Central Europe Review The International OSI Policy Fellowships (IPF) program
Vol 2, No 25
26 June 2000
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Amber Coast Echoes of Joachim and Vyacheslav
Mel Huang

Many commentators noted the reaffirmation of warm ties between Germany and Russia during the recent visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin to Berlin. The former KGB operative in Germany quickly found a common language with German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder (both figuratively and literally). Though the talks were multifaceted, the loudest statement made by President Putin was essentially a warning against NATO enlargement to the Baltics, and Schröder did little to argue against that point.

Despite the deafening silence from Germany, support for the Baltic states progress toward NATO came
German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder
Mum's the word
from other alliance members. US President Bill Clinton reaffirmed US support for the integration process during meetings with Estonian and Latvian ambassadors at the White House, while a stream of high-ranking cabinet members from Turkey called European security "incomplete" without the Baltic countries in NATO. Support for the Baltics has been coming from traditional allies such as Denmark, Norway, Poland and Iceland but also from newer friends such as Turkey and Italy. In this light, the German silence was more than noticeable.

Moreover, the odd statements and lack of statements in recent weeks surrounding Putin's visit to Germany give rise to suspicion of the true intent of current German policy towards the Baltic states.

Dashed hopes

To put it mildly, German Chancellor Schröder cares little about the Baltics. Though his recent visit to the three Baltic countries was preceded by much hype and hope - hope that Germany will, finally, take the Baltics seriously as political and economic partners - it was quickly dashed by the Chancellor's arrival in Tallinn. The entire trip seemed underpinned by a "Do I have to?" nagging tone of a child dreading a visit to the dentist, and local, German and international media quickly picked up the sluggish vibes from the German camp.

Immediately, press reports began discussing the apathy of German leadership toward the Baltics. Commentary ranged from milder observations to more provocative assessments from the sharper-tongued press, all but accusing Germany of being Russia's waterboy. Terms such as "for show" and "less than effective" were common among the myriad of negative catch phrases and terminology used to describe the visit.

In reality, the Schröder's visit to the Baltics did more harm than good. During the trip, the Chancellor showed little knowledge of or interest in the three countries that his nation has tried to lord over at various points throughout the last eight centuries. Though he did travel with a large delegation of German businessmen and parliamentary officials, the role assumed by Schröder in this visit was lacklustre to say the least. Rumours of dull and even antagonistic meetings with officials in all three countries spread like wildfire.

Schröder made the stock comments on the Baltics and EU integration but was less than substantial when it came down to security issues - avoiding the term "NATO" on many occasions even. The trip clearly showed that Germany, under Schröder, is unlikely to be an advocate for Baltic integration into the Euro-Atlantic sphere.

The Jackboot steps in

Hot on the heels of the disappointing Schröder visit,
Defence Ministry Secretary Walter Kolbow
  Walter Kolbow
a week later, a normally non-attention-grabbing visit by a deputy minister made shocking - but sadly, unsurprising - headlines. The parliamentary state secretary of state in Germany's Defence Ministry, Walter Kolbow, was quoted by the local media as saying that Russia's "consent" would be needed for further NATO enlargement. Immediately, the statement was interpreted by many as a breach of the long-maintained NATO policy that no other countries would have a veto on any alliance policy - including enlargement.

The timing of this statement, so soon after the Putin-Schröder meeting, provided fuel for those who constantly worry about the "special relationship" between Berlin and Moscow, echoing past ugly scenes involving Joachim von Ribbentrop and Vyacheslav Molotov. Many quickly came to the conclusion that the press was right, and Germany had become the waterboy for Russia on this front.

When Schröder chose not to defend NATO's open door to the Baltics to any substantial degree after Putin's statements in Germany, it was a deafening silence. However, this recent alarming statement from a high-ranking German defence official was even more ear-splitting in its frightening clarity. Though after complaints from officials - especially Lithuania's Vytautas Landsbergis - embassy officials have reiterated Germany's support of the NATO open-door policy. Too little too late?

For a major player on the European continent,
Signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact
A special relationship
Germany's role in the Baltics has been minor. Aside from some minor banking and strategic utility investments, there has not been much high-profile German interest in the three Baltic countries.

Even French companies are now more active in the Baltics, looking to invest heavily in utilities and manufacturing. Activities at the Länder level have been stronger, with the northern, formerly Hanseatic, regions getting closely involved with the Baltic countries.

However, nationally, interest seems very limited except for some high-profile members of the now scanty Free Democratic Party (FDP), who have historical ties to the region. The ruling Social Democrats (SPD) have been less than interested, and the opposition Christian Democrats (CDU) have not been wholehearted supporters of the Baltics either. The statements of former CDU defence minister Volker Rühe during the last government of Helmut Kohl underlined this apathy and all but closed the NATO door to the Baltics.

On their own

With this visit of Gerhard Schröder, and the very loud but weightless statements surrounding it, the Baltic countries learned a valuable and long-standing lesson: at the end of the day, the only people they can trust is themselves. When the rhetoric of terms such as "post-Soviet," "new Iron Curtain" and "new dividing line in Europe" still hanging on, the Balts need to realise that they will never find an advocate in the world 100 per cent devoted to their cause.

Even the biggest supporters of the Baltics today have at some point in recent history done injustice to the Balts. Sweden, with its much promoted "year of the Baltics" this year, still has the recent memory of itself as the only country in the region to have acknowledged the Soviet annexation of the Baltic states. Though most Western countries held a "non-recognition" policy, it was little more than lip-service since Churchill and Truman all but exchanged the Baltics for the support of "Uncle Joe" - who is still featured in many Western textbooks as a hero and valued ally.

Several embassy compounds in Paris and Rome belonging to Baltic countries are still occupied by Russian diplomatic units, with the two countries fumbling to justify their illegal turnover of the keys to the Soviets following occupation.

Nevertheless, the Baltics have many friends and supporters today. Sweden has all but taken the countries under its wing, as evidenced by its support on EU-related issues and the sheer number of Swedish businesses and investments flowing into the countries.

The US is a staunch supporter and will remains so, especially if relations with Russia continue to deteriorate. France is slowly warming up to the Baltics, which has been helped significantly by the recent visit of Latvia's francophone President, Vaira VÄ«Ä·e-Freiberga. And a barrage of visits by Turkish cabinet ministers has drawn attention to the Anatolian state's support for Baltic membership in NATO.

It can be argued that even Russia is a closer and better disposed towards the Baltics than Germany. Despite tense and controversial aspects of his rule, President Putin has been putting more effort into the practical aspects of relations with the Baltics.

Yes, his rhetoric is fervently anti-NATO, but should anyone expect anything different
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from a Russian head of state? Trade relations between the Baltic countries and Russia can only improve, especially with Russia's desire to join the World Trade Organisation. Although some argue whether it is healthy, Russian transit has been a major part of the local economy, especially in Latvia.

Russia used the same anti-Western rhetoric when arguing against NATO membership for Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, though the results are obvious. Many Russian military analysts already concede the inevitability of the Baltics being fully integrated into the Euro-Atlantic sphere, so attention has turned to the loud NATO aspirations of Georgia and the growing interest in European integration expressed by Ukraine.

Frankly, Putin has shown himself to be an intelligent person with whom others can work - a stark contrast to Schröder, looking at his recent Baltic debacle.

At the end of the day, there is only the hope that Germany will begin taking a healthy interest in this region some time in the near future. Perhaps Chancellor Schröder needs to re-examine his own approach to these countries. I doubt that he would want his legacy to be as infamous and disreputable as that of a certain Joachim of the late 1930s.

Mel Huang, 22 June 2000

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A First Encounter

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