Another Spy Spat

When you hear about one former Soviet nation ejecting a diplomat on espionage accusations, followed by reciprocal measures in Moscow, you would probably assume we are talking about Georgia again. Not so. Today it is Latvia who is getting the British Council treatment, with a diplomat being expelled and “declared persona non grata for activities incompatible with his status and for damaging Russia’s security interests.” This is largely understood to mean that Russia is saying that the diplomat is a spy – which would be a tit-for-tat response for Latvia’s ejection of a individual at the Russian embassy earlier this week on similar charges. What’s going on here?

Some are expressing surprise to see another Russia spy dispute (of which there have been dozens at this point) with Latvia, of all countries. Lithuania, Estonia, or Ukraine, of course would make sense, but many believed that Latvia’s recent efforts to mend ties with Moscow would buy them a bit more slack. Last time that Robert Amsterdam visited Riga, he noted on the blog the incongruity of the Latvian government’s superficially warm relations with the Kremlin, and clear efforts to please the leadership (with gestures like declaring Boris Berezovsky as persona non grata).Just this week Latvia’s new foreign minister was pulling the Schröder duty as the PR road show for Russian interests. In a big spread in the Financial Times, Maris Riekstins boldly stated “I tend to believe that the Russian leadership has come to the conclusion that they ought to be interested to develop these pragmatic relations with all European Union member countries. … In natural gas we have managed to develop very good co-operation. We don’t have a single case which might be seen to show bad will in this particular field.“Mr. Riekstins apparently suffered a case of amnesia with regard to the oil supply cutoff to the Baltic port of Ventspils, which was believed to have been motivated by a desire to steer ownership in Kremlin friendly hands. Insofar as what the Nord Stream project will do for Latvia’s energy security, Riekstins didn’t have much to offer.Others in Latvia don’t think that jumping through hopes and defending Moscow in the international press is such a good idea. In an interview with the Latvian newspaper Diena, commentator Askolds Rodins warned that the next visit by President Valdis Zatler will be used by Russian as an opportunity to advance their foothold in the country. He saidWe can’t allow our president’s visit to become a pretext for pushing us to behave ourselves. Let’s not forget that Latvia is first and foremost a member of the EU and NATO. Our relationship to our Russian neighbour comes second. Even if Moscow would love to see us as its Trojan horse in the EU.“The Estonian press can’t make up its mind whether or not they should be jealous or fearful of Latvia’s somewhat warmed up relations with Moscow. One editorial from December quipped: “Of course, the Latvian President may go to Moscow, admire Red Square and have a cup of tea with Vladimir Putin, but will this fill with oil the pipeline that has been empty for years? Will Russia stop chanting about ‘human rights violations’ in the Baltic countries? There is no doubt that Latvia is in a better foreign policy position now than Estonia, but the Latvians themselves are somewhat skeptical about this success.“If the spy spat escalates, I think we will see the litmus test of Latvia’s sincerity of their pro-Russia stance – and all the other Baltics will be watching carefully to see how rewarding it really is to play ball with the much distrusted big neighbor.