Estonia Needs EU Security
By Quentin Peel
At the entrance of the Barclay Hotel in the historic heart of Tartu, the second city of the Baltic republic of Estonia, there is a new plaque made of black marble. Its message is very simple: “The first president of the Chechen republic Ichkeria, General Dzhokhar Dudayev, worked in this house from 1987 to 1991.”
The words are repeated in Estonian, Chechen and English. They are not written in Russian, the lingua franca of the former Soviet Union, of which Estonia was a part until just 12 years ago.
It is a sudden reminder of the sympathy felt for the independence struggle of Chechnya in former parts of the Soviet empire. General Dudayev, killed in 1996 in a Russian rocket attack, has a particular reputation in Estonia as the Soviet airbase commander who ensured that his troops were not used to suppress the local revolution during the years of perestroika.
In Estonia today the war in Chechnya is followed with close attention, as an essential indicator of Russia’s behavior and the mood in Moscow. Indeed, it gets a lot more attention than it does in Washington, London or Brussels, where President Vladimir Putin’s brutal and clumsy efforts to suppress the long-running rebellion tend to be seen as an unfortunate distraction from the wider threats of global terrorism.
In just over six months’ time, Estonia will become part of the new eastern frontier of the European Union bordering Russia. It will be the EU’s fourth smallest member state, and one of seven countries joining the EU from parts of the old Soviet empire. They will bring with them a whole new perspective on the world to their east.
“The old [EU] member states are worried that they will have these Russophobic new members,” says Toomas Ilves, former Estonian foreign minister. “But we are not Russophobic. We just have a very realistic view.”
Of course, it is perfectly natural that countries such as Estonia and its Baltic neighbors Latvia and Lithuania should be somewhat obsessed by their former ruler. The fear of losing their hard-fought independence is very real, even if to an outsider Russia scarcely looks like an imminent threat. It is a fear that drives their foreign and security policies, and their determination to keep the United States engaged in Europe, bound to the NATO alliance. They do not want to hear any talk of transatlantic divisions.
“The threat is Russia. Supporting America is about having some guarantees against Russia,” says one young student in Tartu.
That is why Estonia and its neighbors all signed a statement of support for the United States in Iraq last spring. It was never in doubt. It was simply a knee-jerk reaction. They could not understand it when President Jacques Chirac of France condemned the so-called Vilnius 10 for the statement.
And yet the mood among the “new Europeans” is already shifting. There is a feeling that neither the EU nor the United States is really focused on the security threats coming from Russia itself. And there is growing public unease, at least in Estonia, at the use of Estonian troops in the front line in both Afghanistan and Iraq.
“It is not very easy for people to understand that the forces in Afghanistan and in Iraq are defending Estonia,” says Mart Laar, a former prime minister. “We have to persuade them that, by securing peace in other parts of the world, we are securing peace for ourselves.”
Ilves explains why it is getting more difficult. “The U.S. has been ham-fisted in its approach to Eastern Europe,” he says. “It has been a combination of bribery and blackmail. There is some romanticized feeling of warmth towards the U.S.; but both the behavior of Washington, and what we will be doing in the EU, will diminish that.”
The need to be full-time players in the EU certainly looms large. “We must change very much our way of thinking,” says Laar. “We must be more open and more active. We must have a clear plan for Europe. Nobody used to ask us about the Middle East, for example. Now we must actually be part of the solution. We must have an opinion. This is a big responsibility.”
It will be a two-way process. The new member states will bring energy and vitality to a sluggish Western Europe.
What they will also demand is a more coherent strategy toward Russia and the EU’s other new neighbors in the east, such as Belarus, Ukraine and Moldova. They have a very real interest in all those countries being stable and steadily more prosperous.
There is an uncomfortable feeling that the U.S. strategic interest in being best friends with Putin will outweigh any readiness to criticize the growing authoritarianism in his regime. If anyone is going to criticize Russia, it will have to be the EU.
Another concern is that the U.S. doctrine of pre-emptive military action, used to justify the invasion of Iraq, is encouraging Moscow to do the same – and the Baltic states still feel vulnerable.
The real security interest of the new EU member states is having stability in the former Soviet Union. It is about curbing corruption, and building institutions to stop the spread of authoritarian anarchy in countries such as Belarus. That is a job that the EU can and must do more to perform. Washington does not “do” anarchy. It is a task for Brussels. That is what the new member states will soon understand, if they have not done so already.
(Quentin Peel is international affairs editor at the Financial Times, where this comment first appeared.)