- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 16, 2002

TALLINN, Estonia The Estonians take great pride in their small contribution to the multinational force in Afghanistan five men and three dogs. Such gestures have helped them convince NATO that even countries as tiny as theirs can play a role in the global fight against terrorism.
Along with the other two Baltic states, Lithuania and Latvia, Estonia had serious concerns last year that the September 11 attacks might take NATO enlargement off the Bush administration's immediate agenda. The worries grew as Washington seemed more interested in new friends such as Pakistan than in the young democracies of Eastern Europe.
But the United States in spite of its decision not to seek help from others, except Britain, in the anti-Taliban military campaign soon realized that in the war against terrorism, there are no big or small nations.
"September 11 showed that even very small allies can be an asset, and even modest help like ours can be of great demand," Estonian Defense Minister Sven Mikser said in a recent interview.
Next week, 11 years after they regained their freedom from the Soviet Union, the Baltics and four other ex-communist states from Central and Eastern Europe are expected to receive invitations to join NATO during the alliance's summit in Prague.
Although Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are independent nations with many differences, the alliance sees a bigger asset in admitting all three because of their combined capabilities and territories, NATO officials said in interviews at the organization's Brussels headquarters.
The officials also noted that the three nations' joint effort toward membership in the last couple of years had improved their chances of receiving invitations.
Latvian Defense Minister Girts Valdis Kristovskis said the Baltics "made an effort to show NATO that taking only one state won't be effective."
President Vaira Vike-Freiberga of Latvia said, "The point of alliance is unity, and we've proved that we can do it."
But only a year and a half ago, few were betting that the three states would make the alliance's next round of enlargement. The main obstacle was Russian objection, as the Baltics' accession would expand NATO to Moscow's doorstep.
Russia's opposition subsided, especially as its cooperation with the West increased in the battles against terrorism and weapons proliferation.
So, with the way cleared, "the Baltics will be the crown jewels of this round of NATO enlargement," said Juri Luik, former Estonian foreign and defense minister.
Toomas Hendrik Ilves, a member of the Estonian parliament and another ex-foreign minister, said the first indication that the Baltic states would probably be among the winners this year appeared in President Bush's Warsaw speech in June 2001. After September 11, the administration began talking about "robust expansion," from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea.
"The waters have been tested," Mr. Ilves said. "I'm actually surprised how smoothly things have gone."
With a peacetime military of only 5,000, this former Soviet republic of 1.4 million has an impressive record of participating in international peacekeeping operations. In addition to Afghanistan, over the past several years it has sent more than 900 troops to Bosnia, Kosovo, Albania, Georgia and Lebanon.
The five soldiers in Afghanistan, who are engaged in explosives detection, have become heroes at home, and their families and friends have turned into media stars.
"We take our international responsibilities very seriously," Mr. Mikser said in the Estonian capital, Tallinn. "We never had any role outside the Baltic region before. We want to make our small country known to the world. Plus, we also may need help someday."
Prime Minister Siim Kallas, arguing that NATO membership is the best guarantee of Estonia's security, said his country is doing its best to earn an invitation in Prague rather than receive it as a gift. "If we want protection, we should offer cooperation," he said.
Public support for NATO membership is well over 60 percent, and Liis Klaar, another member of parliament, said Estonians favor joining the alliance "on the grass-roots level."
But the United States has linked one issue Holocaust remembrance to Estonia's NATO bid, for reasons that have nothing to do with military duties.
Washington was not satisfied by the weight the Holocaust was given in public commemorations and in history books.
The Estonians have now updated their textbooks and designated Jan. 27 as a day to remember the victims of the Holocaust and other crimes against humanity.
"We must remember not only the victims of the Holocaust, but also those of the Soviet crimes," said Toomas Sildam, senior editor at the daily newspaper Postimees.
Unlike Estonia and Lithuania, Latvia has not yet sent troops to Afghanistan, although officials said during a recent visit by The Washington Times to the capital, Riga, that they are now considering doing so. The issue is sensitive for this nation of 2.4 million.
"Until not long ago, Latvian men were being drafted in the Soviet military," Mrs. Vike-Freiberga, the president, said. "Many of them went to fight in Afghanistan, and some are still crippled."
The difference now is that only professional soldiers can go on international missions and they know in advance "it's risky, just as firemen do" before they choose their profession, she said.
Mrs. Vike-Freiberga said the majority of Latvians support NATO membership, but it was difficult for the government to explain why it should spend 2 percent of the gross domestic product on defense, as the alliance demands. "We also had to secure money for pensions and other social programs," she said.
In their assessment of Latvia's readiness to join the alliance, U.S. officials cite widespread corruption as the country's most serious problem. Under pressure from Washington, the government has created a special bureau to fight corruption, said Maris Riekstins, state secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
But Mrs. Vike-Freiberga said the issue has been overblown. Corruption is said to occur frequently in privatization deals, she said, and Western companies also bear some responsibility because they are playing the game.
In addition, she said, when Western officials say they expect Latvia, as well as the other applicant nations, to show concrete results in battling corruption, "they are looking for commitment, not purity."
Another concern for NATO and the European Union is the treatment of the Russian minority in Latvia, which makes up nearly 30 percent of the population. Many of the problems related to citizenship, language restrictions and political participation have been solved, Latvian officials and foreign diplomats say.
Irina Yesina, a political reporter for Telegraph, a Russian-language daily newspaper, said those problems will disappear as generations change. The young Russians are very good at learning Latvian and assimilating in society, she said, but many of the older ones just refuse to do so.
Many Russians complain about what they call a complicated naturalization process. The state offers citizenship classes, but not language help, Miss Yesina said.
"This is the way the government thinks: If you want a good job, you need to speak Latvian. So go learn it, but we won't help you," she said.
Officials in all Baltic states recognize that Lithuania is ahead of the curve when it comes to readiness to join NATO. It began preparing a couple of years before the others. It also took the initiative in organizing the so-called Vilnius group of Prague hopefuls, which includes the seven nations expecting invitations next week, along with Albania, Macedonia and Croatia.
Lithuania is expected to be rewarded for its pro-American stance with a visit by President Bush immediately after next week's summit. Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus, who spent most of his life as a refugee in the United States, is a passionate defender of American foreign policy.
"How can the United States be accused of selfishness when it's spending so much money for various causes around the world?" he said during a recent interview in the capital, Vilnius.
On Wednesday, Lithuania purchased $31 million worth of American anti-aircraft missile systems 60 missiles and eight launching devices.
But the image of the United States has suffered from another business deal that turned into a disaster and became a household topic.
In late 1999, the government signed a contract with Williams International, sharing Lithuania's oil assets with the U.S. company. The deal, viewed by many Lithuanians as disadvantageous for the country, coincided with a drop in support for NATO membership to its lowest level ever, 35 percent, said Vladas Gaidys, director of the Vilmorus marketing and opinion-research center in Vilnius.
But things did not work out for Williams, and this summer, the company, without informing the government, sold its stake to Yukos, Russia's second-largest oil producer.
"That led to distrust in the government and, to some extent, the West," Mr. Gaidys said. "People say that Russians now control our energy system."

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