How Russia pits Baltic states against one another

Vladimir Putin

This time, the main targets are Latvia and Estonia, while Lithuania, according to Moscow, is treating its Russian-speaking population somewhat better.

The Kremlin has been using the protection of compatriots card in its foreign policies for decades, analysts say, but the topic was given a new lease of life after the Crimea annexation and war in eastern Ukraine.

Lithuanian political observers note that Moscow is employing a strategy they call the “2+1 formula” to pit the Baltic states against one another: one of them is given praise, while the other two get a lashing, but the roles of the “good guy” and the “bad guys” keep rotating. The State Security Department says the strategy has been in use for years.

In a recent Russian compatriots conference in Riga, Konstantin Dolgov, the Russian foreign ministry’s commissioner for human rights, democracy and the rule of law, said that the Baltic states were violating the rights of Russian-speakers, even though he was more generous to Lithuania.

The Russian Union, an organization of Russian-speakers in Lithuania, reiterated Dolgov’s words after returning from the conference. They said they were not happy with the situation in Lithuania, while one went as far as to say that a civil war could break out in Klaipėda unless bilingualism is introduced in the Lithuanian port town with a sizeable (a little under 20 percent) Russian-speaking population.

“First, we must support the Electoral Action of Poles in Lithuania [a party representing Polish-speakers] and adopt the Law on Ethnic Minorities, without any changes. It’s better here for us [Russian-speakers] than in Latvia and Estonia – they have it tough there, the state policies are completely senseless,” said Viačeslav Titov, member of the Russian Union and Klaipėda City Council.

The Russian Union, which is part of the ruling majority in the Council, signed a cooperation agreement with “United Russia”, the ruling party of President Vladimir Putin, three years ago.

Political observer Ramūnas Bogdanas says that this is just one more case of the Kremlin using the “2+1” formula to sow discord among the Baltic states.

“This time, Lithuania is the ‘good guy’ that does not wrong the Russian-speakers, while the ‘bad guys’, Latvia and Estonia, do. Bet let’s remember the Bronze soldier story [in 2007, Estonia decided to move a Soviet Army memorial from central Tallinn to a less prominent site, which was met by indignation from Moscow]; back then, the 2+1 made Estonia ‘the bad guy’ and Latvia with Lithuania, ‘the OK guys’.

“One more instance of the strategy – 15 percent discounts on gas for Estonia and Latvia, but not Lithuania,” says Bogdanas.

Nor does the Kremlin shy away from manipulating other groups in the Baltics, observers say. This year, Vladimir Putin ordered to set aside some money in the Russian federal budget to support Baltic World War Two veterans. Those eligible must go to Russian Embassies in Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius. If they can prove they contributed to Soviet victory in World War Two, they will be given monthly pensions of 1,000 or 500 roubles for life, the equivalent of 10 or 20 euros.

Meanwhile Russia’s officials threaten that the Kremlin can take action to protect compatriots who live outside Russia.

“We are ready to take steps and we will go as far as the violated interests of our compatriots and the situation demand,” said Dolgov of the Russian foreign ministry.

Moscow has been raising the compatriot issue for three decades, but until the Crimean annexation it had been a rather low-key card in Russia’s hand.

“We have witnessed the first case of practically using this [compatriot] concept to justify an aggression campaign. The Kremlin’s entire military campaign in eastern Ukraine was justified with the same rhetoric: protecting the rights of Russian-speakers, defending the Russian language,” says Nerijus Maliukevičius, a lecturer at the International Relations and Political Science Institute of Vilnius University.

There are talks in Moscow about the need to amend the compatriot law; the Kremlin would like to have authorization to protect all ethnic groups throughout the former Soviet Union.

“If Russia is defending its Russian compatriots, it might equally defend members of other ethnicities, including in the Baltic states,” said Mikhail Alexandrov, head of the Baltic States Department at the CIS Institute.

Maliukevičius claims that the so-called “Russian world” and compatriot policies have mutated into an extremist ideology, not unlike militant Islam.

Echoes of this ideology have been heard in Lithuania, too. Last week, leaflets were handed out in Panevėžys, Lithuania’s fifth-biggest city, with calls to rise against “aggressors” of the EU and the United States.

The calls were signed by anonymous members of “national socialists”. Experts speculate that the group might have links with the so-called Eurasia Movement, an ultra-nationalist organization set up by Alexander Dugin who is notorious for fascist statements and writing.

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