March 13, 2015

The Timing of the Estonian-Russian Border Treaty Ratification

Reuters/Scanpix
A warning sign is pictured near the Estonian-Russian border, where, according to Estonia's officials, its security officer Eston Kohver was abducted in the south-east part of country, near the village of Miikse, September 7, 2014.
A warning sign is pictured near the Estonian-Russian border, where, according to Estonia's officials, its security officer Eston Kohver was abducted in the south-east part of country, near the village of Miikse, September 7, 2014.

The Russian government recently sent the draft Estonian-Russian border treaty to President Vladimir Putin, who is to submit it to the parliament for ratification. The timing of this long-awaited step is probably no coincidence. How so?

Because the last time, the discussions on ratification of the treaty in Estonian parliament coincided with a domestic political crisis and the border treaty also became caught up in the crisis. Things came to a head over the infamous preamble alluding to the 1920 Tartu Peace Treaty, which caused Russia to withdraw its signature from the treaty. It brought the whole ratification process to a halt for the better part of a decade.
This time Moscow waited until the Estonian election was over. The Kremlin apparently found the election result propitious. The initial reports from the coalition talks are that an agreement has been reached on building border infrastructure – thus there are no doubts about where the border will run: it will not follow the course of the Tartu Peace Treaty, thus allaying any suspicions from Moscow that Estonia will make “territorial demands.” Now the next step in the process is the final vote in the Russian Duma, after which the treaty have to go before Estonian parliament for the vote.
The Estonian and Russian foreign ministers signed new border treaty on 18 February last year . The process was bilateral. But as we know well, quite much has happened over the past year that places the border treaty ratification in a new light.
Russia’s occupation and annexation of Crimea started immediately after the signing of the border treaty. It was followed by the Russian-abetted invasion of Eastern Ukraine, the downing of a Malaysian airliner, thousands of war dead and finally the odious murder of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov in central Moscow. In the context of the border treaty, the kidnapping of Estonian counterintelligence official Eston Kohver on the very same border should also be mentioned.
The European Union and the US have established sanctions against Russia. Russia has responded with sanctions of its own. Fragile hopes persist in the ceasefire signed in Minsk, but Russia’s actions were unpredictable last year, and thus no foreign policy or security policy predictions can be made now. Estonia and quite a few other countries have stressed the need for a more united front to Russia from the European Union. As far as the sanctions are concerned, the united front is there.
But how does the ratification of the Estonian-Russian border treaty fit into the EU’s common foreign policy vis-à-vis Russia? The EU has repeatedly said the border treaty is a bilateral issue between Estonia and Russia and that Brussels will not intervene in it. Deals much bigger than the border treaty were made with Russia by EU countries even last year. Take Cyprus, which has promised the Russians military use of its ports and airfields. Or Hungary, whose prime minister Viktor Orbán has clearly praised Putin. Czech President Miloš Zeman has also expressed sympathy toward Moscow.
In this light, the long-planned border treaty doesn’t even seem significantly out of step with the EU. The only question is how Moscow will interpret it. Will it use it alongside Cyprus and Hungary for propaganda purposes to illustrate how incapable the EU is of maintaining a united front, or leave the border treaty alone? We have no way of knowing this, and thus we have to calmly wait for developments in the Duma and, if possible, proceed on the treaty.
This comment first aired on Retro FM’s Europe news on 13 March 2015.

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