- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 11, 2001

RIGA, Latvia — We let the aging, musty van with orange curtains rock us from side to side as we made our way toward Latvia's snow-dusted military base of Adazi. The base is a tribute to Latvia's push to make its tiny armed forces the Latvian army boasts a force of 2,740 interoperable with those of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The small force represents Latvia's new face, but Russia's occupation is far from forgotten here. Inside the van, we breathe diesel fumes and musty, frozen air, a trademark in the former Soviet republic, a riding companion says. Add to that the odor of balsamic, vodka, cigarette smoke and wet wool … that is the smell of Latvia, or perhaps the memory of the Soviet Union. It is a memory many are trying to forget, but more than 50 years of Russia's control have not been erased in 10 years of independence.
Almost half of the population speaks Russian as its mother tongue. Russian Orthodox cathedrals etch their ornate spires against the cold sky. Russian is still on signs, and in the sweet, sad notes of violin and oboe and drum played by street musicians on dark, wet cobblestone streets. Perhaps the Russian face in Riga is why the people of Latvia know, more than any other potential NATO member, the importance of joining NATO. Of the nine potential new members Slovakia, Slovenia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Bulgaria, Albania and Macedonia Latvia has experienced the most tense relationship with Russia. For Latvia, the insurance policy that NATO could provide against a Soviet threat, or the memory of that threat, means securing the progress that the country has made since its independence.
"NATO still is a guarantor of independence and sovereignty of its member states. It's not merely about territory, about borders, but it is also about the way of life people have chosen," said State Secretary of Defense Edgaars Rinkevics in an interview. For Latvia, Russia's presence across the border presents not so much a physical threat as an emotional one.
"A society is secure if it feels secure," Urbalis Vaidotas, Lithuania's young international relations director for the Ministry of Defense said during a panel here on Baltic membership in NATO. Without membership, Mr. Rinkevics said later, "There wouldn't be a kind of insurance. The things we are doing probably may disappear. It's not about a fact. It's about perception."
For Latvia, this may not be about just the perceptions of the people within the country, but of the Western institutions without. For many Eastern European countries hoping to be invited to join NATO in Prague in November, NATO membership is seen as the ticket to European Union membership, economic stability and political clout. To that end, the Eastern European hopefuls for the next round of NATO membership point to the advantages now being enjoyed by their neighbors that were admitted in 1999: Hungary, the Czech Republic and Poland.
"After Poland joined NATO, there was no type of game space available any more between Russia on the one hand and Poland on the other," Mr. Rinkevics said. "Relations improved. Investors put in more investments after 1999."
With the establishment of the new Russia-North Atlantic Council, that "game space" has come to the fore. Reality or perception, Latvians are not yet ready to trust Mr. Putin.
Latvia stands on the edge of a crossroads faced by the entire alliance itself. As Latvia seeks to define its reasons for joining NATO in a post-Cold War era, it must recognize the new role NATO is playing since the September 11 attacks a role more political than military. This role will be redefined by the alliance's ability to encourage democratic values in its new members.
To get there, it will need the aid of countries whose apathy or animosity have historically put barriers to the inclusion of Eastern European countries, and which have a challenging history with Latvia in particular: Germany and Russia. German and Russian forces in turn have invaded and occupied Latvia since the 900s. Russia's protests of NATO's potential inclusion of any of its former republics and Germany's unwillingness to upset Moscow are now being tempered by new international support for at least five, and up to seven members to be invited next year.
As a testimony to show how far the former occupiers have come, German and Russian representatives sat shoulder to shoulder in a panel on the contribution of NATO membership to regional stability and security. Markus Meckel, a member of Germany's ruling SPD faction and vice president of the NATO parliamentary assembly, openly advocated the ascension of all three Baltic countries, as well as Slovakia and Slovenia, and said German Defense Minister Rudolf Scharping was working to gain support for the same. Andrei Fedorov, director of the Russia's Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, disagreed, arguing that "NATO was like an old lady wearing modern cosmetics" whose day had passed, and that Russia did not need Latvia to soften its relations with the West. As the Bush-Putin courtship heats up, he may be right. But as former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt aptly pointed out, the litmus test of the end of the Cold War should be the inclusion of all three Baltic nations into NATO.
Back on Riga's winter streets, a Russian journalist recommends balsamic a "medicine" drunk like vodka here as his favored salve for post-Soviet wounds. Here's to a NATO-integrated Latvia, where balsamic is no longer needed.

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