William Pfaff: 'Europe' has historical limits

Posted in Europe | 28-Feb-04 | Author: William Pfaff| Source: Tribune Media Services International

The Baltics vs. the Caucasus

PARIS - Distinctions are invidious but necessary in dealing with Russia's "near abroad," at a time when President Vladimir Putin intends his country to become a political and strategic force again.

This first is true for the Caucasus, where the United States has been putting down economic, political and military markers. The second case is in the Baltic region.

In Georgia, a popular upheaval has just ousted President Eduard Shevardnadze, a former Soviet foreign minister, once an American favorite. A new American favorite, Mikhail Saakashvili, has replaced him.

The new president says he is committed to "leading Georgia back into the Euro-Atlantic fold." Back? Georgia was under divided Persian and Turkish rule from the 16th to 18th centuries, then was a Russian colony for two centuries, and from 1921 to 1991 was a constituent republic of the Soviet Union.

Since then it has experienced a turbulent independence, with much civil strife and ethnic conflict in its component autonomous republics. One such republic, Abkhazia, has expressed a wish to rejoin Russia. Another, South Ossetia, is separated from the rest of Georgia by Russian "peacekeeping" troops, sent there after "insurgents" tried to unite with the Russian Federation.

Then there is Chechnya, where a terrible war of secession is being waged against the Russians. The United States has officially endorsed the Russian side: After Sept. 11, President George W. Bush reasoned that if Putin joined America's "war against terror," the Chechen insurgents must be terrorists.

And there is Armenia. Independent since 1991 - for the first time in its history, except for two years after 1918 - Christian Armenia has been in a struggle with Muslim Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian enclave inside Azerbaijan. That war, and the conflicts in Chechnya and Georgia, have killed thousands of people and created millions of refugees during the past 15 years.

Also in the Caucasus are many American oil men, pipeline surveyors and builders, diplomatic and intelligence agents. In Georgia, where there are still Russian troops and bases, there are also American soldiers. The U.S. Army sent a "train and equip" mission to aid Georgia's army after Russia accused Georgia of sheltering Chechen rebels.

The United States has become very interested in the Caucasus since the Soviet Union collapsed, despite knowing little about the region. Interest has quickened under the second Bush administration; the Caspian basin is rich in oil reserves. There is an idea in Washington that the Caucasus should be considered part of the newly defined Greater Middle East, the current focus of American strategic concern.

Go north, to the Baltic Sea. Russia is currently making difficulties about extending an existing agreement with the European Union to 10 new countries about to join the Union. Three of them, the Baltic states - created by German Christian knights in the early Middle Ages - were invaded by the Soviet Union in 1940, and annexed until 1991.

Some of Russia's complaints are commercial and uncontroversial, such as raising quotas on certain Russia exports to take account of an enlarged EU market. Some are political. These concern the rights of Russian minorities in the Baltic states, and the problem of Kaliningrad.

There are substantial numbers of Russians in Estonia and Latvia whose families arrived in 1940 and 1941 as part of the new Soviet ruling apparatus. Others came later to join military garrisons or as part of the industrial build-up of these countries. The Russians were privileged occupiers who lived in enclaves, often did not bother to learn the language, and were better paid and treated than the natives of the country.

Baltic independence in 1991 stranded them. They often had no place to go in Russia, and little prospect of work. Russian living standards were worse than in the Baltics. Their situation has created trouble between Russia, Estonia and Latvia for more than a decade.

Kaliningrad, formerly the Prussian city of Königsberg and one of the great Hanseatic commercial and trading cities, is a different problem. Annexed by the Soviet Union after 1945, it is a major ice-free port and industrial center. Its problem is that it is a major Russian strategic base wedged between Lithuania and Poland, and will lie inside the new borders of the European Union, with no land link to the rest of Russia.

History and geography impose distinctions. U.S. intervention in the Caucasus involves states that in modern times have nearly always been part of a sphere of Russian vital interest. The West may wish them well in their independence, but - alas for President Saakashvili - they have never belonged to the "Euro-American fold."

Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia have been under German, Danish, Swedish and Polish influence since medieval times. They are part of European history.