusion. Of the city's population of just under one million, only 36 per cent are ethnic Latvians. Universal suffrage would mean that future mayors of Riga would most likely be Russian. The equivalent, Latvians like to point out, would be for Londoners to have to accept a German mayor, having finally got rid of Nazi forces after more than 50 years.

Although the historical arguments may be on the side of the Balts, however, the geopolitical ones are not. The ethnic Russians are there to stay. So is big brother Russia to the east. And the withholding of citizenship rights in Latvia and Estonia (in contrast to Lithuania, which, with an ethnic Russian component of only 9 per cent, felt confident enough to grant its residents full citizenship after independence) has provided Moscow with the perfect stick with which to beat the two countries.

The West has urged Latvia and Estonia to grant citizenship to almost all those seeking it, providing they meet certain internationally acceptable conditions such as a residency requirement, basic language proficiency and renunciation of any other citizenship. Kicking and screaming, Estonia has already passed the necessary legislation, and Latvia is likely to follow suit this year.

Yet the claims of human rights violations persist - as shown by Mr Kozyrev's Newsweek interview. Why? In part they serve to disrupt negotiations over the withdrawal of the 15,000 or so Russian troops still stationed in these two countries. In part, according to Mr Kozyrev himself, they are really meant for internal consumption, a means of drawing some of the thunder from the Russian nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky.

But in Latvia and Estonia, the suspicion is mounting that something far more sinister is afoot. As elsewhere in what it terms the 'near abroad', Moscow's championing of the rights of ethnic Russians is seen as part of a campaign to reassert hegemony over all the republics of the former Soviet Union.

Pessimists in Riga and Tallinn, the Estonian capital, think the final goal is reannexation. Others think that, as far as the Baltics are concerned, Moscow will content itself with 'Finlandisation', the creation of three nominally independent countries that will be little more than Russian provinces.

Today, Mr Hurd will get a good sense of Baltic anxieties. He will not be able to promise what his hosts really want - instant membership of Nato - but he will at least assure them that Britain rejects the attempt to link the question of human rights in the Baltics with that of the Russian troop withdrawal, due to be completed by 31 August.

Privately, Foreign Office spokesmen in London concede that one of the reasons such a link has never been accepted is that Britain does not believe the Russian allegations. In Riga, Mr Hurd should have the courage to say that publicly.

(Photograph omitted)